Over the years, I’ve driven the state’s quietest and wildest loops, along which it can be easier to find a cowboy bar than a cell-signal bar. And that’s what I love about these analog adventures — the gigantic skies, rolling sagebrush seas, exposed geology and sleepy towns lull you into an easier rhythm.
Do you crave an off-the-grid road trip? Then point the car toward Eastern, Central and Southern Oregon, where blacktop winds for thousands of miles through thick forests, windswept hills and rippled volcanic landscapes.
Here’s a quick guide to four of my most memorable driving routes for away-from-it-all escapes. These four routes merge a few of Oregon’s many designated Scenic Byways. You’ll find complete turn-by-turn itineraries for all of the state’s scenic drives here.
_ Go for: Volcanic landscapes, towering cliffs and moon-like dry lakes_
The far southeastern corner of Oregon holds three distinct, stunning drives that form a meandering route heading south from the town of Burns. If you have the time, I suggest combining them into one trip as each drive has its own surprises.
I first read of Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert in a 1997 issue of National Geographic. The author said he was drawn to “a void on my road map.” It sounded harsh, desolate and fantastic. The hulking Steens Mountain still looms over the region like a 50-mile-long ship beached on its side, its hull sloping gradually to the west. Its eastern escarpment drops 4,000 feet into the cakey desert.
The High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway darts the quickest path from Burns down the western base of the Steens, passing through the surprisingly lush Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. From here it travels through the pin-dot town of Frenchglen with its historic hote l, then up into the high sagebrush steppe with an option to detour 4,000 feet higher to the Steens Mountain rim, where alpine meadows overlook valleys that glaciers carved out like ice cream scoops.
The geology continues on the Diamond Loop Tour Route. Short trails lead into pockets of swirled rock considered some of the country’s most diverse volcanic features. Take a quick detour off the Steens Loop Tour Route to soak at Alvord Hot Springs, a series of steaming pools where you can also pitch a tent for the night at the on-site campground.
Gateway to the Blues
_ Go for: Alpine lakes, cowboy culture and ghost towns_
Combine two scenic routes into one lollipop course that departs from the Columbia River and climbs over the Blue Mountains into the historic town of Baker City.
Ranching and gold put this section of Northeast Oregon on the map. Beginning at the Columbia River, the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway angles southeast, up rolling grasslands and into jagged, pine-shrouded mountains. From there the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway loops from mountain ridges into Baker City and the Powder River valley, the heart of Oregon’s cowboy country. Ranchers still move their stock from lowlands to mountains for the summer months, with thousands of elk following the same pattern.
At the center of this route, the old mining town of Granite isn’t quite a ghost town, though it’s getting there, with a population down to roughly 30 residents from its heyday of 5,000. Still, the general store remains open most days, offering cold drinks and a step back in time. Nearby, the North Fork John Day River begins its long journey to the Columbia.
The Elkhorn section stays in the high country, passing by the family-owned ski resort Anthony Lakes, which becomes a serene alpine lake in summer — begging a quick, bone-chilling dip. The route ends in Baker City’s historic downtown, where the mining and ranching legacy lives on in restored hotels, shops and restaurants.
_ Go for: Hot springs and a geyser, wide-open skies, and Old West saloons_
Looking at the map, the diagonal line angling southeast from La Pine to the Oregon-California border looks empty, but don’t be fooled — especially if you like audacious geology, human history and wide-open skies.
Along the 171-mile Oregon Outback Scenic Byway, there are petroglyphs, natural hot springs and a geyser. In a cave in the bizarrely isolated red-rock island of Fort Rock, researchers discovered a pair of 9,300-year-old sandals, the oldest known shoes in the world. In the cliffs falling off the Winter Rim, you can spot bighorn sheep or track the slender, orange-and-white pronghorn on Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge’s gentle sage slopes.
As with much of Oregon’s high desert, the Outback region acts as a life-size geologic textbook. If you want to understand faults, drive slowly below the 30-mile-long, 2,500-foot-high Abert Rim, North America’s largest exposed fault scarp. It’s easy to imagine Summer Lake and neighbor Lake Abert, both now dry, having once been connected and filled with Ice Age meltwater.
Having driven and biked through the area a few times, my favorite stops include the short trails at Fort Rock, the petroglyphs at Picture Rock Pass, the hot springs at Summer Lake, a short walk onto the squishy bed of Lake Abert, the Pioneer Saloon in Paisley, fishing the Chewaucan River and marveling at Lakeview’s geyser.
_ Go for: Wild and Scenic rivers, deep gorges and snow-capped mountains_
Bring your hiking shoes, a bathing suit and your curiosity for this route. Packed into Hells Canyon Scenic Byway’s 218-mile semicircle are the continent’s deepest river gorge, a mountain range of 9,000-foot peaks and nine Wild and Scenic Rivers. It’s a place defined by rodeos, outdoor recreation and inspired artistry.
From the university town of La Grande, the route passes through fields of mint, turf and barley, and beside the pristine whitewater of the Grande Ronde and Minam rivers before following the Wallowa River to its source in the deep blue Wallowa Lake. Trails lead through golden grasslands and up valleys of forested, snowcapped peaks. This feels like the Promised Land everyone was seeking on the nearby Oregon Trail, and the town of Joseph has begun to attract creative types to its charmingly rustic setting.
From Joseph, the route passes an overlook peeking 1 mile down into Hells Canyon Gorge. A short detour leads to the dam where I once began a raft trip descending the rowdy waves and quiet bends of the mighty Snake River. Before completing the drive at historic Baker City, stop in the funky little town of Halfway, where residents agreed to change the town’s name to Half.com during the late-1990s tech boom. It didn’t stick, but it tells you a bit about this eccentric place.
_ If You Go: From off-the-grid camping to restored grand hotels, you’ll find a wide range of lodging options along these scenic routes. Once you’ve chosen your route, search here for the perfect places to stay._
Roads in more remote corners of the state often experience seasonal closures, so check your route on TripCheck.combefore heading out. Steens Mountain Loop Road and portions of Elkhorn Drive, Blue Mountain and Hells Canyon close for winter due to snowfall. Whenever you go, don’t only rely on your phone’s GPS; bring a print map for when you venture beyond the reaches of cell towers.
Written by David Hanson for Travel Oregon.
Featured image provided by David Hanson