Eastern Oregon is the epitome of the road less travelled. If you are looking for off-the-beaten-path type adventures, then this list of things to do in Oregon’s remote east is for you!
While most folks consider the state of Oregon to be a land filled with lush forests, snow-capped mountains, rugged coastlines, and miles of vineyards, they fail to acknowledge that this is only true for the western half of the state.
It’s not their fault. Eastern Oregon is seldom promoted and rarely visited. Does this mean it has nothing to offer visitors? Hell no!
Over on the eastern side of Oregon you’ll enjoy big blue skies, vast views, quiet country towns, and down to earth people. Not to mention some spectacular destinations that are more than worthy of your time to seek out.
This article will show you that there are many hidden gems here that include desolate deserts, gorgeous granite peaks, and soothing hot springs that need to be on your Oregon bucket list.
Where Is Eastern Oregon?
First, let’s consider where is Eastern Oregon and how to define the border between Central and Eastern Oregon.
Some say anywhere east of the Cascade Mountain Range is considered Eastern Oregon. However, others would argue that places that are in the vicinity of the Cascades such as Bend, Madras, and Crater Lake National Park are actually Central Oregon.
For the purposes of this article, we will only be considering destinations that are east of Highway 97 as part of Eastern Oregon. This highway which divides the state begins at Biggs Junction in the Columbia River Gorge, and travels all the way down to Klamath Falls which is on the border of Oregon and California.
The counties that make up Eastern Oregon are Sherman County, Gilliam County, Morrow County, Wheeler County, Crook County, Lake County, Umatilla County, Grant County, Harney County, Union County, Wallowa County, Baker County, and Malheur County.
Things To Do In Eastern Oregon
Visit The Wallowa Mountains
The Wallowa Mountains are a mountain range located in the northeast corner of Oregon. Most of the mountain range is designated as the Eagle Cap Wilderness and contains dozens of bare granite peaks, wildflower-filled meadows, and mesmerizing glacial lakes.
This stunning destination is fondly known as the ‘Swiss Alps of the USA’ and there is even a mountain here called the Matterhorn. Even though the Wallowas are one of Oregon’s ‘Seven Wonders’, the area is still a well-kept secret.
Some of the allure of the Wallowa Mountains is due to the fact that this destination is off-the-beaten path and it isn’t difficult at all to find solitude here. There are countless hiking trails that will take you up to alpine paradise whether you are looking for a short day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip.
There is a large campground at the foot of the mountains which is situated on the shores of Wallowa Lake near Joseph. This is a good place to base yourself to explore the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Take A Hike To Ice Lake In The Fall
Ice Lake is a popular hiking trail in the Wallowas. The trail is relentlessly steep but worth the challenge to explore one of the only parts of Eastern Oregon that is mountainous and forested.
While this trail is most popular in the summer, especially with backpackers heading up to overnight camp by the lake, we recommend doing the Ice Lake hiking trail in the fall.
The colors are out of this world spectacular in terms of fall foliage. It will completely surprise you to see such magnificent yellows, oranges, and reds within the desert landscape of Eastern Oregon.
The hike is 15.4 miles return trip so you will need to dedicate an entire day to this adventure. See what the hike to Ice Lake in the fall looks like here.
Hike To The Matterhorn
If you are going to hike to Ice Lake, you may as well keep going to one of the highest peaks in the Wallowa Mountains, the Matterhorn. It is an epic hike with fantastic views from the top where you can see other mountain peaks in all directions for miles.
The Matterhorn stands at 9,826 feet and was once thought to have been the highest peak in the Wallowas. That title was eventually given to Sacajawea upon re-measurement of the mountains which is only a few feet taller at 9,838 feet.
The hike up to the Matterhorn begins at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead and is 19 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 5,360 feet. Needless to say this hike is for those who are in good physical shape, have a lot of persistence and time to dedicate an entire day to reach the summit.
Spend A Weekend In Joseph
Nestled in the midst of some of the most spectacular geography you’ll ever see is a little gem of a town with enormous charm called Joseph. This mountain town is surrounded by the breathtaking Wallowa Mountain Range which is why the area is often referred to as the ‘Little Switzerland of America’.
