The Wild West spirit is alive and kicking in much of Eastern Oregon, where cattle ranches, rolling hills and wide-open roads intersect with small-town communities deeply connected to their land and culture. Winter is especially blissful in Eastern Oregon, as family-friendly ski resorts fill with the giggles of snow angels and drifts of sparkling powder blanket the rugged landscape — ready for fresh tracks, followed by a steaming cup of fresh roast. Here’s how to find solitude and adventure in Eastern Oregon this winter.
Painted Hills and John Day River
The dramatic sunset hues of the Painted Hills section of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is awe-inspiring any time of year, but winter’s rain, occasional stormy skies and changing light can present a completely different picture in the winter, even if a blanket of snow coats the hills. (Not to mention, much fewer crowds for more solitude as you explore.) No visit is complete without a couple of hours at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, with one of the largest fossil records in the world, stretching back 55 million years. The green claystone hues of the adjacent Sheep Rock section aren’t too shabby either. Hiking trails in the Clarno section provide close-ups of plant fossils, petrified logs and soaring palisades. Continue an exploration of ancient landscapes in nearby and aptly named Fossil, where the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute has day hikes and exhibits illustrating geological history, as well as an open fossil dig at the Wheeler High School Fossil Beds. To the west, the captivating John Day River — the third-longest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States — winds its way north all the way to the Columbia River. The river comes alive in the cooler months, when wildlife is more active and winter steelhead and trout are wildly abundant. Book a guided fishing trip for the best experience.
Arts and Culture in the Wallowas
Some call the Wallowa Mountains “Oregon’s Alps,” and the soaring peaks draw visitors to hike, camp and paddle the placid waters of Wallowa Lake. But the region turns into a winter wonderland in the cooler months, the idyllic sight of snow-capped barns set in contrast against the bright blue sky. The self-guided Wallowa Barn Tour illuminates the longstanding agricultural traditions of the region’s farms and ranches with attractive and historic structures. Visitors can experience the art inspired by the rural spirit here along the Northeast Oregon Arts Trail, which includes dozens of galleries, art centers and theaters, such as the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center, the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture, and Art Center East. The less-traveled winter season offers myriad ways to explore the snowy landscape, including skiing at family-friendly Ferguson Ridge Ski Area, watching the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race and climbing aboard the Sumpter Valley Railroad for festive holiday rides on the rails (trains run late May through mid-December). Don’t miss the Enterprise Winterfest celebration in early December, when pop-up shops, ice skating, train rides and more festive fun fill the town.
Sleigh Rides and Skiing in Baker County
With a high point at more than 9,000 feet/2,743 meters, the snowy Blue Mountains stand sentinel over the small rural outpost of Eastern Oregon. The town of Prairie City nestles into the mountain’s west — a gateway for fishing in the middle fork of the John Day River and wintertime Nordic skiing and snowmobiling. Stay at the historic Hotel Prairie and slide up to the bar at the Oxbow Restaurant & Saloon. On the mountains’ eastern side, the tiny town of Unity draws anglers year-round for trout, bass and crappie at the Unity Reservoir. Stop for home cooking at the The Water Hole Cafe & Mercantile. The area’s biggest outpost, Baker City, delights visitors with a charming downtown historic district that transforms into a winter wonderland with sleigh rides in an authentic horse-drawn sleigh (or carriage, if there’s no snow). The tours start and end at the historic Geiser Grand Hotel each Saturday evening mid-December through January. Find plenty of food and drink options in town to warm the belly, including Barley Brown’s Beer, Glacier45 Distillery and Peterson’s Gallery and Chocolatier, as well as decadent treats at Sweet Wife Baking. Less than 30 miles northwest of Baker City, Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort is a playground for serious skiiers as well as those who want to take it easy on the bunny slopes, with a base elevation of 7,100 feet — the highest in Oregon — meaning lots of powder for everyone.
If You Go:
Winter in Oregon can be unpredictable, so come stocked with fuel, food, water, paper maps, waterproof clothing layers and emergency supplies when venturing out to more remote areas. Always check weather and road conditions before you go, and have snow tires and know how to use them. Brush up on How to Winter Like an Oregonian for more tips.
John Day Itinerary
Mitchell, Kimberly, Dayville, Fossil, John Day
Wallowa, Enterprise, Joseph, North Powder, Sumpter
Baker County Itinerary
Prairie City, Unity, Baker City