Every season brings something special to Eastern Oregon, but fall can be particularly lovely. Days remain pleasantly warm, and cooler nights let the stars twinkle with more fervor. The trees and trout sense winter on the horizon and begin to change with the season.
There are plenty of ways to get out and enjoy this exceptional part of Oregon and sometimes it’s great to let the experts show you the way. Maybe you’re a beginner backpacker or perhaps you’d like to take a trail ride along the grasslands on a horse you will never own. Hiring a guide lets you play your hardest without the hardest work, all under the watchful eye of the pros there to keep you safe.
Here are a few ways to get started. For any trip you might imagine, check out this comprehensive list of guides around Oregon for even more awesome ideas.
Backpack With Mules to a Cushy Backcountry Camp
The guides at Baker City-based Go Wild American Adventures call their four-day, three-night backpacking trips from May to October (now booking for 2023) into the mountains of Northeast Oregon the “crème de la crème” of what they do. “Crème” is a pretty apt word considering the meals and treatment you’ll get deep in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Owner Dan Sizer likes to keep the exact program a secret to ensure a special experience, but it all starts with how much (or little) you’d like to do.
In general, you get three options to choose from: easy, medium or difficult. With all of them, mules carry your gear for blissfully light hiking to a base camp set deep in the wilderness. One base camp might be at an alpine lake in the Elkhorn Range of the Blue Mountains while another could be overlooking a glacial meadow in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. You’ll spend the next few days taking day hikes to explore lakes and ridges that range anywhere from 2 miles to 8 miles or so.
It’s the service back at camp that will leave you breathless. You’ll sleep on comfortable cots in roomy tents and have a mini arsenal of fly-fishing rods, packrafts and other distractions (like hatchet throwing!) to dial up the fun. You’ll fuel up on elk-sausage breakfasts, European charcuterie boards for lunch and rib-eye steaks cooked over an open dinner fire. Savor your steak with a special cocktail made with local lavender, and thank those lucky stars.
Explore Steens Mountain on Horseback
Steens Mountain near Frenchglen counts as one of the largest fault-block mountains in the west, a 50-mile-long escarpment that rises like a gentle ramp into the sky before dropping off precipitously into the brilliant white sand of the Alvord Desert thousands of feet below. This is Oregon horse country, a storied place of Basque shepherds and weathered ranches perched on a carpet of sage and steppes that are home to the world-famous breed of Kiger mustangs.
You can be a part of this tradition. The Steens Mountain Guest Ranch — about 60 miles south of Burns near the hamlet of Diamond — is a true working ranch with two log cabins for rent every day but Sunday, year-round. From there you can set out on horseback rides that last anywhere from two to seven hours and will take you out among the grasses and up to vantage points overlooking the Diamond Valley or Steens Mountain, or even on an expedition to look for the fabled mustangs.
In fall the ranch offers a “cowboy experience” that includes driving cattle, mending fences and maybe even helping a veterinarian treat injured livestock, should the need arise. Come evening, you can kick back on the porch after a grass-fed steak dinner and learn to tool leather.
Only four people can stay at the ranch at a time, so if your preferred dates are already taken, just keep checking back.
Deluxe Float Through Hells Canyon
River trips generally fall into one of two categories: You’re either there to fish or bounce through rapids. Book a trip through Hells Canyon National Recreation Area on the mighty Snake River with Canyon Outfitters and you’ll get the best of both. They’re available May through October, but there’s no better time to go than in the fall.
“The water’s perfect, the fishing’s great, and you’ll see eagles, goats and usually bear,” says Art Walker, a guide with the company for nearly 20 years. If you don’t catch 100 fish, he claims, it’s because your line isn’t in the water.
“I always tell people: If you’re just floating, it’s worth taking the trip, or if you’re just fishing, it’s worth taking the trip.”
That means trips can book up fast, so best to plan ahead. Sign up for a four-day float and you’ll launch in custom Oregon-made drift boats — Canyon Outfitters is the only outfitter that uses them — for a 34-mile adventure. From the Hells Canyon Dam, you’ll float down through federally protected land to a spot called Pittsburg Landing. How many miles you cover a day depends on what the group wants to do, but along the way, you can expect riding Class IV rapids, above which no jet boats can go.
Come evening you’ll camp on beaches or near a pioneer homestead, eat fried chicken and the fish you catch, and enjoy the pleasing temperatures at 1,200 feet above sea level.