Land of the Oregon Trail
Stretching for over 2,000 miles, the historic Oregon Trail was so much more than a gateway to Oregon; it was one of the few land routes leading to the western United States. In fact, states like Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah owe much of their pioneer settlement to the Oregon Trail. Between 1843 to the 1860s, approximately 400,000 people traversed this route in search of new opportunities and a better life. The journey was a treacherous one, as difficult terrain, tough weather conditions and disease plagued pioneers during their four-month trek.
This final stretch of the Oregon Trail continues to remind visitors of the challenges, sacrifices and achievements experienced by early American settlers. It’s a travel corridor where pioneer spirit lives on with countless sites and activities shedding light on the state’s remarkable past. From Wild West towns and spectacular landscapes to informative museums and authentic wagon remnants, the Oregon Trail will transport you to a different era and world.
Your Oregon Trail adventures start in the old gold rush town of Umatilla. Nestled on the shores of the Columbia River, Umatilla caters to nature lovers with outstanding outdoor attractions. Hikers, bikers, hunters and whitewater rafters will have plenty of places to play in the 1.4 million-acre Umatilla National Forest. Wildlife enthusiasts will get a chance to come face-to-face with badgers, deer and burrowing owls in the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge, while bird-watchers should flock to Blue Mountain Forest State Scenic Corridor to view pileated woodpeckers, brown creepers, red crossbills and more. Other popular pursuits include teeing off at the Big River Golf Course, gazing at spawning salmon and trout at the fish hatchery, and boating on the mighty Columbia River.
Old West Wonders
Drive less than an hour and you’ll enter the realm of the Old West. Steeped in history, Pendleton proudly shows off its colorful heritage, while providing every modern-day comfort you can imagine. It’s a place where you can see leather saddles being crafted in traditional ways, chug craft beer, watch country music performers take the stage and hit the links all in one day.
It’s easy to dress the part here, thanks to Pendleton’s vibrant craft and artisan culture. Pick up a pair of fine cowboy boots at Staplemans Boots and Leather, grab a hat at the Pendleton Hat Company, and accessorize with handcrafted leather goods at L.L. Bevington. While you’re here, don’t miss the Pendleton Woolen Mills. Founded in 1863, this mill offers free weekday tours showing visitors the famous Pendleton weaving process.
Haven for Heritage
After, dive into the town’s storied past at the Heritage Station Museum, unravel 10,000 years of Native American history at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute and go on the Pendleton Underground Tour to follow a maze of tunnels once used to hide gambling dens, brothels and other illegal activities. If you’re visiting in September, be sure to check out the Pendleton Round-Up, a weeklong festival consisting of rodeos, parades and concerts.
More historic treasures can be found in Baker City. Once known as the “Queen City” during Oregon’s gold rush, Baker City houses over 100 buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places. As a result, a stroll through downtown will feel as if you’re exploring a Victorian architecture museum. Along the way, swing by the famous Geiser Grand Hotel. Built in 1889, this elegant hotel will dazzle with its crystal chandeliers, rich mahogany millwork and stunning stained-glass hallway. Other notable stops include the Baker Heritage Museum for its impressive collection of Oregon Trail artifacts and Adler House Museum for its original 19th-century furnishings.
Beat it to Baker
Don’t leave without visiting the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, which offers everything from living history demonstrations to multimedia presentations to over 4 miles of interpretive trails. The Snake River, Hells Canyon and Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort are all close by, making Baker City an excellent base camp for your hiking, fishing and water scooter excursions.
The High Desert Discovery
Immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring landscapes traversed by early pioneers by cruising down the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway. Spanning 127 miles from Burns to Fields, this breathtaking road trip weaves through a diverse array of scenery, charming communities and historic sites. Before embarking on your journey, take some time in Burns to browse Native American art including pottery pieces, jewelry and ceremonial sand paintings at the Oards Indian Art Museum.