Joseph is the perfect place for a relaxing weekend getaway because the town is filled with cozy motels, cute bed and breakfasts, and plenty of great cafes and restaurants.
There are also several boutique shops if you enjoy shopping for one-of-a-kind type treasures. One of the best stores in town is Simply Sandy’s which sells a collection of shabby chic and country style clothing, kitchenware, gifts, architectural salvage items, and more. You could easily spend two hours exploring all the one-of-a-kind pieces on display here and more than likely you won’t leave empty handed.
Take A Road Trip To Hells Canyon
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is the deepest river gorge in North America! This wild and scenic destination includes 215,000 acres of wilderness waiting for you to explore.
Take a drive out to the Hells Canyon Overlook for some of the best views which you can get to along a road 33 miles north of the town Halfway.
Most of the Hells Canyon Recreation Area is not easily accessed by road. For an alternative way to explore the canyon, organize a jet boat tour with Hells Canyon Adventures who offer two to four hour trips through the whitewater leaving from Hells Canyon Dam.
Attend The Pendleton Round-Up
The Pendleton Round-Up is a week long celebration of western heritage that includes parades, concerts, and competitions.
The event begins with a dress up parade held on the Saturday before Round-Up week begins followed by an outdoor concert. Some of the past artists have included Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Scotty McCreery.
Events during Round Up week include bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, steer roping, steer wrestling, team roping and tie-down roping. The All-Around Cowboy award goes to the competitor who earns the most prize money in more than one event.
This is the biggest annual event held in Eastern Oregon and attracts thousands of visitors. It is held in the second week of September so if you are in this part of Oregon when the festivities are taking place be sure to get yourself a ticket!
Relax At The Wildhorse Resort & Casino
Wildhorse Resort & Casino is a premier destination for family getaways, couples, and road-trippers traveling along the I-84 between Pendleton in Oregon and Idaho.
The Resort features a 24-hour casino, hotel, RV Park, nine restaurants, cinema, 18-hole championship golf course, and tribal museum.
But it doesn’t stop there because the resort also features a 24 lane bowling alley, food court, and arcade. Are you excited to visit yet?!
The resort sits beneath the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It’s the perfect place to plan a fun weekend getaway, especially during the summer when you can take advantage of their outdoor pool.
Catch A Movie At The Drive-In In Milton Freewater
If you’re in the Pendleton area or visiting Walla Walla and looking for something unique to do in the evening, head to the Drive-In in Milton-Freewater.
Movies are screened here every Friday through Tuesday night with a rotating playlist. The screenings start at dusk so times will change depending on the season. In summer screenings start around 8.30pm but in winter will commence much earlier. Find out what movies are playing here.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Sheep Rock Unit
The Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is actually one of three geographically separate units that make up the monument. The others include the Clarno Unit and the more well-known Painted Hills.
All of the units feature colorful rock formations and preserve layers of fossil plants and mammals that lived in the region between the late Eocene and the late Miocene era.
The Sheep Rock Unit stands out from the other parts of the monument with its strikingly green colored claystone which was caused by chemical weathering of a mineral called celadonite.
This part of the park is located on Highway 19 between the towns of Kimberly and Dayville, Oregon. Visit the Sheep Rock Unit and other interesting places nearby on this road trip along the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway.
No doubt you’ve heard of the Painted Hills before or have seen the unbelievable shades or red splashed across these hills on Instagram. The Painted Hills are probably one of Oregon’s most famous natural landmarks.
The unique colors of the Painted Hills formed over thirty-five million years ago. Different volcanic eruptions and changing climate patterns mixed with different soils, mineral, and plant matter over the ages resulted in what you see today. The differing layers represent different geological eras in the Central Oregon time line.
Like the Sheep Rock Unit mentioned above, the Painted Hills are part of the John Day National Monument. The closest place to find lodging near the Painted Hills is in Prineville.
Summit Rock Creek Butte
Rock Creek Butte is a 9,106-foot summit in Baker County located about ten miles northeast of Sumpter. This is the highest peak in the Elkhorn Mountain Range and also the highest point in Oregon’s Blue Mountains.
