You may know that the tater tot — the iconic school-lunch potato nugget — was born in Eastern Oregon at the former Ore-Ida frozen-food factory in the tiny town of Ontario, near the state’s eastern border. Now tater tot lovers from far and wide can celebrate the nostalgic comfort food at a new festival in Ontario. The annual Tater Tots Festival features a tater tot eating contest, food vendors, a 5K run, carnival games and, of course, a tater tot king and queen.
Eastern Oregon’s friendly communities are home to dozens of festivals each year that celebrate the tastiest, quirkiest, wildest adventures you can imagine — from whiskey and music to beer, bikes, broncos and blacksmithing.
While you’re at a festival, take time to explore this off-the-grid region of the state, a playground for rugged adventuring, rafting, wildlife spotting and solitude seeking. For instance, Ontario is just north of the Owyhee Canyonlands, known as Oregon’s Grand Canyon. This remote expanse of wild beauty includes more than 2 million acres of hot springs, lava beds, craters, cinder cones, rolling hills and canyon walls around the Wild and Scenic Owyhee River. Come for the tater tots, stay for the adventure.
Here are more events — big and small, old and new — to help you plan your trip to this lesser-visited part of the state any time of year.
Raise a glass on St. Patrick’s Day at Wee Bit O’Ireland in Heppner. Don’t miss Taste of Nordic, named Oregon Festivals and Events Association’s Best Hidden Gem, at Anthony Lakes. Golfers will want to dust off their clubs and tee up for the Frostbite Open golf tournament at Boardman’s Willow Run Golf Course. And birders from across the region flock to the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival in Burns.
Celebrate local artists at the Hermiston Art Festival and the Ladd Marsh Bird Festival, another chance to witness migratory birds at peak season. Cyclists put the pedal to the metal at the Century Ride of the Centuries in Pendleton, and you can see the bucking broncos in action at the Heart of the Country Rodeo in the tiny town of Helix.
Summer is all about music, culture and enjoying the outdoors. The annual Pioneer Days in Weston, Umatilla Landing Days and Oregon Mountain Cruise classic-car show in Joseph showcase local heritage with family-friendly activities. Get ready to enjoy local libations at the Wild West Beerfest in Pendleton and the Eastern Oregon Beer Festival in La Grande. Bring the family to fish at the Nez Perce tribal fishing grounds and enjoy other cultural activities at the Woodlands & Watersheds Festival in Enterprise.
As summer cranks into high gear, get ready for U-pick fruit and other bounty of the season at the Union County Farm Crawl. Get ready for fun on two wheels at the Baker City Cycling Classic, named Oregon Festivals and Events Association’s Best Sporting Event. Bring on the music and culture at the Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival and the Wildhorse Pow Wow in Pendleton. When it’s time for carbs, head to the Spud Fest in Hermiston and the Pendleton Whisky Music Fest.
Brews by the Blues Festival in Milton-Freewater, Baker City Broncs and Bull Riding Challenge of Champions Tour, Tamkaliks Celebration in Wallowa and Chief Joseph Days Rodeo promise more heart-pumping, foot-stomping fun. The Huckleberry Festival in North Powder and the Harney County Brewfest feature the best ingredients of the region. The Anthony Lakes Mountain Bike Festival is a don’t-miss event for any dirt lover, and the Wallowa County Fair and Dragons in the Wallowas are summertime classics — watch the colorful spectacle of dragon-boat crews take to Wallowa Lake. Get artsy at the We Like ‘Em Short Film Festival in Baker City, named Oregon Festival and Events Association’s Best Arts Festival.
Fall in love with these small communities at The Little Big Show in Baker City, named Oregon Main Street’s Best Retail Event, and the Umatilla County Fair in Hermiston. Fruit lovers will want to celebrate the summer’s peak ripeness at the Cove Cherry Festival or the Melon Fest in Hermiston. And join fellow carnivores to support a great cause at the Durkee Steak Feed in Baker City, named Oregon Festivals and Events Association’s Best Fundraising Festival.
With the kids back in school and the weather typically still mild, autumn is perhaps one of the best times of year to visit. Music fans, plan for a lively escape to the Juniper Jam music festival in Enterprise or the Pine Fest Music Festival in Halfway, named Oregon Festival and Events Association’s Best Music Festival. Or check out the Pendleton Round-Up, which coincides with the Happy Canyon Night Show the same weekend — both among the region’s biggest, most iconic events. (Book tickets and lodging close to a year in advance, if possible.) In the category of most unique events, the Great Salt Lick art auction in Baker City was named Oregon Festivals and Events Association’s Best Philanthropic Festival.
It’s the most exciting time of year for Enterprise, Joseph and Wallowa at Oregon’s Alpenfest, with four days of live music, dancing, arts, and German food and beer to celebrate alpine culture. During the first weekend of October, come for the Morrow County Harvest Festival at the SAGE Center; Taste of Baker, named Oregon Main Street’s Best Main Street Event and the Harvest Festival in Hermiston; as well as the Echo Corn Maze & Pumpkin Patch. Oktoberfest is always a highlight, with celebrations in Pendleton and Echo. The Eastern Oregon Film Festival wraps up the fall season with a diverse selection of independent films, perfect for screening on a chilly day.
Ring in the holidays at the Winter Market at the SAGE Center, featuring local artisans’ handmade items as well as kids’ activities; the Condon Light Festival & Parade; the Sumpter Valley Railroad Christmas train and parade; and the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop in La Grande. The annual Eagle Cap Extreme in Joseph is one of the region’s gnarliest events, with sled dogs and their professional mushers battling the conditions as they run the course with races ranging from 22 to 200 miles through the rugged Wallowa Mountains.