Travel east from The Dalles, Bend, or any of the foothill communities blossoming in the shade of the Cascades, and you'll find a very different side of Oregon. The air is drier, clearer, and often pungent with the smell of juniper. The vast landscape of sharply folded hills, wheat fields, and mountains shimmering in the distance evokes the mythic Old West. There is a lonely grandeur in eastern Oregon, a plainspoken, independent spirit that can startle, surprise, and enthrall.
Much of eastern Oregon consists of national forest and wilderness, and the population runs the gamut from spur-janglin' cowboys to conservationists and urban expats. This is a world of ranches and rodeos, pickup trucks and country-western music. For the outdoor-adventure crowd, it's one of the West's last comparatively undiscovered playgrounds.
Some of the most important moments in Oregon's history took place in the towns of northeastern Oregon. The Oregon Trail passed through this corner of the state, winding through the Grande Ronde Valley between the Wallowa and Blue mountain ranges. The discovery of gold in the region in the 1860s sparked a second invasion of settlers, eventually leading to the displacement of the Native American Nez Perce and Paiute tribes. Pendleton, La Grande, and Baker City were all beneficiaries of the gold fever that swept through the area. Yet signs of even earlier times have survived, from the John Day Fossil Beds, with fragments of saber-toothed tigers, giant pigs, and three-toed horses, to Native American writings in the secluded mountains and deserts of vast and enormous Malheur County, which at 9,930 square miles is larger than Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware combined.
Recreation and tourism are gaining a foothold in eastern Oregon today, but the region still sees only a fraction of the visitors that drop in on Mt. Hood or the coast each year. For off-the-beaten-path types, eastern Oregon's mountains and high desert country are as breathtaking as any landscape in the West, and you'd be pretty hard-pressed to get farther from the noise and distractions of city life.