Eastern Oregon's Scenic Byways - Following The Dotted Green Line

Exploring Eastern Oregon's Scenic Byways

It was March. Still cold. Still raining in the northwest. Four of us met to plan out an upcoming ride. We didn't need to do this, but swapping ideas of where to go let us experience our upcoming ride vicariously as the rain came down outside. A Goldwing, two Valkyrie Interstates, and a Harley-Davidson Street Glide where sitting ready in their garages. Where to go? We weren't interested in just running up high miles. We'd done many long distance runs before and we've been around the Pacific Northwest many times. When all other planning fails, just follow the dotted green lines. So we mapped out a route that wound around the region following the dotted green lines; the scenic routes as marked on our trusty auto club regional maps.

What we did was piece together a route that linked three Scenic By-Ways: the Journey Through Time, Elkhorn, and Blue Mountain Scenic Byways. This route had us meandering around the northern part of Oregon. Total mileage for these three Byways would only be about 522 miles; although we expected spontaneous side excursions to probably double that mileage. Not many miles for 5 days, but when you see these roads, the countless vistas and the many small towns that command you to stop; planning to average 150-200 miles per day works well. At least it works for us.

The fact is we stop a lot. We admit it. Hardly 30 minutes goes by before someone wants to pull over to take a picture, adjust their load, check a map, take in a view, or stretch their legs. We don't care anymore. We're not out to impress anyone but ourselves. Our goal: enjoy the ride and the trip. Make it an experience you don't measure with an odometer but with a memory.

On departure day, we got out of town early to avoid traffic and made a first stop up on Mount Hood for breakfast. Mount Hood is the symbolic and geological demarcation between the populous west side of the State and the rural ranch land of Eastern Oregon. Far from the hustle and bustle of the damp population centers of Western Oregon, the east side of the state is high desert; dry and sunny most of the year, and sparsely populated. It can get really cold in the winter but this was late June and the weather was perfect: 75 degrees and sunny. Crossing the Cascade Mountains does more than change the climate; it drops you into another world. Small towns, agriculture and a ranching way of life. We love this part of the country. Our favorite place to ride, we find ourselves coming back to this neck of the woods again and again

Continuing east, we veered off Highway 26 that crosses Mount Hood and hopped on Highway 216 that dropped us into the town of Maupin. From there we jumped onto the even smaller and less traveled Bakeoven Road and its twisty climb out of the Deschutes river valley and connection to our first leg of green dots: the Journey Through Time Byway. Don't know if it was the time of year, the backcountry twisty roads, or just high gas prices but we had almost exclusive use of the roads. No RVs, few cars, only an occasional forest service pickup or fellow motorcycle tourer.

We rolled into the town of Antelope by mid-afternoon. The area around here is prime habitat for this town's prong-horned namesake. We often see Antelope off in the distance but never worry about them on the road; they are too smart and savvy for that. Wished we could say the same for the local deer. The town of Antelope, population 37, reflects the kind of towns we ride through. Each town may have only one or two services offered and through the years we have come to learn what's available, what's good and what to avoid. Here there are no services other than food (and only on certain days) at the combo caf and store. But we know what to order. Cobbler is the specialty so we indulged in their trademark Marrionberry Cobbler la mode while we trade stories with a couple of retired motorcycle cops traveling on matching 105th Anniversary Edition copper-colored Harley Electra Glide Classics.

By late afternoon we pull into Dayville for our first night. Originally a stage stop due to its location at the junction of two rivers, Dayville is not much larger now than it was then. You can even still see the landmark 1883 red barn as you leave town heading east. We secure a couple of rooms at the Fish House Inn. Again, this town is small. One caf and a place to stay. The Fish House Inn is really just a couple old houses turned into rooms for rent...but the owners take pride in keeping up the place with bright green grass and an oasis-like feel in the middle of this desert.

We continue east and on the second day end up in Sumpter. Gold found in this area in the 1860's formed it into a boom town. Once boasting a population of thousands, Sumpter is now home to a modest 190. After securing some rooms in the local motel we grabbed some buffalo burgers at the only open caf and planned our next leg. After settling up the tab of $71 for four burgers and drinks, we made a mental note to put the motel on our return list but think twice about the caf. When you spend more on burgers than motels it just doesn't seem right.

The next morning we picked up the second leg of our 'following the dotted green line' adventure. Just out of Sumpter we picked up two Scenic Byways (the Elkhorn and Blue Mountain) that connect to form a 236 mile trek that cuts a diagonal across the northeast corner of Oregon. We head up over the Elkhorn and Blue Mountains that reach 9,000 feet and find the road well maintained, but a narrow two lanes. Again, almost no traffic, often going a whole day only passing 1-2 vehicles. Not far out of Sumpter I tried to convince the guys to head up a dirt road to explore the ghost town of Bourne; but they opted out not sharing my willingness to risk my bike! Dual sport riders find this area target rich with dirt and gravel forest service roads unsuited to those of us with 1/2 ton touring bikes.

