On a trip to the Columbia Plateau, where the Columbia River Gorge melds into the wide-open cowboy country of Eastern Oregon, you might need to recalibrate your sense of scale. Everything feels immense: the wide Columbia River jacks up with swells as big as the ocean, swaying wheat fields ripple toward a distant horizon and wind turbines whir through the sky like spaceships. Let a ribbon of empty road lure you off the interstate, on this 95-mile drive through the grand landscape.
River Town: Arlington is all about easy access. The city of 600 people lies just off Interstate 84 at exit 137, about a two-hour drive east of Portland. An inlet of the Columbia River brings the waterfront right into town. It’s ringed by Earl Snell Memorial Park, a sheltered area where you can launch a paddleboard from the sandy beach, swim out to the floating pier or kick back in the lush grass near the playground and gazebo.
The yellow caboose nearby provides visitor information in summer, along with some historic photos of old Arlington. The city was moved to its present location in 1963 as part of the construction of the John Day hydroelectric dam. It’s a good place to top off the gas tank. Fuel yourself, too, with a quality burger from Pat’s Pheasant Grill or made-to-order sandwiches and salads from River’s Edge Deli & BBQ. (Thumbs up for the smoked brisket.) You can even tee up for a round of golf. Right on the edge of town you’ll find China Creek Golf Course, a nine-hole course that’s great for beginners but also caters to multiple skill levels.
Arlington’s Port: On the north side of I-84, the Port of Arlington is the place for those ready to tackle the open waters of the Columbia. It’s a favorite launch for windsurfing enthusiasts with advanced skills to handle this region’s famously strong winds and big swell. The port maintains a nice RV park, marina and boat launch tucked out of the prevailing wind. Local wheat fills the grain silos towering overhead, loaded onto barges for shipment all over the world.
Wind to Watts: The prevailing west winds that delight windsurfers have also made this area a prime place for wind-energy generation. Heading south on Hwy. 19, you’ll soon be surrounded by acre after acre of twirling turbines. One of the largest wind farms in the world, Caithness Shepherds Flat Wind Farm generates enough electricity to power hundreds of thousands of homes. Turn west on Fourmile Road, which twists among these high-tech machines rising more than 250 feet above the rangeland, cattle calmly grazing below. Turn right at Eightmile Canyon Road, a well-tended gravel road, and follow it two miles to the next intersection, marked Montague Lane on some maps.
Pioneering Routes: Native American footpaths criss-crossed the region’s rich fishing and hunting land for generations. In the 1840s and ‘50s, the Oregon Trail brought new settlers west. Montague Lane follows the famous route; turn right and watch for furrows in the earth, ruts etched by thousands of pioneer wagons that made the trip before you. It returns you to Hwy. 19, where a historical marker commemorates W.W. Weatherford, a pioneer who followed the trail “driving oxen and walking barefoot,” and became the area’s first wheat farmer.
Canyon Country: Follow Hwy. 19 south as it weaves through a rumpled landscape of plateaus (“flats”) and side canyons. At Condon, swing northwest on OR-206 to Cottonwood Canyon State Park. Once a sprawling cattle ranch, now its 8,000 acres belong to the public, where the John Day River arcs through a deep basalt canyon and sage-dusted hills. Eighteen miles of multi-use trails wind through this lightly traveled land, home to bighorn sheep, elk and pronghorn. Nab a campsite here and prepare to be wowed by a night sky smeared with stars.
A 25-mile drive north returns you to I-84.