At nearly 10,000 feet, Steens, a 52-mile-long mountain that seems to have wandered away from the Cascades and decided it preferred the isolation of Harney County, rises improbably above Malheur Lake about 200 miles southeast of Bend. Get yourself a bed at the 100-year-old, eight-room Frenchglen Hotel or camp at one of several campgrounds on the mountain, which is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Tackle the mountain via the 52-mile gravel Steens Mountain Back Country Byway, stopping at Whorehouse Meadow, where settlers left 19th-century pornographic graffiti carved into aspen trees; Kiger Gorge, one of four glacially carved canyons on the mountain; and the East Rim, where you will look out over the Alvord Desert and the Great Basin, all the way to Idaho and Nevada.
The Basques are an ancient ethnic group from northern Spain and southern France that speaks a language unrelated to any other in the world. In a little pocket of Malheur County, just along the Idaho border, sits the tiny community of Jordan Valley, home to 450 hardy souls—among them about 50 Basques, descendants of sheepherders, stonemasons and others who moved to this region a little over a century ago. Start your Basque experience with a cultural education at the I.O.N. Heritage Museum
and follow up with a quick game of jai-alai, the Basque handball game, at the only such court in Oregon. Wrap up your day with a big dinner served family style at Old Basque Inn, which although owned by a non-Basque is reputed to serve hearty Basque meals. For further adventures in the area, follow the dirt-and-gravel Yturri Boulevard 26 miles east into the Owyhee Mountains to find the ghost town of Silver City, Idaho.
Eager to get a deep history lesson? Follow U.S. Route 26 past Redmond to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Split into three units, the monument contains some of the most fantastic geological and paleontological landscapes in the Northwest. Start at the visitor center beneath impressive Sheep Rock, on Highway 19 between the towns of Kimberly and Dayville. Several well-curated exhibits help you imagine a lush jungle where sage, rocks and the occasional July thunderstorm now rule. From there, drive to the spectacular Painted Hills Unit, nine miles outside the town of Mitchell, where red and gold hills carved by volcanic processes contain a collection of fossilized leaves. For a souvenir, head over to Fossil (pop. 470), where digging is allowed beside the high-school track.