Just short of the Blue Ridge Summit Pass at 5864 feet, we stopped in the town of Granite (current population 21). With a population of around 5,000 during the gold rush days, it's about as close to a ghost town as you can get today and not cross the line. Just a couple of buildings make up the town. There is a small store serving cold drinks that has a covered and shady porch we exploit to enjoy our drinks out of the heat. The store also has a gas pump and offers the last fuel for almost 60 miles. If you come through here, hunt around under a medium-sized pine tree about half way between the road and the town entrance and you can find a hunk of rock carved like a tombstone that says: "Gold Found Here July 4, 1862."

Our trek crosses the mountains over several more passes of about 6,000 feet and moves between stands of Fir and Pine, and sub alpine meadows in the higher elevations. We had planned to turn off and climb higher into the Elkhorn Mountains and explore several high mountain lakes, but found the roads closed due to snow even in late June. Hello climate change! So we stayed on the roads below snow level and skirted the John Day Wilderness Area home to Rocky Mountain Elk, Mule Deer, Black Bear, Cougar, Bobcat and Wolverines. However other than countless deer, the only other wildlife we came across was a Triumph Tiger.

We crossed the Elkhorn and Blue Mountains and continued to head north into the town of Heppner. This is Highway 53 for those following on a map. Note the fine print that states this road is closed in the winter and be sure to check local conditions before you head out.

Comparatively, Heppner was a large city for us with a population of about 1400. We actually had a choice of several cafes but only one motel. Like most of these small towns we found ourselves drawn into conversations with the locals in a way that you never would in larger cities. We soon were sitting in front of the motel watching the activity on Main Street and chatting with the proprietor. As on several occasions on this trip, the topic turned to the economy and gas prices. These smaller towns have seen a real fall off in the number of people and vehicles passing through; but motorcycles seem to be increasing. The proprietor pumped us for information on how to appeal to folk touring on motorcycles. After a long conversation that discussed the philosophical difference between motorcyclists and bikers, why we like rags set out to wipe down our bikes, how we need coffee in the morning to get going, and other assorted trivia we finally called it a day. We couldn't hold back grins the next morning when we pulled out noticing a new sign on the motel reader board: "Motorcyclists welcome to Heppner".

We just grabbed coffee in Heppner and headed out about 50 miles to another of our favorite towns: Condon. Condon is perennial favorite for us and we've made this a destination or at least a must-pass-through on several occasions. It has a couple of great cafes that serve good breakfasts (chicken fried steak & eggs a specialty!) and a friendly, reasonably priced motel. Fuel and other services are available here too. The town even has a movie theater! Quite a bit for town with a population of only about 800! If you want to deviate from the frugal Condon Motel, you can treat yourself and passenger to a wonderful overnighter by booking a room at the Hotel Condon.

Originally built in 1920, Hotel Condon was recently remodeled in a multi-million dollar make-over into a gorgeous 18-room hotel combining historic charm with modern amenities. Expect to pay about 2-3 times what the local motel charges; but this hotel is first class and a real treat in the middle of nowhere! It also has a world class dining room and dinner menu; but this was closed while we were there as it seems their fancy chief had skedaddled back to the big city. Some might think twice before investing millions in a hotel renovation hundreds of miles off the beaten path; but somebody spent the money so enjoy it while it's here.

We roamed around a bit more in the high desert backcountry and finally pulled back out into civilization to spend our last night in Sisters, Oregon. The town of Sisters sits on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains. Although only 1800 in population, it feels like a well trampled city crawling with tourists as it sits on a major route between the big cities in the west and the Eastern Oregon resorts. However, it provides a nice jumping off point for a 1/2 day final jaunt back into Portland the next morning. When we finally do roll into our homes, we note the final tally is just a hair over 900 miles over five days. Not much on the odometer but a lot in memories.

Mount Hood
The road out of Heppner
The proprietor of the Antelope Cafe with his famous cobbler.
Blue Springs Pass over the Elkhorn Mountains
The town of Granite, population 21
Taking a rest at the foot of the Strawberry Mountains
Catching the glint of the morning sun in the Blue Mountains
Some spectacular geological features in the John Day area of Eastern Orgeon
Enjoying the curves and twisty roads.
Enjoying the ride on some of the mountain roads that we had to ourselves
Some of the great roads outside of Condon, Oregon