Editor’s note: Call businesses before you visit to make sure they’re open. Face coverings are now required in all indoor places statewide. Stay posted on what Oregon’s phased reopening means for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Here’s what to know about Oregon’s outdoors right now.
Eastern Oregon is vast. While the region accounts for more than a third of Oregon’s area, it’s inhabited by less than 5% of the state’s population. What does that mean for RVers? Miles and miles of wide-open road through wondrous and wild places await. The difficulty comes in choosing your itinerary, especially if you have limited time, as travel through Eastern Oregon isn’t done on six-lane highways but instead on country roads that run through one-stoplight towns — with so much to see along the way.
Fortunately, you’ll find several established scenic byways in Eastern Oregon that showcase its impressive natural beauty. In the southern corner of the state, you can explore Steens Mountain (yes, it’s one large fault-block mountain) and the adjacent sunbaked Alvord Desert via a combination of these routes: High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway, East Steens Tour Route, Steens Loop Tour Route and Diamond Loop Tour Route. Or farther north, drive the 286-mile Journey Through Time Scenic Byway and see one of the most photogenic spots in the state, the Painted Hills near John Day. But if you pressed me to choose just one RV route through Eastern Oregon, I’d select the 208-mile Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, a horseshoe route in the northeastern corner of the state. Mile for mile, I think that it has the most compelling combination of stunning scenery, inviting small towns and adrenaline-stoked adventures.
Day 1: A Grand Time in La Grande
Unlike other driving routes in Eastern Oregon, the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is easily accessed from a major highway, Interstate 84. Start your trip by exiting at the town of La Grande, the ancestral home of the Nez Perce tribe and current home to Eastern Oregon University. Grab a burger and beer at Side A Brewing, housed in a historic downtown firehouse. Then rent mountain bikes from The Mountain Works and ride the trails in nearby Mt. Emily Recreation Area. Or drive the Union County Farm Loop and then stay overnight at Grande Hot Springs RV Resort, where sites have full hookups.
Day 2: Behold Little Switzerland
Start your morning by stocking up on fresh bread and pastries at Kneads Bakery and grilling meats from local butcher shop Hines Meat Company before heading out of town on Oregon Route 82. The byway leads north to the farming and ranching town of Elgin. In Wallowa, history lovers will want to stop at the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center. Or, if you have an affinity for barns and heritage farms, drive the self-guided Wallowa Barn Tour route on your way to Joseph.
While you’ll find it hard to resist stopping and strolling the streets of quaint Joseph, keep driving until you reach Wallowa Lake State Park, a gem of a place mostly unknown to those living outside of Oregon. Nicknamed “Little Switzerland,” the snowcapped mountains and ribbon lake will have you yodeling — that is, until you look at the other side of the lake and realize that you’re in high-desert cowboy country. This state park is sizable and typically packed during the summer, so make your reservations early. You’ll find RV sites here with full hookups; I’d recommend selecting a site as close to the water as possible to cut down on the long walk to the beach. Now pull out those house-made brats or T-bone steaks that you purchased in La Grande and fire up the grill.
Day 3: Wanderlust in Wallowa
A visit to Wallowa Lake is, of course, all about the water. Make your first stop Wallowa Lake Marina, right inside the state park. Here you can rent small-horsepower motor boats for either fishing or slow cruising. You also can rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards to access the five public floating platforms that line the east side of the lake. Visitors in the know will make their way to the floats early in the morning and set up camp for the day. The floats serve as a base for swimming, diving and kayaking. Know that the water is deep, so make sure young children wear personal flotation devices. And the water is cold — like, too-cold-for-most-grown-ups cold. If you want to score points with your teenagers, clue them in to the secret rope swing about 25 yards north of the second float from the beach; note that the swing is not suitable for younger kids. If you have little ones, you’ll likely be more comfortable swimming from the beach. For hiking later in the day, head to Little Alps Day-Use Area just 1 mile from the campground.
In the late afternoon or evening, head back to the town of Joseph. One of my favorite small towns in Oregon, it has a thriving arts community with downtown galleries, studios and walks showcasing outdoor bronze sculptures. Kids will enjoy Joseph City Park with an awesome wood play structure and splash pad for those hot summer days. For dinner, walk to The Embers Brew House Restaurant and Pub and grab a seat on the outdoor patio. In addition to salads, calzones and pizza, you’ll find must-try fried pickles on the menu. Another option is Terminal Gravity Brewing, where you can enjoy your pint and burger on the creekside garden patio in the summer months. Leave room for dessert, as you can’t leave Joseph without a stop at Arrowhead Chocolates for one (or a dozen) of its award-winning huckleberry and espresso truffles. (Plan to stop here again tomorrow morning on your way out of town and grab a to-go mocha.)
Day 4: Snake River Thrills
From Joseph, follow Oregon Route 350 to Forest Road 39 toward Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. At nearly 8,000 feet, it’s the deepest river gorge in North America, surpassing even the Grand Canyon. Hop on a jet boat with Hells Canyon Adventures or choose a one-day whitewater rafting trip with a jet-boat return. It’s an exhilarating adventure on the Snake River that will have your family talking for weeks. After what will likely be an exhausting day, settle in at riverside Copperfield Park in Oxbow. This manicured park has 59 RV sites with water and electric hookups.
Day 5: Backcountry Trails
The byway winds west through the towns of Halfway and Richland along the same route traveled by Oregon Trail pioneers. If you’re looking to get a taste of what that was like, you can park the RV and head up into the mountains for a guided multiday backcountry trip with Wallowa Llamas. You do the hiking and the llamas carry your gear. Know that these trips are quite popular and book early. Otherwise, stop at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside of Baker City (currently closed, but their trails are open). Here you can learn from living-history demonstrations and see actual ruts carved by the Conestoga wagons that headed west more than 200 years ago.
Spend your last night at Western-themed Mountain View RV Park with full hookups and a pool on the outskirts of Baker City. Make sure to leave time to explore this historic gold-mining boomtown, once known as the “Queen City of the Inland Empire.” More than 100 downtown buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll typically find cowboy Ron Colton’s horse-drawn carriage hitched outside the Geiser Grand Hotel. He’d be happy to show you around town. Also stop at Glacier 45 Distillery for its award-winning spirits and Peterson’s Gallery and Chocolatier for handcrafted confections and European drinking chocolate. Finish the night with a casual pizza dinner at Lefty’s Taphouse or an elegant spread at Palm Court inside the Geiser Grand Hotel.
Day 6: Sweet Memories To Go
Before you get back on I-84, pick up some sweet treats for the road at Sweet Wife Baking in downtown Baker City, and then savor all the memories that your family made along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway.