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 east side, 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 that include desolate deserts, gorgeous granite peaks, and soothing hot springs awaiting you.
But first, let’s consider where is Eastern Oregon and how do we define the border between Central and Eastern Oregon? Some say, anywhere east of the Cascade mountains is considered Eastern Oregon. However, others would argue that places that are just east of the Cascades such as Bend, Prineville, Madras, and Crater Lake National Park are actually Central Oregon.
For the purposes of this post, we will only be considering destinations that are east of Highway 97 which divides the state beginning at Biggs Junction in the north, down to Klamath Falls in the south.
Best Things To Do In Eastern Oregon
Visit The Wallowa’s
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 incredibly stunning destination is a well-kept secret and fondly known as the ‘Swiss Alps of the USA’ by locals. Some of the allure of this place is due to the fact that it is off-the-beaten path and quite easy to find solitude not too far into the wilderness.
There is a large campground at the foot of the mountains and a few hotels nearby in the quaint town of Joseph. Popular activities include hiking, backpacking, and fishing.
Take A Hike To Ice Lake In The Fall
Ice Lake is a popular hiking trail in the Wallowa’s. 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 the trail is most popular in the summer, especially with backpackers heading up to overnight camp by the lake, we recommend doing this hike 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 it. 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.
The Matterhorn stands at 9,826 feet and was once thought to have been the highest peak in the Wallowa’s. That title was eventually given to Sacajawea upon re-measurement of the mountains which is only a few feet taller at 9,838 feet.
It is an epic hike with fantastic views from the top where you can see mountain peaks in all directions.
The trail 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.
Go Shopping 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. Surrounded by the breathtaking Wallowa mountain range of northeast Oregon, Joseph is often referred to as the “Little Switzerland of America”.
One of the best things to do in town is to go shopping at Simply Sandy’s. This one of a kind boutique store is filled with home treasures that reflect a shabby chic and country style. The collection of items include kitchenware, garden, gifts, architectural salvage, and more.
You could easily spend two hours exploring all the one-of-a-kind pieces 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 this 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 2-6 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 it and other interesting places 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 before. The Painted Hills are probably one of Oregon’s most famous natural landmarks.
The unique colors of the Painted Hills formed over 35 million years ago. Different volcanic eruptions and changing climate patterns mixed with different soils, mineral and plant matter over the ages, resulting in what you see today. The differing layers represent different geological era’s 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 nearby is in Prineville.
Summit Rock Creek Butte
Rock Creek Butte is a 9,106-foot summit in Baker County located about 10 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 it’s 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 11 miles with an elevation gain of 3700 feet.
From the top of Rock Creek Butte you’ll see expansive views that include the Wallowa’s 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 27 square mile lava flow, of which it created. The lava flow is one of the most recent volcanic flows in Oregon, so much so that locals claim that you can still see bootprints in places.
The crater is within the Jordan Craters Wilderness Study Area (WSA) located 15 miles west of U.S. Highway 95 and approximately 20 miles northwest of Jordan Valley.
Visitors can drive out to Coffeepot which is the only feature there is vehicle access to. 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 Coffee Pot 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 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 25 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.
Birch Creek Historic Ranch
Nestled among cream and chocolate colored hills, barren red cliffs, and towering rock spires lays 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 50 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-along mountain.
Motorists can drive up to the mountaintop on a road that almost reaches the summit of 9,733 feet, which is the highest road in Oregon.
The 52 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 20 miles long and 7 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.