Directions to Steins Pillar Trail: From Portland, take Interstate 84 east to Highway 26 for about 150 miles to reach Prineville. From there, continue east for another 10 miles. Turn left onto Mill Creek Road. Drive 6.7 miles, then take a right on Road 500. After another 2 miles, trailhead parking is on the left.
One of the seven natural wonders of Oregon is not far from Prineville. Smith Rock State Park, with a 3,200-foot ridgeline and the Crooked River carving its way through the canyon floor, rightfully attracts more than 800,000 visitors a year. Many of those people come to gawk at—or climb—Monkey Face, the 350-foot spire whose bulging top resembles the features of a primate mid-hoot. But fewer know about a tower that’s the exact same height and even more impressive. Unlike Monkey Face, which is surrounded by basalt formations and sheer cliffs, Steins Pillar seemingly comes out of nowhere. The hulking monolith erupts from the ground amid miles of gently rolling hills covered in evergreens, giving it an isolated, almost alien beauty.
You can’t see the pillar from Highway 26, though there’s a viewing area along Mill Creek Road. But this is one of those natural phenomena you don’t want to merely observe from afar. To reach the rock, follow a 2-mile trail that’s downright empty, at least compared to the heavily trafficked routes around Monkey Face. For much of the way, it’s just you and some of the tallest, amber-trunked ponderosas I’ve ever witnessed and the occasional boulder the size of a Smart car. As you switch back higher and higher, the trees become stubbier and a little more bare. Stones protrude from the path that levels out in a meadow dotted with green and yellow tufts of grass in spring. Come summer, a vibrant, though temporary, carpet of red paintbrush, purple lupine and yellow balsamroot blooms.
There’s a short descent to a junction—one trail continues to the bottom of the pillar, while the other veers off to an overlook of your destination. Take a peek at Steins’ knobby head—it’s framed almost too perfectly from this vantage by pines on either side. Then continue down several steps of steep wooden stairs. Beyond the sign that warns “End of Maintained Trail,” you can walk right up to the base. Arch your neck back and try to take it all in. It seems almost as impossible as assessing the Empire State Building from the sidewalk. You’ll feel very small, and very humble.