If a picture says a thousand words, the ruggedly handsome landscapes of Eastern Oregon speak volumes. The scenery alone makes for an epic weekend trip from any part of the state. But there’s so much more to do than look out the window. Here are some of the top experiences in each of the distinctly unique and blissfully uncrowded areas of Eastern Oregon to take in when nonessential travel is permitted in your county.
Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert
In the southeastern corner of the state, Harney County’s hiking trails, secluded hot springs and camping await at the magnificent Steens Mountain. Bring a picnic and spend a morning (before it gets too hot) driving the Steens Loop Tour Route to make sure you don’t miss a thing, including the Kiger Gorge. Find more inspiration in our adventurer’s guide to Southeastern Oregon. Along the East Steens Tour Route, don’t miss a chance to visit the closest you may get to a lunar or Martian landscape — a vast cracked-earth expanse known as the Alvord Desert. You could bring a kite or a bike, or take some epic selfies. You can also visit the privately owned Alvord Hot Springs and bask in the tranquility. Don’t forget a stop at The Fields Station for their famous huckleberry milkshake.
County: Harney County
Cut by just three paved roads, the Owyhee Canyonlands are considered one of the largest expanses of undeveloped land in the lower 48 states. The Owyhee River shaped this terrain into stunning canyons amidst colorful remnant volcanic features, rock formations and rolling sagebrush hills. Or hit the open road and tour the high desert of Malheur County — Oregon’s largest and most remote county — by motorcycle or car. To see another side of the canyon, come back for a guided rafting trip down the Lower Owyhee Canyonlands when conditions are right in the spring.
County: Malheur County
Oregon Trail Wagon Ruts
Walk the 4.2 miles of developed trails at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (the center is temporarily closed, while the trails are open) in Baker County to dive deep into Oregon’s pioneer history. The 500-acre site includes hands-on exhibits telling the story of Oregon Trail pioneers, explorers, miners and settlers of the frontier west. See remnants of a historic Flagstaff gold mine, actual ruts carved by pioneer wagons, and imagine what it would be like to travel along the majestic but perilous historic trail route. Afterwards, embark on a pedal-powered journey on the world-class mountain bike trails near Baker City.
County: Baker County
If you’re looking for the soothing power of water, the Anthony Lakes area — halfway between La Grande and Baker City in Union County — includes 15 lakes and marshes in the Blue Mountains. At over 7,100 feet above sea level, it keeps cool in the summertime heat. The gathering place is Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, which has the highest base elevation of any ski area in Oregon and is beloved for its family-friendly skiing in winter. In the summer, the Anthony Lakes area is a top spot for camping, hiking, fishing and mountain biking with views of the Elkhorn Mountains. Cyclists will love the 8 miles of spectacularly scenic singletrack trails with steep climbs and rocky descents. The new 2.5-mile Broadway Flow trail is more beginner-friendly, with flowing downhill and banked turns. Hike along portions of the gorgeous Anthony Lake Shoreline Trail, less than a mile, and make sure to bring a picnic — ideally with provisions from the Cove-Union Farm Trail.
County: Union County
If you’re ready to see the deepest canyon in North America, go by car along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway — seven to eight hours of driving that’s best done as a mini road trip within itself, with overnights in communities along the route. From Joseph, it’s about 45 miles southeast to Hells Canyon Overlook, carved by eons of Snake River erosion. From some areas on the east rim, Hells Canyon plummets more than 8,000 feet, dwarfing even the Grand Canyon. Explore the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area by car, rafting, jet boat or trail.
