Post Summary: The Ultimate Oregon Road Trip Itinerary According To A PNW Local
Are you a Pacific Northwest local, looking to get your fix of the desert? While someplace like Sedona hiking trails sounds awesome, you might be looking for something a little closer to home.
Oh have we got the perfect west coast road trip for you!
May we present to you, Eastern Oregon. Eastern Oregon is mostly known for the Alvord Desert, Pendleton, and the Painted Hills. However, there is so much more to explore here! That’s why we’re sharing with you some of our own favorite Eastern Oregon places to visit.
By the end of this post, you’ll be able to connect these epic destinations in one complete road trip route. With our “secret” spots scattered in between, you’ll soon have the ultimate Eastern Oregon road trip itinerary.
Let’s get started!
What Areas Are We Covering On This Eastern Oregon Road Trip?
Eastern Oregon is the largest region in Oregon state, covering pretty much the entire eastern half of all Oregon’s mass.
The lonely, vast desert landscape covers the southeast. The northeast has deep gorges, semi-arid mountain regions, and quirky Western towns. All parts of Eastern Oregon have incredible geological features scattered across the area.
From the barren Alvord Desert, to the colorful rocks of the Painted Hills, there is so much to see! Eastern Oregon will give you a new insight into the diversity of the Pacific Northwest. In this Eastern Oregon road trip itinerary, you will have a newfound appreciation for the desert…a surprising thing to discover in the PNW!
Great! So Where Do I Start My Eastern Oregon Road Trip?
The easiest place to start your Eastern Oregon road trip is in Bend, Oregon. Here, you can grab just about anything you need for your time out in the dry landscape.
Bend, Oregon is an adventure town, known for its rock climbers, ski bums, and breweries. There are also tons of good places to grab food, or stock up on groceries for your road trip around Eastern Oregon.
Here, you can also rent recreational vehicles if you want to drive something a little beefier than a regular sedan. We recommend looking for the perfect one to rent on Outdoorsy – it’s like Airbnb but for RVs. You can choose anything from giant Motorhomes to cute airstreams, and even Westfalias!
Preparing For Your Road Trip Around Eastern Oregon
Before you completely go out of cell service range, it’s important to download a few key navigation apps. Here are some tools we use on every road trip around the Pacific Northwest:
The Dyrt: The Dyrt is the largest campground finding app on the market! You can filter camping spots to find the perfect one that fits all your preferences before you even visit. Pro members get access to offline browsing, trip planners, and our favorite – BLM and national forest boundary maps. Try their pro membership free for 90-days when using our code MANDAGIES90!
Google Offline Maps: For navigation without cell service, it’s important to download maps offline so you can continue to find your way. Find out how to download offline maps and discover more useful road trip planner tools here!
The Perfect Eastern Oregon Road Trip Itinerary To Stoke Your Desert-Loving Spirit
Day 1: Bend, Oregon to Painted Hills
Start off your Eastern Oregon road trip in Bend. This will allow you to get all the road trip essentials you will need for your journey. (Don’t forget to put together your roadside emergency tool kit too!)The city has everything from grocery stores to REI (for any last-minute gear purchases!), and even epic campervan rentals and local hikes!
Spend some time exploring Bend before you head off on your trip. A great side trip to take in Bend would be the trail to Tumalo Falls. This 2.4-mile out and back trail is an easy, low elevation trail to one of Oregon’s best waterfalls. Snap a few pics of this 98-foot beauty to kick off your Eastern Oregon road trip!
Driving north from Bend to the Painted Hills, don’t forget to stop by Smith Rock State Park. This iconic area of Eastern Oregon is one of the most popular places for climbers, hikers, bikers, and dog walkers.
Try climbing to the top of Misery Ridge – a 0.9-mile trail to the top, with a brutal 1,000-foot elevation gain. It’s a tough climb, but absolutely worth it to watch the sunset at the top!
Finish your drive to the Painted Hills and camp in the nearby Ocho, Umatilla, and Malheur National Forests nearby. Get creative and make a camping tour of Oregon’s central wonders. (And don’t forget to use The Dyrt to find dispersed campsites nearby!)
