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Painted Hills

Road Trip Through Ranching Communities on the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway

Desolation Creek Umatilla National Forest
Written by Oregon Media

Road Trip Through Ranching Communities on the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway

The rolling plains of southern Rugged Country deliver fascinating history, a sparkling reservoir, cycling, camping and a wee touch of Irish culture to boot.

Heppner sits 50 miles south of the Columbia River in the rolling hills of Rugged Country. Nearly destroyed by a flood in 1903, the town prides itself on historic buildings like the county courthouse, which survived the flood, as well as a very charming downtown and equally friendly people.

Ooos and Ahhs

Threading from the Columbia south through Heppner and Ukiah and extending to the John Day Wilderness, the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway is a road trip extraordinaire. Leading through ranching communities up into the forests and wilderness areas of the Blue Mountains, this designated scenic byway defines this Rugged Country region.

Morrow County Courthouse History on Display

Start your Heppner tour at the Morrow County Museum. Displaying photographs and artifacts dating back to the 19th century, exhibits range from those depicting agricultural history to a close look at the Native American presence in the county and from the history of rural medical care to the story of the devastating Heppner Flood.

Nearby is the Agricultural Equipment Museum, where visitors gain insight into the evolution of farm machinery. Check out a snapshot of the town’s heritage at the mural on Riverside Street, depicting local life from days gone by. Follow Heppner’s “Talking Rocks”—bronze interpretive signs installed on basalt platforms—to learn more about this wonderful town and its rich history.

A Famous Flood Survivor

The Morrow County Courthouse is one of the oldest courthouses in Oregon that is still in use today. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its architecture, design and craftsmanship, its features include a hip roof, a central entrance pavilion and a domed cupola with clock faces on three sides. The courthouse site is elevated above much of the rest of Heppner, which saved it from the great flood of 1903, just three months after the courthouse was completed.

Northwestern Motel and RV Park a room for the night or an rv site

Stroll by the Gilliam and Bisbee Building in Heppner, originally built to serve as the town’s hardware store in 1919. Restored in 2020, this lovely and historic structure can be rented out for overnight stays and events of all kinds. More lodging options in Heppner can be found at the charming Northwestern Motel and RV Park, offering both travel trailer sites and rooms. Don’t be surprised if you find the longtime owner Alvin Liu behind the counter himself when you visit for an overnight stay.

Swim, Fish, Boat

Willow Creek flows from the lofty peaks of the nearby Blue Mountains and eventually into the Columbia River. Near Heppner, the creek fills the Willow Creek Reservoir and Water Park, a 125-acre lake that is home to trout, bass and catfish. This is a popular spot for anglers and others who wish to cool off on a hot summer’s day with a leisurely afternoon by the water. Alternatively, dip in the swimming pools at Willow Creek Water Park in Heppner. There’s nothing better on a hot, dry Eastern Oregon summer day than a refreshing respite by a lake, pool or river.

Willow Creek Reservoir Top of the Morning to Ye

Visitors are often surprised to happen along Heppner during the Wee Bit O’Ireland Celebration, always held the weekend closest to St. Patrick’s Day. Celebrating the Irish community that is integral to some of Heppner’s earliest settlers, the event boasts events such as the Sheep Dog Trials, Irish Coffee Hour, Great Green Parade, the welly toss and Cruz-In. As they say in Heppner, you may not be Irish when you come, but you’ll be Irish when you leave!

In the Saddle

As you pass through the large sections of wilderness between the towns of Heppner and Ukiah, you are surrounded by bountiful opportunity for outdoor recreation. Horseback riders can traverse through hundreds of miles of trails in the Umatilla National Forest during warmer months. Mount your trusty steed and head out on the Alder Creek Trail, the Willow Creek Trail or the Blue Mountain Trail for back-country horseback riding fun and adventure.

Umatilla National Forest The Hills are Alive with bikes

See the rolling hills of the Umatilla National Forest to the wide fields of wheat below all by bike on the annual summertime group ride the Blue Mountain Century Scenic Bikeway. Sponsored by the Heppner Chamber, the scenic loop of approximately 108 miles follows a section of the Oregon Trail, beginning and ending in Heppner with the half-way point at Ukiah. The route initially follows the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway east through the Blue Mountains to Highway 395. It then travels north from forest to rangelands to Nye Junction, and west to Heppner. Stunning views and tough climbs define this iconic event.

Morrow Grant Counties OHV Park On the Road to Off-Road

South of Heppner find more than 9,000 acres to explore via all-terrain vehicle at the Morrow-Grant Counties OHV Park. During spring and summer, there are a variety of campgrounds to choose from; stop for a meal at the Landing Lodge inside the park, an American-style restaurant. Nearby, camping and hunting enthusiasts will also enjoy Anson Wright Park.

Summer Camp

Find camping north of Ukiah at Cutsforth Park, a popular stop along the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway, with trails to explore for hikers and horseback riders. Fall asleep to the sound of crickets and frogs chirping and croaking at Penland Lake Campground, where fishing, boating and picnicking are popular.

Tacos, Ribs, Ice Cream and a hike

You’re rolling into Ukiah, an agricultural hamlet with pleasant surprises. At the Ukiah Thicket Cafe & Bar, taco Tuesday and prime rib Saturday are serious business. Rhodes Supply is a general store with everything from groceries and cold drinks to ice cream. The Dale Store south of town is a fun little grocery and fuel stop, with ice cream too. After your scoop, head south to Desolation Creek for a wilderness hike and more sightseeing through Oregon’s Rugged Country.