Want Sunshine, Stunning Scenery and a Taste of the Wild West? Explore Eastern Oregon, From Bend to Baker City
Average summer highs 77-79
By Laura Shinn
You can thank the Cascades. That’s the mountain range responsible for dividing Oregon into two distinct geographies—with two totally different personalities. The west side serves up the better-known version of Oregon: Douglas firs, gray and drizzly skies, Portlandians swilling Stumptown under the watchful eye of Mount Hood.
Head east of the Cascades, though, and the state’s alter ego emerges. Lesser-known eastern Oregon is cowboy country; rural air sweet with the scent of sagebrush that dots a rugged land thick with Wild West heritage. Indeed, exploring the region is a little like pioneering—if only because it’s so sparsely populated. But the best part? It’s dry and sunny. In fact, it’s mostly desert. This historic, 230-mile Bend-to–Baker City route takes in geological wonders, rivers and wildflower-rich mountainsides—umbrellas most definitely not required.
Day 1: Bend
We begin in the heart of Oregon. Bend deftly straddles a fine line between rustic and sophisticated, with culinary treasures, topflight beer and boutique shopping in a charming small-town setting (population 77,905) all taking a backseat to its real draw: a bounty of recreational activities. On May 18, travelers can pack several of them into one day during the PolePedalPaddle (pppbend.com), ski/snowboard, bike, canoe/kayak relay. Or simply stretch out on some warm grass along the riverfront in Drake Park before tackling the Bend Ale Trail, which boasts more breweries than any other trail in Oregon. Try the Apocalypse IPA at 10 Barrel Brewing Co. (1135 NW Galveston Ave.; 541.678.5228; 10barrel.com) or sip a selection from the Crux Fermentation Project (50 SW Division St.; 541.385.3333; cruxfermentation.com), a newer brewery started by former Deschutes brewmaster Larry Sidor. Spend the night at Brasada Ranch (16986 SW Brasada Ranch Road; 866.373.4882; brasada.com), a resort replete with Pendleton-chic farmhouse elegance and an unparalleled view of the Three Sisters peaks—best appreciated while feasting on the patio at Range, its world-class restaurant. Looking for something a little more retro? Give Sally at Cowgirl Bunkhouse (541.480.0063; cowgirlbunkhouse.com) a call, and she’ll set you up for a night of glamping in one of her bright and sunny vintage trailers at the location of your choice.
Day 2: Bend to Mitchell
Spend the morning getting schooled on the area’s history—and communing with birds of prey—at the High Desert Museum (Bend, 59800 S Hwy. 97; 541.382.4754; highdesertmuseum.org), 15 minutes south of town, before heading east on 126 to fuel up with a mountain burger followed by a soft serve at Jana’s Tastee Treet (Prineville, 493 NE Third St.; 541.447.4165). This ’50s-style diner sports a gem of a bar. Literally. It was built in the ’70s with locally mined semiprecious stones. Nine miles east of Prineville, you’ll find the perfect way to work off lunch: an easy four-mile hike to local geological oddity Steins Pillar, a strange rock formation rising out of the Ochoco National Forest like a big, pink skyscraper. Afterward, continue on Route 26 east to Mitchell, a quirky, cozy one-horse town, for some pub fare and a beer on the porch of Deadwood-style saloon Little Pine Café (100 E Main St.; 541.462.3532; littlepinecafe.com). Bed down early in the cottage or guest house at the Painted Hills Vacation Rentals (SE Rosenbaum St.; 541.462.3921; paintedhillsvacation.com) to dream of f-stops and shutter speeds—because Day 3 stars the breathtaking Kodachrome scenery.
Day 3: Mitchell to Prairie City
Mitchell is the gateway to the striking painted hills unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (37375 Bear Creek Road; nps.Gov/joda). Ages of volcanic eruptions and climate changes mixed ash with minerals, creating a hauntingly beautiful timeline in the form of red, orange, gold and even black striations. For hills of a Dr. Seussian greenish-blue tinge, hop back on Route 26 and go east toward Picture Gorge, turning north on Highway 19 to check out the undulating folds of colorful canyon at the Blue Basin Overlook Trail. Next, return to Route 26 and head east for Prairie City, a quaint western town over which the Strawberry Mountains reign supreme. Order a steak and admire the hand-carved bar, 1902 architecture and taxidermy at the historic Oxbow Coffee House & Restaurant (128 W Front St.; 541.820.4544), then grab some shut-eye at the Prairiewinkle Inn (134 Front St.; 541.620.1492).
Days 4 And 5: Prairie City To Baker City
Spend the morning hunting for turquoise jewelry and other treasures at Prairie City Antiques (131 W Front St.; 541.820.3524) before continuing east on Route 26 and north on State Route 7 toward Boulder Creek Ranch (Bates, 72585 Middle Fork Lane; 541.421.3031; bouldercreekranch.net). A stop on Oregon’s 176-mile scenic bikeway, this working ranch offers up a stocked, modern cabin as base camp for exploration of its 160 bucolic acres on horseback or foot. In the morning, continue east on S.R. 7 toward the charming gold rush town of Baker City, overlooking the dramatic Elkhorn Mountains. Check in at the Geiser Grand Hotel (1996 Main St.; 541.523.1889; geisergrand.com), an elegantly restored and purportedly haunted landmark. Pack yourself a gourmet picnic at Bella Main Street Market (Baker City, 2023 Main St.; 541.523.7490), before backtracking 23 miles west on S.R. 7 to the McEwen Depot for a spin on the Sumpter Valley Railroad’s vintage locomotive (Baker City, 12259 Huckleberry Loop Road; 866.894.2268; sumptervalleyrailroad.org). You’ll land at the Sumpter Valley Dredge, a monument to gold-digging greed. If you’re there during Memorial Day weekend, snatch up some vintage finds at the Sumpter Flea Market (info, 541.894.2314) before heading back to Baker City for dinner. Choose between short ribs and beer at Barley Brown’s Brew Pub (2190 Main St.; 541.523.4266) or prime rib under chandeliers at the Geiser Grand, then raise your glass to the bright sun and fresh air of Oregon’s Wild West.