Day 2: Painted Hills to Joseph, Oregon
One of the best times to visit the Painted Hills in Oregon is during sunrise and sunset! There is little shade in the area, so these are the times of day that are the most pleasant for hiking, sightseeing, and photo-taking.
If you are coming in the shoulder season (fall and spring) don’t forget to pack a jacket. Once the sun sets, the Painted Hills can get chilly – bundle up!
There are many photo opportunities to be had in the Painted Hills. One of the most popular attractions is the Painted Cove Trail.
This is the iconic boardwalk with rich red soil, which makes you feel like you are walking on Mars! The Painted Cove Trail is located about a 20-minute drive into the park, with clear signs and a convenient parking lot.
Despite what you may expect, it’s a very short trail, curving in between the red hills just enough for you to pretend you are another planet. That doesn’t take away from its beauty though – the color is as magnificent in real life as they are in pictures!
Spend the rest of the evening driving through this quiet part of Eastern Oregon. On the way to Joseph, you’ll be able to drive part of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. This road is a designated All-American Road located in Northeast Oregon.
For the night, check into the boutique Jennings Hotel, a co-op art project slash hotel fused into a beautiful and unique experience.
The Jennings Hotel is filled with relics from the early exploring days of Oregon State. They are carefully placed in their communal kitchen/gathering area for easy browsing.
You can explore all kinds of interesting books on their library wall! Topics include the area’s history, flora/fauna, hiking trails, and more. You can do this all while choosing from the massive selection of vintage records to play.
Day 3: Joseph, Oregon to Owyhee Canyonlands
On Day 3 of your Eastern Oregon road trip, wake up early to catch a sunrise over Wallowa Lake. After sunrise, come back into town and have breakfast at Old Town Cafe, or grab a coffee to-go at Arrowhead Chocolates next door.
To learn more about the history and geography of the area, drive a new section Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. On the way, you’ll stop by iconic views like Salt Creek Summit and Hells Canyon Overlook. Here, you can see panoramic vistas of the deep canyon below.
Finally, end your night in the Owyhee Canyonlands. Here, there is plenty of free camping, hiking, and river rafting to be had! Some of our favorite spots in this area include Succor Creek State Natural Area, the Jordan Craters, and Leslie Gulch. Many of these remote Eastern Oregon places require high-clearance vehicles, so do your research before venturing out!
We stayed overnight at Leslie Gluch (read our full guide here) at the free Slocum Creek Campsite. The sunrises and sunsets here were beautiful in this remote stop!
Day 4: Owyhee Canyonlands (Leslie Gulch) to Alvord Hot Springs
On your way out of the Owyhee Canyonlands, wake up early to catch a sunrise in the gulch! This is one of the most dreamy times to capture photos. You are most likely to have these spots all to yourself, too.
Continuing on your way southeast, stop by the tiny town of Jordan Valley to fill up with gas and pick up any last-minute items. There is a mini-mart next to the (only) gas station which has some good road trip basics. Right out of town, don’t forget to check out the Pillars of Rome!
At the end of your driving day, you can opt to camp in the nearby Steens Mountains (we find all of our favorite free campsites on an app called The Dyrt!). Alternatively, you can pay to camp at Alvord Hot Springs, a private natural springs near the Alvord Desert.
Overnight guests get unlimited and 24-hour access to the two pools. You can also opt to pay the $8 fee to get day-use access too if you’re not camping.
If you want to visit some more secluded natural hot springs in Oregon, consider taking the long and dusty road to Willow Creek Hot Springs. Located on BLM land, this little desert oasis is in the middle of a camping area.
Berty and I came to Willow Creek specifically for the hot springs, but many other campers were there to go hunting – during certain seasons, antelope are sought after in this area.
Day 5: Alvord Desert to Hart Mountain
Waking up in the desert brings its own special type of peace. This is why we recommend getting up early (even if it’s just for a moment!) to watch the sunrise over the Eastern Oregon horizon.
