Union County is a mix of rugged beauty, farmland hospitality and a few surprises
written by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Of Oregon’s thirty-six counties, Union may not be the sexiest—you won’t find any sweeping beaches, hipsters or third-wave coffee, and the only haystacks are made of actual hay. What you will find is a nature lover’s playground spanning a diverse landscape, from high desert shrub steppe to rugged mountains, where three national forests converge over three mountain ranges, lush farmlands sprawl across valley floors and genuine local hospitality echoes the pioneering spirit of the Oregon Trail.
MOUNTAINS • BREWS • BOUTIQUE HOTEL
Oregonians are probably most familiar with I-84 along the Columbia River Gorge, but it’s no less scenic once it parts ways with the river. The stretch crossing into Union County is one of my favorite drives and a perfect example of how incredibly beautiful overlooked Eastern Oregon can be. With no traffic to slow you down, the highway climbs the Blue Mountains around winding curves with sweeping vistas of the valley below, and eventually meets up with the Grande Ronde River before careening into La Grande.
The town of 13,000 is so nicely tucked into the surrounding foothills and mountains, one can’t help but fantasize about what it would be like to wake up to that view every morning, which you’ll be able to do at The Landing Hotel. This five-room boutique hotel, opened in 2017, rescued a 1900-built house from dilapidation, transforming it into a chic inn and restaurant. White-washed shiplap walls and old-fashioned tile floors are restored with comforting updates like luxurious walk-in showers and soaps handcrafted at a local mint farm.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, La Grande’s tree-lined downtown begs a stroll. Give yourself the opportunity to slow to the rhythms of small-town life, popping into its used book stores and thrift shops and sampling the gelato at Community Merchants while browsing crafts and curio. Any gear nerd will recognize Blue Mountain Outfitter as a treasure. It’s also where you’ll purchase a Northwest Forest Pass.
La Grande is the perfect base camp for any outdoor adventure. The go-to place for locals is Mount Emily Recreation Area. A mere ten minutes from town transports you from flower-dappled cow pastures to the intimacy of tree-lined slopes with miles of trails for hiking, biking, skiing, horseback riding and ATVing.
After a day of calorie burning, refuel at Side A Brewing. You’ll not only find beers on point with brewing trends but one of the best meals in town. The locally sourced dressed-up pub fare pays a surprising attention to detail, like the spicy peanut sauce on the peanut-butter bacon burger and the fresh herb and cherry pepper-laced dirty fries. The industrial-style pub is housed, along with the Eastern Oregon Fire Museum, in an old fire station.
Afterward, even if you missed the tenth annual Eastern Oregon Film Festival in October, catch a movie in the old-fashioned Liberty Theatre or at La Grande Drive In, one of only four remaining in Oregon. Or explore the nearby tiny town of Elgin for a show at the historic Elgin Opera House.
BIRDING • HOT SPRINGS • PHOSPHATES
After The Landing’s pesto breakfast panini, you’ll be ready to hit the road. Whether in a car or on two wheels, you’ll notice signs for the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway, a 134-mile popular figure-eight bike loop. The Grand Ronde shows off more than any other valley I’ve driven through, with far-stretching flat roads that disappear into the horizon hugged on either side by snow-capped mountains—the Blues, Wallowas or Elkhorns seemingly within arm’s reach wherever you go.
Before getting too far out of town, make a detour to Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area, another locals’ favorite. Even if you’re like me and don’t consider yourself a birder, you’ll be rewarded with so many sightings you may just become one. Be sure to cut the engine and listen to the symphony of bird calls that make this peaceful 6,000-acre wetland come alive.
Along Route 203, the neon-lit Hot Lake Springs sign looming over an old building seems out of place, but definitely make a pit stop for the self-guided tour. In its early-1900s heyday, the grand hotel saw thousands in its 300 guest rooms and hospital. These days the enormous building is showing its age, but artist David Manuel and his family, who bought the property in 2003, continue restoration. In addition to the grounds, where shrieking peacocks roam among Manuel’s bronze sculptures created in his on-site foundry, you’ll tour the bed-and-breakfast’s museumlike period-furnished guest rooms and Manuel’s extensive collection of Native American and military artifacts. Though the lily-pad-covered hot lake is too hot for bathing, visitors can soak in spa tubs both outdoors and in the original bath house.
Continuing on Route 203 will soon bring you into Union. You know you’re in rural Oregon when the Main Street hardware store also sells liquor and espresso. History buffs will enjoy an afternoon at the Union County History Museum, housed in four downtown buildings including the former roller rink. Then lunch at Union Drug Co. and Soda Fountain, where you can grab a sandwich paired with a malt or phosphate. Others will prefer a scenic drive out of town through the sage brush for a creekside picnic under the ponderosas at Catherine Creek State Park.
Even if the Historic Union Hotel wasn’t the only one in town, it would still be my top choice. Owners Charlie and Ruth Rush are the picture of hospitality. My stay with a little one in tow felt as comfortable as a trip to see the grandparents, only with better service. Chat with Charlie and you’ll soon learn everything you want to know about the town and hotel, and understand how the mish-mash of the 1921 hotel’s eclectic antique décor somehow all works together, a reflection of his past and personality. Find a home-cooked-feel dinner and breakfast in the elegant dining room. Even if the restaurant isn’t open, Charlie, who is also the chef, won’t let you go hungry.
COFFEE WITH LOCALS • FARMS
For a light breakfast, good coffee and mingle with the locals, the Old West-themed Rattle Tales Coffee and Such is the place. In no time I was invited to sit down with a group of regulars, but I could have easily whiled away the morning reading its collection of old National Geographic magazines.
The Union-Cove Farm Loop will bring you back to La Grande the long way, via Cove. Heading out of Union is Platz Family Farm, which was officially closed the day I drove by, but I was invited to stop in anyway by the farmer I met at the coffee shop. Becky and Joe Platz, with the help of their three young children, specialize in berries grown alongside other fruits and vegetables. The produce at self-serve Nella Mae’s Farm stand is a local staple. Stock up on gourmet garlic at Folly Farms, a U-pick micro-farm just down the road, where several varieties of garlic, among other heirlooms, grow. Farther up the ridge, the view and the product get sweeter at Cove Honey, just past the alpacas.
Before heading out of town, lunch at Steakhouse at Cove. Don’t let the simple country décor fool you—this comfort food packs surprisingly sophisticated flavors paired with house-infused cocktails.
By now you’ll be planning a return trip to fit in everything you missed. Worthy of the list are a dip in Cove’s warm spring-fed pool, a ride on Elgin’s Eagle Cap Excursion Train, backpacking Eagle Cap Wilderness, skiing at Anthony Lakes, the state’s highest base-elevation ski resort, and the giant desserts at North Powder Café.
If you’ve left Union County with a full belly and sore muscles, you’ve done it right.
Side A Brewing
The Landing Hotel
Union Drug Co. & Soda Fountain
North Powder Café
Historic Union Hotel
Steakhouse at Cove
The Landing Hotel
Historic Union Hotel
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest
Umatilla National Forest
Malheur Natonal Forest
Eagle Cap Wilderness
Mount Emily Recreation Area
Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area
Blue Mountain Outfitters
Eastern Oregon Fire Museum
Art Center East
Union County Museum
Catherine Creek State Park
Elgin Opera House
Eagle Cap Excursion Train