written by Lee Lewis Husk | photos by Rachael Owen
Early emigrants scurrying toward the Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail barely gave the Grande Ronde Valley a nod. By the 1860s, the enchanted valley—ringed by the Wallowa and Blue mountains and rivers running through it—called out to settlers. There was gold in the hills, decent soil and water for farming. Settling here meant no more arduous mountain crossings or rafting down treacherous rivers. Some stayed to build a thriving hub between Portland and Boise, initially dubbed Brownsville but incorporated as La Grande in 1865 after city leaders learned another town had already claimed the name.
The Oregon Railway & Navigation Co. completed its main line through La Grande in 1884, creating an important link between Portland and the eastern United States, and giving the city additional heft along a route of commerce. The La Grande Brickyard produced bricks for the many two-story Italianate structures throughout Union County.
People bypass La Grande now, on a freeway. Those who stop over for a few days will discover a sweet spot with a four-year, liberal arts university and an annual film festival. Locals line up for opening night movies at the Granada, Union Pacific trains rumble through town several times a day, wheat farms checkerboard the outskirts and cowboys call their wives “mama.” About the only thing missing is a brewery—making it perhaps the last town in Oregon without one.
History buffs will love Union County, but so too will anyone with a bike, canoe, off-road vehicle, fishing pole, horse, skis or hiking boots. Rivers, lakes, trails and mountains are abundant and close.
Chances are good you’ll arrive in La Grande after a long drive, famished from the lack of edible fare along Interstate 84. Head straight to Mamacita’s International Grill on Fourth Street. Sate your appetite with the taco salad or the Wagyu burger with melted bleu cheese and sautéed onions. The rich, tender Wagyu comes from the Sutton Creek Cattle Co. in Baker City. The Mexican cuisine comingles with Thai, Italian and American favorites.
Next stop, Best Western Rama Inn to drop bags and freshen up. Rooms are spacious with crisp linens. There’s an indoor swimming pool for the kids and a no-frills continental breakfast. For homier quarters at about the same price, try the Washington House, offered on VRBO, or Hot Lake Springs Bed & Breakfast just outside the city.
With good timing and advance planning, you can hop aboard the Eagle Cap Excursion Train for a scenic trip along the steep canyons of the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers. An enterprising group in Union and Wallowa counties rescued the Joseph Branch line between Elgin and Joseph from extinction by securing economic development funds in the early 2000s and charging Union Pacific a small fee to store 1,900 lumber cars during the recent recession. The result is a nonprofit organization run by volunteers passionate about preserving their rail heritage.
A little more than a dozen trips on Saturdays between May and October offer an authentic experience with retired Union Pacific engineers and conductors who wander through the passenger cars, telling stories and pointing out bald eagles, blue heron, deer, the confluence of the two rivers and a giant red rock that rolled off a mountain in 1912, landing in the middle of the Wallowa River. If you venture out to Elgin, allow extra time to see the Elgin Opera House, which produces several plays each year, and the Train Depot completed in 2012 in the style of the original depot.
End the day with a nightcap at either the Longbranch Bar & Eats, known for its generous pours and reasonable prices (a bottle of Terminal Gravity ESG and glass of pinot gris will set you back $7) or the adjacent Benchwarmer’s Pub & Grill, which claims to be the oldest continuously running bar in Oregon. With twenty beers on tap, a growler fill station and a beautifully carved wooden bar, who cares?
If you enjoy an early morning run or bike ride, Mount Emily Recreation Area (MERA) is five minutes from town. Stop at the visitor center or The Mountain Works Bicycle Shop for a map. Fox Hill Road to MERA might be called a stairway to heaven—a steep vertical road leading to panoramic views from high above the valley. If you end up there, park the car, leave the mountain bike on the rack and go exploring on foot.
For a light breakfast and coffee, stop in at Joe Beans Deli and Sandwich Shop on Adams Avenue, where the vibe is friendly and slightly bookish. Proprietor and former county commissioner Colleen MacLeod multitasks at the counter, taking one patron’s order as she automatically reaches for a cup and pastry for another customer just entering the café. Her husband, Al, roasts the deli’s own coffee beans. Soup, sandwiches and pastries are homemade. Music is a side dish at Joe Beans—both of the MacLeods are musicians who sponsor live music at the venue.