As you pack up, you have a few options for directions to go on your road trip in Eastern Oregon:
- Drive through the town of Fields, OR (a great all-in-one stop with the best milkshakes!) and take Highway 205 north to Burns. This brings you to Crane Hot Springs.
- Drive south into Nevada and take Highway 140 West back up into Adel, Oregon. This gives you convenient access to Hart Mountain National Elk Refuge.
Note: Google maps will try and take you up north of Fields, OR, and cut across what looks like an accessible road – it’s not! Plan to drive up to Burns and cut back down to Hart Mountain. You can also drive south through Nevada and back up through Adel, OR to access the National Antelope Refuge.
Hart Mountain National Elk Refuge is a quiet part of Eastern Oregon, known for its many high-desert plant and animal species.
Hunting and fishing are the most popular activities, but we also really loved visiting the Hart Mountain Hot Springs. There are two hot spring pools to see in Hart Mountain. One is a structured one with stone walls, and the other is about 100 yards away, completely natural with mountains surrounding the area.
Day 6: Hart Mountain to East Cascade Mountain Attractions
Waking up in Hart Mountain, we suggest taking a dip in Hart Mountain hot springs to start your morning.
As stated above, there are two pools – one structure and the other natural. The natural one provides the most unobstructed view of the sunrise, so we woke up just before it rose over the mountains to start our day!
As you drive towards your next Eastern Oregon destinations, make sure to stop at the base of Hart Mountain. Here, you will find the Warner Wetlands and Hart Lake. Both are part of a 40-mile long chain of lakes separated by bow-shaped dunes. Truly, a unique feature to this part of Eastern Oregon!
This area is popular for birdwatching, hunting, boating and camping. Call ahead to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Office to check on the water levels to see if your favorite water activities are open for recreation. A lot of activities, like the Ten Mile Warner Valley Canoe Trail, depending on proper water levels.
Working your way back to Bend, Oregon, there are still so many potential stops to see on your Eastern Oregon road trip! We’ll list a few below, to help inspire you for this next leg of your trip:
Crack in the Ground: The Crack In The Ground is an ancient volcanic fissure, stretching over 2 miles and in some parts, 70 feet deep! There are primitive campsites nearby, so you can go hiking during the day and sleep nearby.
Lava River Cave: The Lava Cave is yet another cool place in Eastern Oregon that was created by volcanic activity. This 1-mile long lava tube can be explored all the way through. You can expect to find a combination of stairs, boardwalks, and some uneven surfaces. Bring warm clothes (the average cave temperature is 42 degrees!) and bring at least 2 light sources. Make sure to bring the proper Pacific Northwest forest pass for this site. They accept the NW Forest Pass and National Park Pass, among others.
Feeling adventurous? Send it all the way over to Crater Lake National Park! In less than a 4-hour drive from Hart Mountain, you can check off this epic park from your Pacific Northwest bucket list. Take a Wizard Island boat tour, take a car tour of the Rim Drive, and watch the sunset from the Watchman Overlook.
Day 7: East Cascades to Bend, Oregon
On the last day of your Eastern Oregon road trip, it’s time to make your way back to Bend. With plenty of stops along the way, there are so many choices of activities to do from hiking to sightseeing, hot springs to deserts. Here are some suggestions of places to stop on the last day of your road trip around Eastern Oregon:
Toketee Falls and Umpqua Hot Springs
Located 1 hour west on Highway 138, these Umpqua National Forest attractions are absolutely worth the detour! Spend the morning soaking among the dreamy forest scene at Umpqua Hot Springs. Afterward, drive down to the Toketee parking lot and take this quick trail to the overlook. This is the safest way to see the Toketee Falls for yourself! You can easily enjoy both of these attractions in one trip because they are super close to one another.
Salt Creek Falls and Diamond Creek Falls
Salt Creek Falls is the second tallest waterfall in Oregon (the first one being Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon!). It is accessible by an easy hike off Highway 58. If you’ve got a little extra time to spare, take the longer hike to Diamond Creek Falls. This is another spectacular falls accessed by the same parking lot. You won’t regret those views!
