Land of the Oregon Trail
An estimated 500,000 settlers traversed the Oregon Trail searching for new opportunities and a better way of life. The 2,170-mile journey from Missouri to Oregon is often romanticized, but the reality is, the five-month-long expedition was a perilous endeavor. One in 10 travelers from the 1840s to 1860s never made it to their final destination and the rest endured everything from disease and starvation to snakebites. Still, their spirit lives on in Oregon along this stunning corridor.
Kick off your Oregon Trail adventure in Umatilla. Situated along the Columbia River, this old gold rush town puts wildlife and outdoor activities at your doorstep. Go to the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge to view deer, badgers and burrowing owls and then look out for woodpeckers, bluebirds and sapsuckers in Blue Mountain Scenic Corridor and State Park. The McNary Wildlife Nature Area is another popular wildlife viewing spot thanks to its large populations of migrating birds. Ready for a workout? You can burn some serious calories by hiking, cycling and whitewater rafting in the 1.4 million-acre Umatilla National Forest.
Embrace the Cowboy Within
The west is still very much wild in Pendleton. Rodeos, country music and traditional crafts continue to be part of everyday life here. You can see for yourself in September at the Pendleton Round-Up, a weeklong festival of steer roping, barrel racing and parades. Blend in with the locals by getting a custom cowboy hat at Mountain Peaks Hat Company and handmade boots from Staplemans Boots and Leather. Stop by Hamley and Co between fittings to see saddles made using traditional methods and Pendleton Woolen Mills to learn about the city’s famous weaving techniques.
Pendleton’s Frontier Heritage
A handful of attractions provide valuable insight into the city’s storied past. Housed in a restored train depot, the Heritage Station Museum retraces Umatilla County’s history using an authentic pioneer homestead, fully restored Union Pacific Railroad caboose and other intriguing artifacts. The Pendleton Underground Tour shows you the city’s seedy side by leading you down tunnels which once hid brothels, gambling dens and bars. You can also learn how pioneers impacted the lives of local tribes at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute and view Native American art at Crow’s Shadow Institute for the Arts.
Gold Rush Relics
Dubbed the “Queen City” during the gold rush, Baker City transports you to a bygone era with its preserved Victorian architecture. Wander through the downtown area to find 100 buildings listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and then swing by the luxurious Geiser Grand Hotel to admire its stained-glass ceiling, crystal chandeliers and other extravagant furnishings from the 19th century. Check out more original items from this time period at the Adler House Museum. The Baker Heritage Museum displays one of the most impressive rock and mineral collections in the western United States as well.
Baker City also opens the doors to outdoor adventures like hiking, fishing and whitewater rafting thanks to its close proximity to the Snake River, Hells Canyon and the Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort.
Hear Pioneer Stories
Less than 10 miles from Baker City is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Living history exhibits, life-size displays and multimedia presentations bring the Oregon Trail to life and give you an idea of what the treacherous journey was like for pioneers. Walk through a wagon train and then go outside to explore four miles of interpretive trails.
A Pioneer Primer
Media also plays a big role here. Utilizing life-size displays, films and live theater presentations, this Center tells the story of explorers, miners and settlers of the frontier west. The 500-acre site includes remnants of the historic Flagstaff Gold Mine, actual ruts carved by pioneer wagons, and magnificent vistas of the historic route. Several events and programs allow visitors to walk in the shoes of intrepid pioneers. The popular “Wagons Ho! Experience the Oregon Trail” exhibit tests the pioneering skills of participants. Dress up as a settler and see if you’ve got what it takes to pack a prairie schooner with all the supplies and gear needed to make the long trek west.
Reservoir and Rest
Some 45 minutes southeast of Baker City, Farewell Bend State Recreation Area straddles the Oregon/Idaho border on the banks of the Snake River. Here, the Brownlee Reservoir delivers prime fishing, water skiing, boating and wildlife watching opportunities.
Get off the beaten path by cruising the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway. Connecting Burns to Fields, this 127-mile stretch of road takes you to a world where sagebrush-filled desert and rolling mountains dominate. Spend the night at The Narrows RV Park near Burns and use it as a base camp for touring the 69-mile Diamond Loop Tour Route.
Wildlife on the Way
The route provides easy access to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Pack your binoculars because this patch of lakes and wetlands is hailed as one of the best birdwatching spots in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll even see enormous populations of snow geese and waterfowl engulf the sky in darkness during the spring. Further down the path is the Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Formed 25,000 years ago from molten lava and liquid rock, these fascinating lava fields house a peculiar assortment of lava tubes, jagged spires and collapsed craters.
You’ll wind up in Frenchglen if you go south on the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway long enough. The village has a lengthy history in the cattle industry and was where the once-prosperous French-Glenn Livestock Company began. Visit the Pete French Round Barn to see where wild horses were trained. Visit the 1924 Frenchglen Hotel, which continues to offer rustic accommodations to weary travelers.
Fishing and Hunting in Frenchglen
Take advantage of excellent fly-fishing conditions while you’re in Frenchglen. The nearby Donner und Blitzen River, called the “Blitzen” by locals, teems with wild redband trout, mountain whitefish, longnose dace and mottled sculpin. Hunting is also an option as mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk and pronghorn antelope thrive here.
Hiking the Steens
Encompassing some of Oregon’s most remote lands, the Steens Mountain Wilderness serves up solitude with a whole lot of outdoor adventure. Lace up your hiking boots and follow the Little Blitzen Gorge Trail to reach the region’s iconic gorges and waterfalls, or the Pike Creek Canyon Trail to view colorful rock outcroppings. Consider tackling the multiday Steens Mountain Gorges Loop if you want to see everything this far-flung wilderness has to offer.
Drive the Highest Road in Oregon
Cruise along the Steens Loop Tour Route if you would rather admire the landscape from your car. The 59-mile passage lets you drive on Oregon’s highest road and guarantees spectacular views of glacial valleys and deep gorges the whole way through. Take a break at the East Rim Viewpoint to capture sweeping photos of the Alvord Desert and even Nevada, Idaho and California on a clear day. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the herds of wild horses that inhabit the area.
Lakeview rests 4,798 feet above sea level and likes to call itself “Oregon’s tallest town.” It’s loaded with natural gems both big and small, so take a few days to experience them all. At the Spectrum Sunstone Mine, visitors can pan for precious sunstones in the high desert. Finding the gems is quite easy, and you’re allowed to keep what you find.
Afterward, venture into the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge to meet more than 300 species of wildlife, including pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep. Hunting seasons for a limited number of animals occur each year from August through November.
Do the Dunes
Folks who think Oregon consists only of green landscapes may be surprised to find a vast stretch of dunes. The Christmas Valley Sand Dunes boasting over 11,000 acres of soaring dunes, and this striking region is a top destination for off-roading, hiking, camping and photography. It’s the largest shifting dune system in the Pacific Northwest.
Round out your trip with a visit to the Old Perpetual Geyser. Just two miles north from Lakeview, this natural wonder is the only continuously spouting geyser in the Beaver State. Watch it shoot 200-degree water more than 60 feet into the air every minute and a half. Drop by Hunter’s Hot Spring for a relaxing soak.
For More Information
Oregon Coast Visitors Association
Oregon Tourism Commission