Prineville and Crook County

The Crook County Courthouse in downtown Prineville was built in 1909 and still has its original crank system, which is wound once per week.
The Crook County Courthouse in downtown Prineville was built in 1909 and still has its original crank system, which is wound once per week.

Your itinerary for searching for, climbing up and digging into the center of Oregon

written by James Sinks

In the middle of it all, you can get away from it all.

Draw two diagonal lines across a map of Oregon, from corner-to-corner, and the lines will cross on private land near Post, a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet with a general store and not much else, a half-hour’s drive southeast of Prineville.

At first blush, there’s little to see, although the store sells pretty good milkshakes.

Behind a locked gate, a small metal marker designates the state’s geographic center. Yet it’s out of sight, at 3,383 feet of elevation near two-lane State Highway 380, and across a sea of grass. Ironically enough, there’s no post.

And yet, it’s an inspiration.

If you feel stressed or askew, meditation gurus suggest balancing your spiritual equilibrium. Find your center, they say. In Prineville and the heart of Crook County, opportunities abound to do just that.

Explore, climb, float and dig into the center of Oregon. Revel in unbroken vistas. Forage for Oregon’s official state rock. Catch your breath on bikes or in boots, and cast flies into riffles of the wild and scenic Crooked River.

This sagebrush-and-pine country was the childhood home of a central figure in Oregon modern history, larger-than-life Governor Tom McCall, in a basalt-bordered canyon north of Prineville. His love for the landscape—and desire to protect it from becoming California-style suburbia—led him in the 1970s to champion the nation’s first land use planning law and his famous sentiment to “visit, but don’t stay.”

His mother, Dorothy Lawson McCall, the daughter of an East Coast copper magnate, wrote about arriving in Crook County in the 1910s in her book, Ranch Under the Rimrock.

“No skies so blue, no sun so bright,” she wrote. “The eye follows almost limitless alfalfa fields, towering rimrock, and great stretches of sage and juniper to faraway horizons.”

In many places, the view hasn’t changed much since it was the pre-pioneer range of the Piute and Warm Springs tribes. In others, there’s evidence of the region’s evolving economy: Near irrigated fields, server farms have sprung up for Facebook and Apple.

And always in the background, craggy canyons and the Crooked River beckon you to find your center, framed against skies that have never been so blue.

Day 1


In this part of the world, a good set of tires is a prerequisite to adventure.

That could explain how the late tire king Les Schwab became a local folk hero, growing a single tire store in Prineville into a multistate empire—and how he still remains better known than George Crook, the U.S. Army commander from the Civil War and several Indian wars for whom the county was named.

A good way to learn the lay of the land is on two wheels, and Prineville offers abundant options, from a 10-miler in town to the “Lower 66” trail system for the fat tire set. Good Bike Co., a bicycle dealer and repair shop in a former service station, calls this the “best little bike town that no one has ever heard of.”

The oldest incorporated city in Central Oregon, Prineville was founded in 1870 and still loves the old West. Outside the circa-1908 courthouse are statues of a horse being chased by a cowboy, gifts to the city from Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny. Downtown, brick and stone buildings along Main Street still sell leather and western wear, and the biggest annual draw is the summertime Crooked River Roundup rodeo.

Nike royalty Penny and Phil Knight donated sculptures to Prineville.

If your nose is working, it’s easy to locate Wild Ride Tap Room and Brewery—where food trucks flavor the dry Central Oregon air. Inside, sample 3 Sisters American Red Ale and Whoopty Wheat, both gold medal winners at the 2023 North America Beer Awards.

Prineville’s downtown district is more than charming: It’s charm-filled.

On the “charm trail,” buy miniature metal mementoes from different businesses for $1.50, among them a cowboy boot, pistol and martini glasses, and then string them together as a custom charm bracelet.

Down the street, take a free trip down memory lane at the A.R. Bowman Museum, in a former bank at the corner of North Third and Main. It sells the covered wagon charm.

South of town, the wild and scenic Chimney Rock stretch of the Crooked River feels like an Old West painting as the waterway—a world-class fishery in this spot—weaves between basalt cliffs. Cast flies for fish, or head upward to the Chimney Rock outcropping. It’s a 2.7-mile roundtrip trail to the top.

After checking into the western-themed Rustlers Inn, saunter to Club Pioneer, a steak-and-seafood restaurant that opened in 1942 as a rough-around-the-edges saloon. Then, catch a sky-show at Prineville Reservoir State Park, which was designated in 2021 as Oregon’s first International Dark Sky Park. Or, if you’d like some popcorn and a shorter drive, the restored historic Pine Theater shows first-run movies.

Day 2


For millions of years, violent eruptions from the nearby craters made the area a pretty lame place to visit.

Now, however, the volcanic landscapes offers plenty of appeal. With so many places to find agates, petrified wood, jasper and dazzling thunder eggs—with quartz or other glittery rocks hiding inside—Crook County is known as the Rockhounding Capital of Oregon. Grab a local rockhounding map for $5 (it’s $20 if you buy it online) at the chamber of commerce. Then for a rockin’ country breakfast, Blue Fish Fine Foods on North Main has stuffed hash browns and French toast with caramel apples.

Your first geological foray is a quick drive and a 5-mile out-and-back hike to Steins Pillar, a 350-foot-high natural column that’s popular with both photographers and climbers. If you’re lucky enough to have rope, safety gear and muscles, it’s a quieter alternative to sometimes-bustling Smith Rock State Park near Terrebonne.