Other stops between Crater Lake and Bend, Oregon include:
- Annie Creek Campground
- Paulina Hot Springs / Paulina Lake
- Lava River Cave
- Lava Island Falls
- Oregon Badlands Wilderness
- Spending a weekend decompressing at FivePine Lodge in Sisters, Oregon!
Eastern Oregon Road Trip Itinerary Examples
Are you planning your epic route but don’t exactly have time to spend 7 days in Eastern Oregon? Below, we’re sharing three example itineraries for a modified Eastern Oregon road trip, and how you can reduce or extend your time in the desert.
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One Week Eastern Oregon Road Trip
You can see a lot of Eastern Oregon in one week! This route is the full itinerary, with plenty of great stops along the way.
- Day 1: Bend, Oregon to Painted Hills
- Day 2: Painted Hills to Joseph, Oregon
- Day 3: Joseph, Oregon to Owyhee Canyonlands
- Day 4: Owyhee Canyonlands to Alvord Desert
- Day 5: Alvord Hot Springs Hart Mountain
- Day 6: Hart Mountain to Eastern Cascades
- Day 7: Cascade Mountains back to Bend, Oregon
Eastern Oregon Road Trip in 5 Days
An Eastern Oregon road trip in 5 days will introduce you to Oregon’s vast and diverse landscape! From the Painted Hills to the Wallowas, this route will bring you to some of the best of Oregon photography locations in Eastern Oregon.
- Day 1: Bend, Oregon to Painted Hills
- Day 2: Painted Hills to Joseph, Oregon
- Day 3: Joseph, Oregon to Alvord Hot Springs
- Day 4: Alvord Hot Springs to Bend, Oregon
- Day 5: Exploring Around Bend (Tumalo Falls, Smith Rock State Park)
10 Days In Eastern Oregon Itinerary
Are you looking to spend more time in the Oregon high desert? We’re sharing how you can extend your Eastern Oregon road trip to 10+ days, with more stops and hidden gems along the way!
- Day 1: Bend, Oregon to Smith Rock State Park
- Day 2: Smith Rock State Park to Painted Hills
- Day 3: Painted Hills to Joseph, Oregon
- Day 4: Day in Joseph (Wallowa Mountains)
- Day 5: Joseph to Owyhee Canyonlands (Jump Creek Falls)
- Day 6: Owyhee Canyonlands to Alvord Desert
- Day 7: Alvord Dessert to Burns, OR (Crystal Crane HS, Summer Lakes HS)
- Day 8: Burns to Crack In The Ground, Camping on BLM Land
- Day 9: Drive to Crater Lake National Park (Camping)
- Day 10: Drive back to Bend, Oregon
Eastern Oregon Map
Before you embark on your journey, save this map of Eastern Oregon on your phone!
Frequently Asked Questions About An Eastern Oregon Road Trip Itinerary
Where do I stay on my Eastern Oregon Road Trip?
Plan to go car camping. There are a lot of backcountry camping opportunities here (read our guide to finding the best free camping spots here) and you can really enjoy Eastern Oregon under the stars!
How Do I Get Around On An Eastern Oregon Road Trip?
Depending on the type of road trip you are hoping to experience, there are a few options for modes of transportation to consider. Here are our suggestions for your Oregon road trip:
Rental Cars: Rental cars are a great choice if you want to sleep mainly at resorts, hotels, or Airbnbs. They are small and compact and get great gas mileage to cover long expansive Oregon scenic byways without breaking the bank.
Camper Vans or RVs: Do you picture yourself driving around Oregon in a vintage VW van or fully-converted sprinter van? You CAN get a taste of that lusted-after van life by renting a recreational vehicle through Outdoorsy. Think of it like Airbnb but for cars – you get to borrow someone’s cool rig during your Oregon road trip, fully insured and everything! Browse Oregon RVs and van rentals here!
Looking to go camping during your Oregon Coast road trip? We did too! There are SO many places to go camping for free in Oregon, and we wrote a whole post about finding the best free camping spots here.