The east side of the Pacific Northwest doesn't get much love, probably because it doesn't reflect the wild and wet reputation that seems to stick with the PNW label. But the wide open deserts and the scrubby plateaus of the eastern edge of the PNW are just as much Northwesty as the rest of it. I'd never actually seen any of NE Oregon until this trip (spoiler: it's pretty much like SE Washington), and it was time to finally explore another area of this great country.
We started on a Friday in Spokane, looped down through Oregon, managed to fit in the teeniest slice of Idaho, and arrived back in Spokane in the evening on Sunday. I'm not going to provide detailed driving directions, as I think you'll drive better with your own map, almanac, or some quality time with Google Maps, but here's a link that's pre-loaded.
The Nitty Gritties
Length: 650 miles
Time: 2.5 days
Gas stops: roughly 2, but that depends on your car
Weird things to pack: snacks, supplies for a picnic lunch & dinner, dramamine
People to take: at least one other driver
Our trip commenced at 3pm on a balmy Friday afternoon, as we packed the car and drove off from Spokane, heading down Highway 395 to the Tri Cities. This is an easy, lazy drive that sets the tone for most of the rest of the weekend—farmland, wheat fields, small towns, with scrubby sagebrush in between. A three hour and change drive time got us to Pendleton just in time for dinner, with no need to get lost in the Cities of Tri in between. We checked out The Prodigal Son brewery (delicious!) for some nosh and great beers, and were lucky enough to encounter a country band playing on the front of the Hamley Steakhouse. They provided a fun soundtrack as we explored a bit of downtown Pendleton.
In the morning, we grabbed some coffee from the hotel's breakfast bar and hit the road first thing, 'cause breakfast was our next stop at Joe & Sugar's Cafe in La Grande. Their breakfasts are filling (check out the specials, especially if you like strawberries on your waffles) and I quickly discovered that their dark coffee was more delicious than the "regular." If you're looking for a good read, check out Looking Glass books across the street, and if you're there on a Saturday in season, check out the farmers market. It's small but mighty, full of gorgeous produce, quirky knitted hats, and handmade goat-milk soap. We grabbed some peaches, packed them away, and prayed they wouldn't bruise too badly.
From La Grande, we continued south on OR-84 to Baker City. We had to stop here for a cable that got left behind, but our main goal was the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center perched on a hill just a ways out of town. It costs per head (not per car, sadface) to gain entry, but the center was beautiful. I prefer museums to interpretive centers as a general rule, so I wasn't super enamored, but it would be a great place for families with kids or for people who don't know much about the Oregon Trail. We broke out our picnic lunch on the tables that sat next to a recreation of a wagon camp. Loves me some covered wagons.
Then, on went the hiking boots and down we went to the bottom of the hill to a section of the original Oregon Trail. So many men, women, children, wagons, horses, oxen, dogs, probably not cats, etc etc etc went over the trail that it's still packed down and visible from a distance, and available for a short hike. It's always nice to a) get out of the car and walk a little, and b) intentionally walk in places where history took place. I kept imagining how good you'd have to get at just putting one foot in front of the other, keeping your head down, and refusing to think about the vast desert around you.
After our brief hike, we got back in the car and headed up OR-86 to Halfway in roughly the same length of time as the Eagle's album Desperado. Our goal was to check in to our lodgings (at Pine Valley Lodge, super fun if a little pricey) before heading about 30 minutes out of town to Cornucopia, the ghost of an old gold mining town. I had spent the first leg of time researching this trip looking at ghost towns, and was 100% excited about this.
Well, Cornucopia's a ghost town all right. Ghosted of pretty much everything. I was hoping for a hard-core town, all falling apart, with a saloon and everything. Don't expect that. Cornucopia is more like a dirt road sprinkled with ramshackle buildings, some of which are still being used and some of which are falling down like what you'd think of a ghost town. There's not really much to explore, but it's a pretty area and an engaging drive. Apparently the mine is still viable, and newly bought by someone, so there's a small chance that it'll get mined again if Oregon regulations will allow for more cost-effective extraction techniques. The more you know!
A return to Halfway netted some dinner (pre-packed shredded chicken for sandwiches, with our peaches for dessert) and some games of Dominion in the lodge's common room. Much more satisfying.
This morning, we took advantage of the lodge's breakfast bar, and I ended up talking to the proprietor about lacto-fermented sauerkraut, ghee, and DIY salami. We wanted to hit the road early because this day contained the most driving—about 7 hours of it—and we didn't want to be on the road all day. Just most of it. Our immediate destination was the Hell's Canyon Overlook, but we tried to take a detour into Idaho first (don't do that!). Hell's Canyon houses the Snake River, which unfortunately can't be seen from the overlook, and is actually so inaccessible that most of the canyon can only be seen from the river via boat. [Insert ad for speedboat tours here.] Regardless, the view is beautiful.
Warning: this road is winding, twisty, and may induce carsickness.
Fortunately, the next available town is Joseph, so we stopped to take advantage of its tourist traps and also to grab lunch. The Chief Joseph memorial is a quick drive through town near the edge of Wallowa Lake, and turned out to be an interesting—if somewhat sobering—way to stretch the ol' legs for a bit. On our way back through town, we hit up the Wallowa County Museum ($) which is chockablock full of interesting artifacts from an old teepee to a 1920s permanent curling machine, but unfortunately doesn't allow photography. Joseph is also home to Arrowhead Chocolates, a tiny slice of hipsterdom transplanted into rural Oregon, makers of one of the best chocolate mochas you'll ever put in your face. Or so I've been told.
Protip: Get gas in Joseph, because pickin's are slim for the next couple hours.
From Joseph, we sped via OR-3/WA-129 up, around and down more roller-coaster roads through Lewiston (hello, Idaho!) to Pullman (hello, Mongolian Grill!) and finally back to Spokane. That sentence sums up hours of driving without any of the details that make this road trip stand out in my mind: the rock in the middle of the road that we wanted to adopt, a field packed with sheep all facing the exact same direction and another dotted with black and white goats, a gorgeous streak of hot pink sunset, the scattering of lightning flashes over the Palouse, cannibal bees clustering around the bug splatters on the front grill of the car. Set against a backdrop of desert and pine, this is one road trip that I'd take again.