Steins Pillar outside of Prineville is a magnet for climbers and photographers.
Steins Pillar outside of Prineville is a magnet for climbers and photographers.

Then, head east. Wild horses prowl the Ochoco Mountains, so keep your eyes peeled. More likely, you’ll spot some of the hundreds of old mines—most dug for gold, mercury and cinnabar—near Walton Lake, many with still-intact abandoned equipment and buildings.

Consult your map to see where to pull out picks and shovels for thunder eggs, declared Oregon’s official state rock in 1965. Because many sites are down gravel and unplowed roads, also check the weather.

Almost an hour from Prineville, the town of Mitchell is a former ranching, gold mining and logging outpost. It’s now home to 130 people, and sometimes a herd of deer. In yesteryear, downtown boasted five saloons and several brothels in the rowdy “Tiger Town” district. Today, not-rowdy Tiger Town Brewing Co. sells wings, sandwiches, steaks and a dozen beers, and has a stage for concerts in warm weather.

Tiger Town Brewing in Mitchell is well worth the drive for amazing beer in this one-horse town.
Tiger Town Brewing in Mitchell is well worth the drive for amazing beer in this one-horse town.

Mitchell is also the gateway to one of Oregon’s seven wonders: the Painted Hills. Part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, rumble over the cattle grate into a fairyland valley, where an assortment of hikes are more amazing among multicolored yellow, red, black and gold strata of rock and minerals.

For photos, find the best light in the afternoon. Also, don’t miss the boardwalk over and between mounds of delicate red rock at the quarter-mile-long Painted Cove Trail, further back in the park. Also, is that a monkey face on a hill?

Don’t stay too long, however. Things don’t stay open particularly late in Prineville. Back in town, grab barbecue at Dillon’s Grill and dessert at Tastee Treet Drive-In, which has been dishing up soft serve under a neon sign since 1957.

Tastee Treet is an Americana classic with burgers and ice cream.
Tastee Treet is an Americana classic with burgers and ice cream.

If you’re hankering for drinks on the rocks after a day in the rocks, find character and characters at the Horseshoe Tavern, one of the city’s few late-ish night spots. It’s open until 11.

Day 3


Bird or birdie seeking, or both? On the northwest edge of town, Crooked River Wetlands Complex touts all-season birdwatching and 5.4 miles of hiking and running trails. Nearby, the municipal Meadow Lakes Golf Course is an eighteen-hole championship-length links with plenty of options to lose balls and your patience, with nine ponds and sixty-two sand bunkers.

A common tie? The wetlands and golf course are part of the city’s wastewater system. The filtering wetlands, fed largely from the water-cooled computer data centers, negated the need for an expensive new treatment plant. Then the city irrigates the golf grass with treated water instead of discharging into the Crooked River, which makes regulators happy.

The Crooked River wetlands complex brings together high tech, golf irrigation and wastewater.
The Crooked River wetlands complex brings together high tech, golf irrigation and wastewater.

Ask folks in Prineville what their city is, and you’re just as likely to also hear what it’s not: Bend.

Nearby Bend may be bigger, newer, better known and hipper, but Prineville is cheaper, just as pretty, and there’s zero pretense, said Rick Steber, a grizzled author, irreverent newspaper columnist, poet and the proprietor of an artisan shop downtown. He writes a book a year at his cabin in the Ochocos, the latest a biography of county namesake George Crook, called Out Killing Indians.

“In Prineville, you’re just as likely to see a tractor driving down Main Street as a Mercedes,” he said at his Makers and Giant Toilet Paper Emporium, which he renamed during the pandemic.

Another thing Prineville has that Bend doesn’t? Kangaroos.

First feed yourself brunch at Dad’s Cafe, where there’s breakfast all day, and then hop to Gramma Rose’s Petting Zoo to feed a menagerie of exotic friends including kangaroos, wallabies and a porcupine. Make reservations in advance.

After a weekend on the go—and before it’s time to go home—take the chance to slow down, breathe and get centered. With Prineville-based Bhakti Earth Yoga, you can even do mountain poses outside on a mountain, weather permitting.

Complete your centering journey in nearby Powell Butte at Brasada Ranch, consistently ranked among the top resorts in the Pacific Northwest by Condé Nast. At Range Restaurant & Bar, savor territorial views and seasonal farm-to-table fare like Columbia River steelhead and braised short ribs. Absolutely, positively leave room for s’mores.

From a window seat or outside at the massive fire pit, watch the sun gently settle toward the Three Sisters. It’s a panorama not unlike what awestruck Dorothy McCall a century ago, over almost limitless alfalfa fields, towering rimrock and great stretches of sage and juniper to faraway horizons.



Blue Fish Fine Foods

Club Pioneer

Dad’s Place

Dillion’s Cafe

Post General Store

Range Restaurant and Bar

Tastee Treet

Tiger Town Brewing Co.

Wild Ride Brewery


Best Western

Brasada Ranch

Country Inn and Suites

Rustlers Inn

Wine Down Ranch


A.R. Bowman Museum

Crooked River Wetlands Complex

Crooked Wild and Scenic River

Good Bike Co.

Gramma Rose’s Petting Zoo

Lower 66 Trails

Meadow Lakes Golf Course

Painted Hills

Pine Theater

Prineville charm trail

Prineville Reservoir

Steins Pillar

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.