Just 25 miles south of Burns is The Narrows RV Park, the perfect launchpad for exploring Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the 69-mile Diamond Loop Tour Route. Encompassing 188,000 acres of wetlands, lakes and dry grasslands, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a vital breeding ground and migratory stop for countless bird species. It’s also considered one of the best bird-watching destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Bring your binoculars to spot greater sandhill cranes, pelicans, herons, eagles, various species of geese and much more.
Not far down the road is the Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Famed for its black, desolate terrain, these intriguing lava fields were created 25,000 years ago when molten lava oozed across a dry lakebed. Before this layer solidified, another layer of liquid rock was unleashed, forming some of the country’s most distinctive basalt rock formations. Today, a drive through this amazing backdrop of geological wonders will launch you into a world of lava domes, lava tubes, massive pit craters and craggy spires.
Named after Dr. Hugh Glenn, a prosperous rancher, and his employee, Peter French, the historic village of Frenchglen plays homage to a rich livestock farming past. The French-Glenn Livestock Company was one of the largest companies in the cattle industry back in the day and a few of its ranching buildings are still standing here today. Step inside the Pete French Round Barn, a state heritage site that was used to train wild horses. In the heart of Frenchglen, you’ll find the iconic Frenchglen Hotel. Constructed in 1923, this historic hotel originally provided lodging for visiting stockmen and continues to accommodate guests with their five simple rooms and family-style meals.
Donner and Blitzen
Frenchglen also acts as the gateway to the Donner und Blitzen River. Usually referred to as the Blitzen, this remote river attracts fly-fisherman with its bounty of redband trout, a species native to this high desert region. Oregon also has more ghost towns than any other state and you’ll find the eerie remnants of Blitzen town near the river.
Once you get back on the byway, you’ll soon arrive at the Steens Mountain Wilderness. One of the most remote lands remaining in the state, this stellar patch of wilderness promises solitude as well as every kind of outdoor activity. Home to several trailheads ranging from easy to difficult, it may be hard to choose which paths to take. Beginners can tackle the 1-mile Steens Summit route to reach the top of the 9,734-foot-high mountain, while seasoned pros can opt for the Big Indian Gorge, a challenging 17-mile hike leading you to jaw-dropping backdrops chiseled out by glaciers during the last ice age. Another popular option is Little Blitzen Gorge, an 18-mile alpine path with groves of aspen, fields of flowers and cascading waterfalls.
The great thing about Steens Mountain is that you don’t even need to leave the driver’s seat to revel in its natural wonders. Cruise along the Steens Loop Tour Route, Oregon’s highest road, to reach sparkling lakes, glacial valleys and deep gorges. Make a pit stop at Kinger Gorge Overlook and East Rim Viewpoint as both provide sweeping views as far as the eye can see. You can also drive on the East Steens Tour Route to uncover the stark Alvord Desert, Alvord Hot Springs and Crystal Crane Hot Springs. Your epic drive ends in Fields, where juicy burgers and thick milkshakes are waiting for you at the famous Fields Station.
Coined “Oregon’s tallest town,” Lakeview sits 4,798 feet above sea level at the foot of the Warner Mountains. Packed with a slew of natural gems, this town is worthy of a spot on your Oregon Trail itinerary. Kick off your day at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Perched on a colossal fault block ridge, this diverse area supports many types of habitats with over 300 birds, mammals and reptiles calling it home.
Less than 2 miles north of Lakeview, the Old Perpetual Geyser demands your attention. This is the only continuously gushing geyser in the state and it’s worth staying a while to watch it shoot a powerful jet of 200-degree water over 60 feet into the air. This natural phenomenon happens every 90 seconds, and hot waters from the same geological heating phenomenon can be appreciated at nearby Hunter’s Hot Springs. Those searching for the ultimate thrill will find it in the Christmas Valley Sand Dunes. Boasting over 8,000 acres of soaring dunes, this striking region is a top destination for off-roading, hiking, camping and photography.
For More Information
Oregon National Historic Trail
Oregon Tourism Commission