In this stretch of Eastern Oregon, where the Columbia River and Interstate-84 part ways, the rolling hills, circles of irrigated crops, and stretches of high desert are easy to see. But if you choose to take a detour along the new River to Hills Farm Loop,, you can experience much more: namely kid-friendly museums, thriving farms, secret gardens, iconic towns and tasty Oregon-made treats. This 60-mile loop follows segments of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Oregon Trail between Boardman and Pendleton, where you can get an up-close-and-personal view of agriculture and other industries in Morrow and Umatilla counties — both today and a century ago. So grab your map, your appetite and sense of adventure, and hit the road.
Start at the SAGE Center in Boardman (2.5 hours east of Portland, just off I-84), where a simulated hot air balloon experience tells the story of how water transformed 50,000 acres of Eastern Oregon desert into one of the world’s most productive regions. A life-size potato processing “sculpture” demonstrates how potatoes become curly fries, while other interactive exhibits trace peppermint, wheat, milk, barley, canola and more from raw materials into products. Tech-savvy kids can try to beat the GPS-guided tractor to plant rows of corn. Since SAGE stands for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy, another exhibit focuses on how wind, hydro, coal and steam energy are used to power the 40 major companies in Morrow County. On the second Saturday each month, come for free kid activities from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. The Center is also a Travel Oregon Welcome Center, where you can gather guides, farm loop maps and other travel goodies (don’t forget the Tillamook ice cream) for the rest of your road trip.
For thirsty travelers over 21, find Ordnance Brewing — the only craft brewery in the immediate area — in the Port of Morrow, less than two miles from the SAGE Center. Managing partner Craig Coleman is a blueberry farmer, so it’s natural that Bloops, a blueberry wheat ale, is the flagship brew, part of a lineup that ranges from a barley-forward IPA to an imperial wheat ale aged in pinot noir barrels. With a taproom outpost in Wilsonville, this farmer-owned brewery has grown into a 50-barrel operation with a party-sized tasting room. Its sister operation, Ordnance Distilling, plans to release its first whiskey, aged one year and made with home-grown rye, corn and corn-rye blend, in April 2018. Enjoy the Eastern Oregon Brews Byway safely — remember to use a designated driver if you plan to imbibe.
Attention all tractor lovers: steer 11 miles east toward the river to Irrigon, past the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge, to the quirky Skinny Bull Ag Museum. The museum houses 45 years of private collections of local farmer Wayne Shnell, including a model A John Deere tractor and 60-odd vintage tractors plus hay balers, combines and backhoes. Sit on top of one for a test “drive,” then peruse the vintage treasures among the 1930s-era household exhibits.
In the heart of Hermiston’s bustling downtown district, seek out Walker’s Farm Kitchen. Owners Larry and Cynthia Walker offer delightful scratch-made foods in an airy bungalow. Sit down for their tasty soups, salads or sandwiches for lunch or a hearty pasta dish, chicken or steak for dinner, featuring products from area producers. For eating on the go, Bellinger Farms & Gourmet Shoppe is a bountiful roadside farm stand with a cafe that serves lunch six days a week. Along with Hermiston’s famous sweet watermelons, onions and fruits in season, there are pickles, jams, salsas and sweets for the road.
While in Hermiston, stop by Purple Ridge Lavender, Eveland Farm (see their miniature Nubian goats, by appointment), Vazza Farms honey and K & K Blueberries (U-pick mid-June to mid-July). Bennett Botanicals is a verdant outdoor event space and gardens. Created by Doug Bennett, a landscape designer, and Kris Bennett, owner of KRISanthemums floral design studio, it is open to the public by appointment.
Wineries are the newest addition to the culinary scene in Eastern Oregon. You can continue your tour in celebratory fashion in the tiny town of Echo, just 10 miles east of Hermiston. At Echo Ridge Cellars, the tasting room is a renovated 1945 grain elevator, where the Bales family members pour estate wines from their nearby vineyard. Sample high-ranked reds including cabernet franc, syrah and a blend called Three Blondes and a Boy on the patio overlooking the rugged landscape. In downtown Echo, Sno Road Winery tasting room is another hotspot in town, especially on Friday evenings. A 40-year passion project for Lois and Lloyd Piercy, the winery produces noteworthy reds — such as tempranillo, petit verdot and cabernet sauvignon — from the couple’s vineyard on the Umatilla River. Before you leave, two-step down the block to Buttercreek Coffee House & Mercantile. There’s home-style comfort foods for lunch if you’re hungry. Or, grab an espresso drink and one of the cookies as big as your head to fuel up for the next adventure.
It’s 45 miles of wide open and winding roads south to the Morrow County Agriculture Museum in Heppner. Here, you can view agricultural artifacts covering pre-settlement to early ranching times, exhibits of pioneer life and hundreds of old-timey photos of settlers from the Oregon Trail. This tiny, self-sufficient town is worth a look around before heading back to the faster pace of the interstate and more Eastern Oregon adventures beyond.