If omelets, burritos and oatmeal are more to your liking, try Joe & Sugars Café, located just a block from Joe Beans. The food is homemade and fresh, and a large selection of Italian sodas are offered.
The rest of the day is a smorgasbord of choices. If history beckons, then Hot Lake Springs on Highway 203 is a must. American Indians considered the hot springs sacred; fur traders and then Oregon Trail pioneers stopped to rest and bathe in the warm waters. In 1908, a behemoth brick structure with 105 rooms was completed and used as both a hospital and hotel. Between 1924 and 1932, people with arthritis, tuberculosis, alcoholism and polio flocked to the sanatorium, known then as the “Mayo Clinic of the West.”
In 1934, fire destroyed a big chunk of the building and the number of visitors dwindled as the entire complex withered. In 2003, bronze sculptor David Manuel and his wife, Lee, bought Hot Lake, moving his bronze casting and gallery there from Joseph. After years of expensive restorations, Hot Lake Springs opened in 2010, and today’s visitors are greeted by enthusiastic Manuel family members who can arrange a tour of the bronze foundry and sculpture garden. Sleep at the B & B or take a spa treatment. The history center on the premises houses an extensive collection of American Indian artifacts along with impressive military exhibits from the Civil War through the Korean War.
Down the road a bit is Union, a quaint berg with many fascinations—mostly found on Main Street. The Union County Museum is full of items, large and small, and runs on donations and the sweat of “a caring grassroots of volunteers preserving where and what we come from,” said Eileen (Edvalson) Bowles, a third-generation Unionite. See if you can find Zach the talking cowboy in the permanent Cowboys Then & Now Collection.
Another Main Street landmark is the Union Hotel, established in 1921, and which billed itself as one of the finest hotels between Portland and Salt Lake City. Dine at the hotel’s restaurant with traditional American cuisine or walk across the street to the Union Drug Co.’s Soda Fountain and Espresso, designed like an old-time fountain but built just a year ago. Order a fresh fruit smoothie or a sandwich on homemade bread.
The Union Carnegie Public Library was built in 1912 with funds from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and remains the only Carnegie library in Oregon unaltered from its original state. Step inside and revel in architectural details of a bygone era.
Back in La Grande, round up the day’s remains at Ten Depot. Originally the Oregon Hotel in 1908, the bustling eatery on Depot Street is a throwback to high ceilings, big-patterned carpets and stained glass windows. The prime rib is tender and enough to share, the salad dressings and fettuccini are housemade, and the black cherry cobbler, served with Häagen Dazs ice cream, is made with cherries picked from the owner’s tree.
If you missed your opportunity for a bike ride on day two, follow Owsley Canyon Road to MERA. Here you’ll find several miles of singletrack trails. You’ll probably have the place to yourself unless you count black Angus as company. If you lose your way, you might be lucky enough to encounter Lou, a cowboy riding a mule, who will cheerfully point the way to your car.
For birdwatchers, forego the morning exercise for a quieter excursion to Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area or Bird Track Springs, both just outside the city. More than 260 species of birds, including fifteen found nowhere else in Oregon, migrate on the flyway or nest in the floodplain and underbrush here. Best to check at the Visitor Center for public access regulations as some wildlife areas allow hunting.
For a different plate of breakfast, eat at JaxDog Café, located near the back of Looking Glass Books on the second floor. Dishwasher, owner, and chef, Jon Hancock, serves breakfast and lunch with an eye on fresh, locally sourced ingredients and proudly states that he offers no soda. Enjoy the daily quiche and a mug of borscht (chilled beet soup that one customer described as “drinking velvet”).
Farm-to-fork is an old idea in rural Oregon, where dinner lived or grew just outside the door. Folks here are proud of their locally grown foods. Stop in at Kauffman’s Market in Island City for regionally grown produce and meat, and home-baked pastries. Or visit La Grande’s Saturday market, May through October. The block-long market features farm produce, baked goods, salad dressings and handmade gifts. Buy heirloom tomatoes for fifty cents apiece.
While you’re downtown, take a walkabout. The Chamber of Commerce has a two-mile urban walking tour of La Grande’s historic homes. A stroll through the Eastern Oregon University campus is another option. Before getting back in the fast lane, grab food to go at Golden Crown on Adams. The Thai salad rolls and pot stickers are excellent, but you can also order Chinese and Japanese. You’ll need sustenance for the long drive home.