Fall Fun in La Grande, Oregon

Lori Rackl

by Lori Rackl

The petite city of La Grande sits on the edge of the Grande Ronde Valley, where weary pioneers on the Oregon Trail took a quick rest before tackling the Blue Mountains.

La Grande still has some of that get-your-gas-and-get-back-on-the-road reputation. But this evolving hub of Northeast Oregon merits more than a pit stop on I-84, especially in autumn. That’s when Eastern Oregon University students head back to school, adding energy to the historic downtown. It’s when the annual Eastern Oregon Film Festival gets rolling (Oct. 19-21) and fall colors put on their own show.

Follow the locals to admire Mother Nature’s handiwork at the nearby Mount Emily Recreation Area. With almost 100 miles of trails, hiking and mountain biking options abound in this Union County-run playground. If you don’t have your own two wheels in tow, The Mountain Works can hook you up with a rental. Drop into the downtown storefront and ask the staff for their top trail picks while you savor a local beer from one of the bike shop’s rotating taps.

For a softer adventure, grab your binoculars and head a few miles south of La Grande to Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area. The marsh’s muddy terrain caused plenty of headaches for Oregon Trail travelers driving their wagons toward the Willamette Valley. Today’s visitors can enjoy a much less stressful nature walk and birdwatching.

La Grande’s proximity to mountains makes it an ideal base for outdoor enthusiasts. But al fresco recreation isn’t the only draw in this town of roughly 13,000 people — a town where an artsy, creative vibe keeps things fresh.

Three years ago, Eastern Oregon University grad Kevin Boylan opened Birddog Glass, a glass blowing studio and gallery in a renovated 1920s service station. His popular workshops help people create their own self-made souvenirs.

Boylan recently finished making some of the light fixtures destined for the city’s long-shuttered Liberty Theatre, an art deco gem whose extensive renovation work is nearing the finish line. The Liberty Theatre Café plans to expand from breakfast and lunch to dinner service once the entertainment venue raises the curtain on its next act.

Reinvention is a common theme in La Grande. Old buildings are being repurposed for a modern clientele—without sacrificing the charm of the past. A vintage Texaco station has found new life as The Local, a spacious hangout serving specialty coffee, ice cream flights and daily brunch. The hottest spot in town, Side A Brewing, has made its home in a former firehouse. Pop in for an IPA and a juicy burger featuring beef sourced from nearby 6 Ranch.

You’ll find one of the most ambitious rehab projects about a 15-minute drive from downtown La Grande. The Lodge at Hot Lake Springs was once known as “The Arkansas of the West.” Visitors from near and far flocked to the mineral-rich waters of what was then Hot Lake Sanatorium in hopes of healing all kinds of ailments.

These days, hotel guests and people with day passes steep themselves in the newly renovated outdoor soaking area, where five communal tubs are filled with thermal water from the adjacent lake.

The stewards of the property are hot springs enthusiasts Mike and Tamarah Rysavy, a husband-and-wife team who got the keys to the lodge around the start of the COVID pandemic. The Rysavys used that downtime to make a host of improvements—an ongoing labor of love. So far, they’ve renovated 15 guest rooms in the stately brick hotel and hope to double that number in the future.

For more information about La Grande, go to visitunioncounty.org.

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