For those of you who consider yourselves to be ‘peak baggers’, you can hike to the summit of Rock Creek Butte which is the 26th highest summit in the state of Oregon.
The hike up to Rock Creek Butte can be done as a day hike. There is no trail to Rock Creek Butte’s summit, but the Elkhorn Crest trail crosses its southwestern slope and the final half mile is an easy scramble.
The Elkhorn Crest Trail can be accessed from either Marble Pass, or via the Twin Lakes trail. Marble pass is a gentler trail, but getting there requires high clearance and possibly 4-wheel drive. The Twin Lakes trail is steeper, but is much easier on your car. The round trip distance via Twin Lakes is about eleven miles with an elevation gain of 3,700 feet.
From the top of Rock Creek Butte you’ll see expansive views that include the Wallowas in the east, the Strawberry Mountains to the west, and the agricultural North Powder valley to the north. You may encounter mountain goats on the mountain or by Twin Lakes.
Elkhorn Peak, the second highest peak in the Elkhorn Mountains, is an easy side trip that is well worth doing and is also an easy scramble. Why not attempt to do both?
>>Read: 10 Oregon Peaks To Summit
Coffeepot Crater lies on the edge of a twenty-seven square mile lava flow, one of the most recent volcanic flows in Oregon. It is so recent that locals claim that you can still see boot prints in places.
The crater is within the Jordan Craters Wilderness Study Area (WSA) located fifteen miles west of U.S. Highway 95 and approximately twenty miles northwest of Jordan Valley.
Visitors can drive out to Coffeepot which is the only feature there is vehicle access to in the Jordan Crater area. There is a short trail that skirts around the well preserved and steep-sided crater. One of the most interesting features in the vicinity of Coffeepot is a sequence of roughly aligned spatter cones. They consist of blocks of lava, probably ejected in a semi-molten state that have welded together, forming cones.
Other cool features here include pahoehoe, a ‘pillowy’ or rope-like lava flow like the kinds you see on the big island of Hawaii.
To get there, take Highway 95 and drive eight miles north of Jordan Valley. Turn west at the Jordan Craters sign onto Cow Creek Road. Follow the BLM Jordan Crater access signs for twenty-five miles until you reach the site. Beware, the last three miles of the dirt road to the parking lot are very rough. A high clearance vehicle is recommended.
Visit Birch Creek Historic Ranch
Nestled among cream and chocolate colored hills, barren red cliffs, and towering rock spires lies a secret oasis – the Birch Creek Historic Ranch. The ranch was constructed in the early 1900s out of stone following common Basque design techniques.
There are nineteen other buildings and structures at the ranch that contribute to the property’s designation as a historical rural landscape on the Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. It was purchased by the BLM in 1988 to preserve the remarkable site along the wild and scenic Owyhee River.
The trip out to Birch Creek Ranch is for the truly adventurous. This destination is extremely remote and requires dedication. Located in Jordan Valley, the road to the ranch is totally unpaved, steep and bumpy in places, and involves three rocky creek crossings along Birch Creek Road. See a map here.
Steens Mountain stretches about fifty miles alongside the Alvord Desert in remote southeast Oregon. This mountain is often mistaken for being a mountain range when it in fact is a single stand-alone mountain.
Motorists can drive to the top of Steens Mountain on a road that almost reaches the summit of 9,733 feet, which is the highest road in Oregon.
The fifty-two mile long road called Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway offers several magnificent viewpoints of Kiger Gorge on the way up, and sweeping vistas of the Alvord Desert to the east.
The Alvord Desert was once a lake extending over 100 miles but has since completely dried up. This desert landscape is now known as what is called a playa and is approximately twenty miles long and seven miles wide.
The Steens Mountain Range runs alongside the playa towering 5,000 feet above providing a spectacular backdrop.
Alvord is located on the east side of the Steens Mountain Range at an elevation of 4,000 feet. This unique land formation is located in one of the most isolated parts of Oregon therefore receives very little visitors.
If you are looking for solitude, this is the place for you. Witness phenomenal sunrises and enjoy silent nights in this desolate and hauntingly beautiful landscape.
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