Jettison your notions of Oregon as a cloud-enshrouded dark-green spot on the map and get set for expansive views, lots of wildlife, and a dose of the West in this tour of an area sometimes referred to as “Oregon’s outback.”
If you’re flying in for this trip, consider using the Boise, Idaho, airport. It’s much closer to Baker City, where this itinerary begins and ends, than the Portland airport.
Start your tour of eastern Oregon in Baker City, but don’t linger in town for too long; head west to the near-ghost town of Sumpter (30 miles) and then up a ways into the Elkhorns for more gold-era history and mining ghost towns.
North of Sumpter, follow the Elkhorn Drive National Scenic Byway to the near-ghost town of Granite. If you’re enjoying the drive, continue north and east to Anthony Lakes; from there, continue east back to I-84 and Baker City.
Visit the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, then head about 70 miles east on Route 86 to Hells Canyon at Oxbow, where you can take a look at the Snake River’s gorge by car, jet boat, or on foot. Backtrack and stay the night in Halfway, just beneath the southern edge of the Wallowa Mountains.
From Halfway, head about 15 miles east on Route 86, then turn north on Forest Road 39. This 54-mile summer-only road will take you up the eastern edge of the Wallowas past the area’s most accessible viewpoint onto Hells Canyon, to lodgings in the artsy town of Joseph or at nearby Wallowa Lake.
Take the Wallowa Lake Tramway from Wallowa Lake. The tram lets you off at the top of Mount Howard, where there is a network of hiking trails. Then head west to I-84 at La Grande and follow the interstate to Pendleton. Tour the Pendleton Underground and spend the night in town.
Hop back on I-84 and take it west to Arlington. From Arlington, drive south on Route 19 to the John Day Fossil Beds. Just south of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, turn west onto U.S. 26 and take it to your night’s lodging in John Day.
It’s a pretty drive south from John Day on U.S. 395 through Burns to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Visit the refuge headquarters a few miles east of Route 205, then continue south on Route 205 to lodgings in Frenchglen.
If the snows have melted, drive the Steens Mountain Byway. Spend another night in Frenchglen, or head north to Burns.
Drive back to Boise to fly home.