Oregon’s southeast corner is an area of remote and rugged beauty. Far from the wet coastline and forested mountains that characterize the state’s western region, this high-desert country is full of volcanic craters, craggy mountain peaks, untraveled back roads and abundant wildlife. Residents in these friendly small towns come from farming and ranching families that have worked the land here for generations. Head to Oregon’s high desert to discover a land of wild beauty and Old West welcome.
Start your trip 131 miles east of Bend in the ranching town of Burns, named by early town leaders for the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Thousands of years before American settlers arrived, the ancestors of the existing Burns Paiute Tribe thrived in this area. Currently, many residents make their living on cattle ranches that have operated since the late 19th century. Stroll the downtown shops and restaurants to get a taste of the genuine Western flavor retained here, including Steens Mountain Brewing Company. A stop at the Harney County Historical Society and Museum is a look back in time with photos, archives and memorabilia from the town’s past residents. Visit in June to catch the Country Music Jamboree — a gathering of bluegrass, old-time and country musicians.
Head south on OR-205 out of Burns on the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway and enter the Harney Basin, a landscape of geological wonder. This area is part of the High Lava Plains, dominated by active volcanoes some 5 million years ago. The highway passes between Harney and Malheur lakes, which mark the gateway to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, nearly 188,000 acres of wildlife habitat and a key migratory stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway. More than 320 bird and 58 mammal species have been recorded at the refuge. Each April sees the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival — a weekend of presentations, guided walks and an art show.
Head east on the Diamond Loop Tour Route for a 69-mile drive that will take you past the Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area, a tremendous 23-square-mile lava field with some of the best and most diverse basalt features in the country. The route also circles past the Pete French Round Barn, a state heritage site and 19th-century relic once used to train horses and named for a local cattle baron. Stop in the tiny town of Diamond (pop. 5) and savor the home cooking at the Hotel Diamond. Owned by a family of local ranchers, the quaint hotel, first built in the 19th century, offers overnight accommodation in a serene setting.
Back on the scenic byway, the route into Frenchglen provides dramatic views of the nearby Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, as well as the picturesque Catlow Valley. The Steens Mountain area has outdoor opportunities to keep you coming back for years. Popular hikes include Steens Summit (an easy 1-mile route to the nearly 10,000-foot summit), Big Indian Gorge (a strenuous 16-mile option) and Little Blitzen Gorge (a moderate 17-mile hike). Or stay in the driver’s seat and check out two Oregon Scenic Byways: the Steens Loop Tour Route and the East Steens Tour Route.
Visit the Kiger Gorge Overlook for views of the enormous gorges carved by long-ago glaciers. Keep an eye out for wild Kiger mustangs that range free on the plains here. For a horseback adventure of your own, book a trip with the Steens Mountain Guest Ranch, a family-owned operation offering an authentic working ranch experience with rustic lodging, campfire cooking and trail rides.
Find your final destination at the Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site. The historic hotel was built in 1923 and continues to host travelers in five simple guest rooms. Visitors enjoy family-style meals in a tranquil getaway at the foot of Steens Mountain in the heart of Oregon’s high desert. Stroll the property and plan your return trip to Oregon’s beautiful southeast.
Editor’s Note: The highways and back roads in Southeast Oregon lead to remote places, so make sure to top off the gas tank. Check road conditions before setting out — especially in winter, when many roads close — on TripCheck.org.