There aren’t enough words to describe the wild beauty of the Wallowa Mountains. Surrounded by the remote Eagle Cap Wilderness and its pristine alpine lakes, the Wallowas are known as “Little Switzerland.” This corner of the state is the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce tribe, who called the Wallowa Valley the “beautiful valley of winding waters.” Outdoor adventurers can soar on the Wallowa Lake Tramway or hike to the top of the 8,255-foot-tall Mt. Howard, then pedal through pristine countryside on the Joseph Branch Railriders. Art lovers will discover Joseph’s bronze statues, cute shops, museums and artisan chocolatiers. History buffs will photograph (from a distance) 31 beautiful barns on the self-guided Wallowa Barn Tour or stop into the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in downtown Joseph to learn the little-known history of the region’s Black loggers in the early 1900s. The Wallowas offer both family-friendly trips and challenging treks in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, like the 10-mile out-and-back Hurricane Creek Trail with waterfalls, wildflower meadows and creek crossings.
County: Wallowa County
Pendleton’s Old West History
Best known for its rodeo culture and craft whiskey, Pendleton is full of Old West charm and artisan culture. Pop into a downtown shop and see make leather saddles made as they have been for 100 years. You can also also tour the town’s former red-light district, including glimpses of old speakeasies, bordellos and a network of underground tunnels used by Chinese laborers more than a century ago. A bronze statue of cowboy George Fletcher on Main Street marks his achievement as the first African American to compete in the Pendleton Round-Up in 1911. Soak up the lively vibe downtown, then head to the Whisky & Rocks Farm Trail and Umatilla County’s gorgeous outdoor spaces for plenty of family fun. Don’t miss a chance to take in the rich Native history and culture at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute to learn the stories of the tribes that have lived here for more than 10,000 years.
County: Umatilla County
John Day Fossil Beds
You won’t see anything else like this in Oregon. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Grant and Wheeler counties comprises three distinctly unique units. The Painted Hills unit is famous for its multihued hills that change with the light of day; the five short paved trails here are largely accessible for all abilities. The Sheep Rock unit is named for the bighorn sheep that once roamed here; fossils here date back to 95 million years and visitors can explore it all on three mostly gravel trails. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center (temporarily closed) is located here, housing an array of family-friendly exhibits. The Clarno unit is full of volcanic lahars, or mudflows, preserving hundreds of prehistoric plant and animal species frozen like tiny four-toed horses, huge rhino-like brontotheres, crocodilians, and meat-eating creodonts that once roamed ancient jungles here. Take a road trip to all three units and get immersed in the geology and history of the land with a “Don’t Hurt the Dirt” tour, learning how to protect and conserve the sensitive ecosystems. It’s worth detouring to Kam Chung State Heritage Site (temporarily closed), a remarkably preserved 1870s Chinese medical clinic. Experienced cyclists can take on a loop of the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway or the Old West Scenic Bikeway and enjoy stops in the friendly towns along the way.
Counties: Grant County, Wheeler County
With 8,000 acres of rugged terrain — vertical cliffs carved by the John Day River, deep canyons and rocky grasslands stretching for miles around — a trip to Cottonwood Canyon State Park in Eastern Oregon’s Gilliam and Sherman counties is like traveling back in time. (Tent and RV sites are first come, first served, while four rustic cabins are open for reservations two weeks in advance.) Located 50 miles southeast of The Dalles, Cottonwood is a lovely jumping-off point for hiking, camping, stargazing and taking in the breathtaking scenery of the John Day River Territory. The river is prized for its steelhead, catfish, carp and small-mouth bass, and hikers and bikers shouldn’t miss the 4.3-mile out-and-back Pinnacles Trail, which follows the John Day River downstream.
Counties: Sherman County, Gilliam County
Hardman Ghost Town
A few dozen wooden structures still stand in the Morrow County ghost town of Hardman — a former stopping point for stagecoaches that was formed when two 1870s-era towns called Raw Dog and Yellow Dog merged. Surrounded by rolling fields, the town includes an old lodge listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and most of the structures have been restored to their original clapboard. See more ghost towns in the Eastern Oregon towns of Sumpter and Galena, as well as throughout the state. These time capsules of Oregon’s past hold secrets of the speculators, gold miners, traders and Oregon Trail pioneers who once called them home.
County: Morrow County