A few summers back, I snagged a weekend at one of the much-coveted deep-woods ranger stations rented out by the Forest Service. The only overnight stay more difficult to secure in the Oregon outback is at a fire lookout tower.
To call Antlers Guard Station, built in 1935 for the fire crews who patrolled Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, "off the beaten path" is a wild understatement. Situated about halfway between John Day and Baker City, the structure is utterly isolated. Even the key landmark on the way there, along numerous unmarked dirt roads, is a collection of decaying wooden buildings in various stages of tumbling to the ground—the former lumber town of Whitney.
Given the remoteness of the guard station, I assumed I'd be more likely to cross paths with open-range cattle than people. But Eastern Oregon has ways of surprising you. Several hours after the sky had gone black, two headlights pierced the darkness. As a driver pulled in front of the property and turned off the engine, a million scenarios—very few of them positive—flashed through my mind.
The first words out of his mouth were, "Hey, I'm not a weirdo or anything!"
As reassuring as the man must have thought that declaration would be, my boyfriend was not put at ease. He clutched the closest thing we had to a weapon—an empty 24-ounce beer bottle. It turned out the guy lived in the neighboring ghost town and simply wanted to use our hand pump to fill a bucket with water. As we got to talking about the region—the cracked ground of the Alvord Desert, a disappearing lake populated with brine shrimp and the jumping fish that fill the lakes of Strawberry Mountain—I realized we shared a passion for far-flung destinations as well as the enthusiasm to talk about them with anyone who will listen.
That was just one of many memorable encounters that helped inspire Willamette Week's Summer Guide this year. With Oregon crisscrossed by so many routes that weave through remarkable terrain and serve as gateways to endless activities, why not take one and highlight every single amazing attraction and experience along the way?
Welcome to your ultimate summer road trip.
Highway 26, which starts near Cannon Beach and slices its way through the center of the state before passing into Idaho, might as well have been designed to show off the state's geological marvels. From the tall snow-capped peaks to High Desert canyons shaped by twisting rivers, from fossil beds to hills that look to have been beamed in from another planet, the views along 26 are stunning.
This guide is meant to help you navigate those sights and get lost in the journey.
We've had writers on the go for weeks—hiking, bicycling, boating, camping, even bar crawling—from Cannon Beach through the heart of Portland to Nyssa, the last city on the route. And that's how you'll find the experiences organized, from west to east. If you're the truly ambitious sort, give every activity a try, in order, on one long glorious trip. Otherwise, try tackling them a region at a time.
Included are all sorts of new adventures—including the working ranch where you can stay the night and feed the cows, or one of the most remote state parks in Oregon, which offers 53 miles of water to explore. You'll also find instructions on how to pull off the fabled single-day Hood-to-coast snowboard and surf challenge, and fresh looks at old favorites, like Washington Park and Cannon Beach's charming downtown.
Having now traveled every mile of Highway 26 myself, I can report back that the drive is eye-opening in and of itself. With no cell service much of the way, you're forced to attend fully to the scenery unfolding before your eyes.
You also have plenty of time to reflect on your journey—like my experience with the nighttime visitor at the ranger station. During my most recent swing through, I learned he still calls Whitney home.
So if you ever find yourself confronted by a man looking for water who swears he's not a weirdo, believe him. And be sure to ask for more ideas about where to visit during your stay. I'm glad I did—and hope this guide will lead you to an even deeper appreciation for this amazing place we call home.