It is often said that Eastern Oregon feels like the Wild West thanks to its wide-open skies, painted hills, and sprawling desert landscape. Rich with history including vivid monuments and remnants of the Oregon Trail, Eastern Oregon is also home to prehistoric fossil beds, with corresponding museums and visitors centers providing information on what the region was like up to 40 million years ago. Evidence of years past is scattered throughout making this the perfect area for history, nature and ghost lovers.
Made up of some of Oregon’s smallest communities, Eastern Oregon isn’t typically the first place tourists checkout when planning an Oregon vacation (as most head to the Pacific Northwest) but is popular for those on road trips. Oregon’s eastern region is sparsely populated mostly made up of wheat fields, mountains, and forests of pine and juniper trees making for some gorgeous views and epic outdoor adventures. The lack of institutions and businesses in comparison to the coastal and western regions of the state also contribute to the lack of visitors to this area. If people do venture over east for recreational purposes, it’s often to checkout the john day fossil beds, local hot springs, to drink in the scenery and non-urban stretches along the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway, or to pop into one of the dozens of spooky, abandoned ghost towns. One of the largest events in the area is the famous Pendleton Roundup rodeo and “Roundup Week” which attracts around 50,000 people annually to the otherwise small town of Pendleton. Needless to say, this is usually as packed out as it gets out east.
If you do find yourself travelling to Eastern, Oregon checkout some of our favorite stops and activities below. Get ready to plan your trip, Eastern Oregon awaits you.
Visit The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
Located about 5 miles east of Baker City this popular facility is 12,000 square feet of extensive galleries giving visitors a look into the pioneer life in Oregon in the mid-1800’s. About 300,000 people made the 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean (ending near Seaside) in search of agricultural land in the West. One of our personal favorite exhibits is the simulated section of the trail that gives you a feel for expeditioners interactions/impacts on Native Americans and their experience with camp life along the way. Head outside and checkout the 4 mile (round-trip) trail that leads you to actual ruts left by the expeditions wagons!
Checkout the Pendleton Underground Tours
This 90-minute tour takes you underground Pendleton giving you a look into the cities history of gambling, brothels and gold. The tour gives attendees a look into what life was like in Pendleton more than a century ago. At the time, Pendleton had a total of 32 saloons and 18 brothels in operation earning the town a notorious reputation among other cities. You can expect to see and learn about the secret gambling rooms, the rampant opium use, and bathhouses once you’re below the pavement. The tour ends by climbing the “31 Steps To Heaven” which takes you into the “Cozy Rooms” – the most popular brothel in town. If you’re interested in seeing a whole new perspective of this once infamous, and now popular Eastern Oregon town we recommend checking this tour out. Reservations are required so make sure you visit their website ahead of time.
Checkout Oregon’s Painted Hills
Oregon’s Painted Hills originally formed about 30 million years ago and have now eroded into low-slung, colorful hills that are reminiscent of a watercolor painting. They get their layered brick-red, yellow, black, and beige from a series of eruptions that drifted into the beds hundreds of feet deep. We recommend looking into the Painted Hills Unit just 9 miles north of Mitchell off of HWY 26. While they are just as stunning from the comfort of your car, there are some awesome viewpoints we recommend checking out. Checkout the easy half-mile Leaf Hill Trail that winds over the top of a banded hill, or the 1.5-mile Carroll Rim Trail, which takes you to the top of a high bluff for great views. Bonus tip: Try to catch these views at sunset! It is truly awe-inspiring to see the hills during golden hour.
Visit The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site
This museum of sorts appears to be a run down building in the middle of nowhere, but is actually a State Park and National Historic Landmark preserving the early Chinese culture in the John Day area. Once a trading post on The Dalles Military Road in 1866 and 1867, it was later operated as a general store and a Chinese labor exchange for the mines, doctors shops and opium dens. The museum offers tours every hour for the first 10 people to show, and also have a 20 minute video lecture you can attend to learn more. Often ignored in other parts of the state, the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site is a great testament to the early Chinese community in Oregon earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visit The Hells Canyon Dam
The Hells Canyon Dam is located right on mile 247 of the Snake River along the Oregon/Idaho border. Opened in 1967, it is the third and final hydroelectric dam of the Hells Canyon Project. You’ll likely access it from the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway where you’ll also see the Wallowa Mountains dominating the horizon above wide ranching valleys, but theres a few different ways you can get here. But – let it be known that Hells Canyon’s most spectacular scenery (in our opinion) is located along the Snake River, following 25 miles of paved road (Idaho’s Rte 454) towards the Hells Canyon Dam. Wherever you go the views are sure to stun you.
Other Places To Check Out:
– Strawberry Mountains Wilderness
– Anthony Lake
– John Day Fossil Beds
– Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
– Steens Mountain
– Eagle Cap Wilderness
– Wallowa Lake
– The John Day River