Families’ Guide to Fun in Pendleton

April 10, 2020

What comes to mind when you think of Pendleton? Most likely the Pendleton Round-Up, one of the largest rodeos in the country, which quadruples the city’s population for two weeks every September. Fine and distinctive wool blankets and shirts from Pendleton Woolen Mills are probably right up there, too. And it’d also be natural to conjure up images of Pendleton’s craft beer and artisan whiskey scene, which has earned some much-deserved recognition in recent years. 

One item that might not be on that list but should be: family. That’s right. Pendleton, that charming Western town at the foot of the Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon, makes for a unique family-friendly destination. There’s history and culture, parks aplenty, hiking trails, swimming pools, sports galore and even spooky underground tunnels. In short, Pendleton’s got everything a family could want for a unique and memorable getaway. 

So saddle up and tug the reins toward Pendleton. 

Tamástslikt Cultural Institute offers Native-taught classes and events for kids, teens and adults.

Arts, History and Culture

Formally incorporated 140 years ago, Pendleton is steeped in authentic Western history, whether that’s the Native Americans who lived in the region for ages or the cowboys and ranchers who later gave the city its Western charm. 

There’s no better or more fascinating place to learn about the people who lived in the Pendleton area for more than 10,000 years — the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes — than the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Its exhibits, artwork and year-round events celebrate the culture of the region. A stop at the Umatilla County Historical Society’s Heritage Museum offers a quaint peek into Pendleton’s past. And those spooky underground tunnels? They’re remnants from the days when Chinese laborers were working on the railroads in Pendleton. The nonprofit Pendleton Underground Tours takes folks — anyone 6 years old and up — on tours of the tunnels and the town’s former red-light district. 

For art-loving families, Pendleton has the perfect canvas. The Pendleton Center for the Arts is home to art galleries, live music performances and even a Rock & Roll Camp for teens. The center also offers classes for kids, teens and adults.

Much more than rolling ranchland and the Blue Mountains, Pendleton is home to a wildlife refuge, miles of trails for exploring and kid-friendly city parks. (Photo by: Joni Kabana)

Exploring the Outdoors

Like the rest of Oregon, the outdoors are big in Pendleton — and not just because of the expansive views of the rolling ranchland and Blue Mountains in the distance. The wide-open spaces are one of the best places to fly a drone, and several disc-golf courses and geocaching areas offer surprises along the way. 

McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge, just outside of Pendleton, offers some easy strolling with the opportunity to see wildlife like mule deer, osprey and blue herons. For a closer look at the region’s wildlife, schedule a tour at Blue Mountain Wildlife, a wildlife-rehabilitation center that tends to injured raptors and other birds. 

You’ll find even more family-friendly hiking, along with mountain biking and trail running, at the Pendleton Adventure Trails Recreation Area. Near the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, the area has six different trails across 18 miles, including an easy 2-mile loop for beginners. 

If you’re looking for in-town outside fun, hit up the new community playgrounds at McKay, Aldrich and Sherwood parks; roll over to the Pendleton Skatepark, which offers 11,000 square feet of action; or take a summertime dip in the pool at the Pendleton Aquatic Center. Don’t be surprised if, while exploring the outdoors in Pendleton, you encounter a “motor pony.” These motorized horses from the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce canter around town while dispensing essential travel tips for visitors.  

Families can watch the makers in action at Stapleman's Handmade Boots and other venerable downtown businesses. (Photo by: Joni Kabana)

Indoor Fun Around Town

There’s plenty to do indoors in Pendleton, as well, for year-round fun. Perfect for little ones, the Children’s Museum of Eastern Oregon has a host of exhibits and events to keep kids entertained and engaged for hours. That includes a pizza cafe, a fire station, a toddler zone and the always popular Dogtona 400 wiener dog race, which happens in June. 

The whole family can keep busy and stay active with a day pass to the Roundup Athletic Club. The longtime club has expanded over the years and now has racquetball, volleyball and basketball courts; an indoor walking track for those rare rainy days in Pendleton; a swimming pool; and two hot tubs. Need more? There are batting cages, too. There’s also a cool arcade at Big John’s Pizza.

One other way to explore the town as a family is to travel the businesses along the Pendleton Charm Trail. Pick up a bracelet and signature charm from the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce for $5 and then add charms for $1.50 at each designated stop around town for a sweet souvenir. Make sure to visit some of the top makers downtown and see how they handcraft boots, hats, leather bags and other beautiful items.

Fishing on the McKay Reservoir, just 7 miles south of Pendleton, is a favorite way to spend a summer day.

If You Go:

Pendleton’s a great place for families any time of year, and lots of events keep it interesting and help make memories for years to come. The Pendleton Round-Up is the most famous, but there’s also the annual Fishing Derby at Indian Lake in June, a classic American 4th of July parade every year, and the old-school HotRod-A-Rama car show in late July/early August, among many others

For good food and fun family grub, try The Prodigal Son Brewery and Pub, a brewery with a cool kids’ area, or hit up Oregon Grain Growers Distillery, which has fantastic wood-fired pizzas and cocktails and lively theme nights for the whole family. Try the fry bread at the Kinship Cafe at Tamástslikt, and relax with hot coffee, pancakes and a fun kid vibe at Roosters Country Kitchen. 

Consider staying at a covered-wagon site at the Pendleton KOA, or book the Sleepy Bear Den at the Travelodge for a memorable family night. If a car trip isn’t in the cards, fly into Pendleton. The convenient hour-long flights from PDX on Boutique Air will make you wonder why you don’t visit all the time.

About The
Author

Jon Bell
Jon Bell is an Oregon writer and author of the book, On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon’s Perilous Peak. He writes about the outdoors, travel, business, the environment and many other areas from his home in Lake Oswego, where he lives with his wife, two children and black Lab.

Trip Ideas