: Mongata Estate Winery / Richard Duval Images

Road Trip: Milton-Freewater

Sun-drenched soils, dreamy farms and mountains make for a fall full of wine and fun.
February 28, 2013 (Updated September 25, 2023)

Once two communities near Pendleton in Eastern Oregon, the towns of Milton and Freewater in Northeast Oregon joined together in 1951. Today, thanks to unique soils and more rain than elsewhere in the Walla Walla Valley — part of which extends into the northeastern corner of the state — the Milton-Freewater area benefits from another pairing: an award-winning winemaking scene and outdoor wonderland. Here are some suggestions for a road trip that combines the best of the terrain and its bounty. 

People dining in a restaurant.
Courtesy of Stephanie Forrer / Rotie Cellars

Sip Wine and Cider Grown in Rocky Soils

Established in 2015 the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater sits surrounded by the larger, shared Walla Walla wine region. But this pocket of Oregon distinguishes itself with a rocky river soil — containing cobbles that bring the “rocks” to the name — that gives grapes a distinct character. Critics rave about the results, with wines from the region earning high marks from experts. 

To sample what the region has to offer, try Force Majeure, a winery that expanded into the Rocks District in 2018. Book an appointment to see the operation or reserve a spot at a private, seated tasting of select wines for four to six guests. The Rotie Rocks Estate offers tastings in a spectacular setting among its estate vineyards. At Watermill Winery and Zerba Cellars, you’ll find tempranillo, chardonnay, syrah, malbec, merlot and more. About seven miles southeast, along the Walla Walla River, Mongata Estate Winery offers a variety of unique tasting experiences. You can book an estate wine tasting with paired bites at the vineyard, with seating either in their boho-style 102-year-old barn or on the barn patio. Or take it to the next level for a deluxe private picnic in the vineyard, with a fully stocked picnic basket and choice of four dreamy vineyard settings: next to the syrah block, the cabernet block, with views of the Blue Mountains or views of the river. 

Not only grapes are special here. Blue Mountain Cider Company turns its own apples into delicious hard ciders. You can taste them at the Watermill Winery Blue Mountain Cider tasting room located in the center of the old part of town, where Milton and Freewater merged. The winery and the cidery are sister businesses.

A jar of honey
Courtesy of Sweet Bee Honey Company

Sample Sweets and Cheese in Milton-Freewater

Soils like these make for other excellent agricultural products, too, from cheeses to lavender and more. 

Situated on 15 acres south of town against the Blue Mountains, Sweet Bee Honey Co. has been in family hands for five generations — since 1860 in fact — and today prides itself on honey collected from bees foraging on clover and other plants, many of them free of pesticides. Everything’s packaged sustainably on-site. A tasting room is open on Fridays and Saturdays or by appointment. 

Crockett Road Lavender Farm has fields with 20 types of lavender that’s turned into bath products. During peak bloom times (usually in June), you can even score fresh flowers at their U-pick operation. Come by on fall weekends to shop for handmade soaps, oils and salts. 

Boutique chocolatier Petits Noirs turns out handcrafted delicacies flavored with oak chestnut, lavender, rosemary, clove and violet. Pro tip for wine lovers: The chocolate makers are happy to suggest pairings. The outfit closes for summer break but kicks back into gear in the fall. Call ahead for hours and directions.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Adams family left their Tillamook dairy farm for Milton-Freewater, where today they own and run the Walla Walla Cheese Company. Swing by to find your favorites, plus wedges of coffee-tinged cheddar or jalapeño-studded gouda — all made from local milk. A takeout menu means you can get grilled cheeses, cheese platters and ice cream to go. 

A lone hiker along a small mountain trail with a view of the valley.
Courtesy of Outside Walla Walla

Get Outside in Northeast Oregon

About 40 miles southeast of Milton-Freewater, Jubilee Lake makes for a great place to hike with the 2.6-mile-long Jubilee Lake Trail that wanders around the scenic body of water. Start off at the Jubilee Lake Campground for a mostly level stroll looking for geese and grosbeaks. The campground — which has tent-camping sites and places for small RVs — closes from mid-October to July 1, but you can still access the trail. 

Traversing a portion of the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness area near Weston, a town eight miles south, the Grouse Mountain Trail is often too hot to hike in summer, making fall a great time to check it out. The trail starts at the Zig Zag Springs Trailhead and climbs about 1,000 vertical feet to the top of the mountain at 4,108 feet. The trip back to the car makes it a 5-mile out-and-back hike.    

To really go deep in this area, consider booking an adventure with Go Wild American Adventures, which has a unique permit to pack-raft the Minam River. In summer 2024, you can fly into Minam River Lodge deep in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and spend four days hiking and floating the river in portable, inflatable kayaks. Along the way, you can cast for feisty fish and look for bears (remember to keep a safe distance away). Too challenging? The company also offers gourmet backpacking trips into the Wallowas where mules carry your gear. 

About The

Tim Neville
Tim Neville is a writer based in Bend where he writes about the outdoors, travel and the business of both. His work has been included in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing, and earned various awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the Society of Professional Journalists. Tim has reported from all seven continents and spends his free time skiing, running and spending time with his family.

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