Lonesome Travel: Oregon US 395

Photo by Adam Sawyer

A GPS tracking company recently culled together its data and named the least-traveled routes in each state. In Oregon, it’s Highway 395. One might assume that the lack of popularity is based on a vacuum of picturesque or cultural points of interest. That assumption would be dead wrong.

The Oregon portion of the highway stretches out nearly 400 miles from the border with California north to the Columbia River, on the east side of the Cascade Range. It’s an area that happens to be one of the most sparsely populated in the country, and it’s for that reason alone that the byway is not heavily trafficked. It carves through two designated scenic corridors, a handful of mountain passes and just as many National Forests. A number of small towns also dot the route, along with activities, lodging and dining options that might surprise you. There are plenty of reasons to explore it, just don’t expect to encounter very many tail lights or receive consistent cell service. It is quietly one of the best scenic road trips you can take in the Northwest, particularly if you’re looking for just that—quiet and scenery.

If you want to up the isolation ante, consider driving it in winter. You’ll want to take the proper precautions; look at road conditions on ODOT, travel in an AWD vehicle and bring tire chains just in case. But the highway is well-maintained and plowed almost immediately as, despite the isolation, it is the main artery for a number of rural communities. From south to north, here are some highlights.

Residing within the confines of the geologically diverse Goose Lake Valley, the town of Lakeview might be the first surprise of the trip. Barely 15 miles north of the California border, it is flanked by lakes, marshes, grasslands, and sage steppes that serve as permanent and transient homes to throngs of wildlife as well as inspiring high-desert scenery. The downtown boasts the historic architecture that seems to come standard with eastern Oregon towns. If you’re starting the trip here, consider overnighting at Hunter’s Hot Springs Lodge where you can take a soak and also take in the only geyser in the Pacific Northwest, Old Perpetual.Heading out of the valley, the landscape shifts into an open and desolate expanse. Settle in and enjoy the solitude for the next 140 miles until you reach Burns, passing through the town of Wagontire, population 3 (at present), along the way. Something to keep in mind as you drive anywhere in the eastern part of the state is that you will occasionally see “Open Range” traffic signs. Along with jackrabbits, mule deer and coyote, cows cross the highways with much more regularity and recklessness than you might assume. In addition to car damage, you’ll also potentially incur a hefty tab if you hit a cow due to the “if you break it you buy it” bovine clause that is heralded by the Open Range signs. So look alive and keep your head on a swivel.

Burns might not look very big, but it’s a metropolis compared to where you came from and where you’re headed, so if you want to stock up on provisions, this is a good place to do it. The Safeway might have more to choose from, but Reid’s Country Store is a local treasure and as an added bonus, they fill beer growlers.

After Burns, you’ll soon enter Malheur National Forest territory and the Silvies Valley. The scenery morphs dramatically from prairie to pine forest to tree-studded valley before reaching perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip—the Retreat, Links & Spa at Silvies Valley Ranch. The eco-retreat is already acclaimed for their golf courses with goat caddies, but that’s another season. The working ranch offers luxury accommodations, a full-service spa, and an outstanding food and beverage program year-round. If you don’t stay there, at least plan for a meal. Their umbrella concept of “Ranch-to-table Blue Mountain Gourmet Cuisine” centers around grass-finished beef, garden sourced vegetables, house-made charcuterie, fresh-baked bread and pastries, and remarkable cocktails. But perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the culinary program is what Chef Damon Jones does with the ranch-raised chevon (goat). I guess these critters didn’t pass the caddie course.

If and when you bring yourself to leave Silvies, the next 30 miles winds up and over a mesmerizingly beautiful mountain pass and into the town of John Day. If you’re looking for a bite, stop in at the Squeeze-in Restaurant & Deck, or if you’re passing through later in the day, try the Snaffle Bit Dinner House for a proper steak. Either way, make sure you eat and gas up because it’s 125 miles to Pendleton. But what a stretch of highway it is.

What happens next is a highlight of the trip—breathtaking mountain passes, a serpentine tracing of the North Fork of the John Day River through back-to-back State Scenic Corridors, and a release out onto expansive, rolling countryside. It’s a dream-come-true rollercoaster ride for lovers of the road and you’ll be tempted to turn around and drive it again.

Upon arriving in Pendleton, it’s safe to say that you’ve made it back to civilization. As wonderful as the town is if you’re not quite ready to give up on the “Peaceful Byway” theme just yet, keep going west and check out the town of Echo where a pair of exceptional wine tasting rooms are hiding in plain sight just south of Highway 395. Echo Ridge Cellars is located in the reimagined historic Fort Henrietta Flour Mill, and Sno Road winery and tasting room are housed in a beautifully renovated historic building in the heart of downtown Echo.

The final 15 miles of the Oregon section of the 395 passes through the equally small but welcoming towns of Hermiston and finally, Umatilla on the Columbia River. The trip might be over, but you can go ahead and post those photos on social media now, you’ve probably got cell service again.

Check out the US 395 route through Eastern Oregon at traveloregon.com/places-to-go/regions/eastern-oregon. Book a mid-drive respite at Silvies Valley Ranch at silvies.us. For information about Pendleton, visit travelpendleton.com.