Portland can get a little intense.
Maybe you're mostly down with it—perhaps you're wearing three sweaters in a dark room finishing your zine about the problematic use of honey at so-called vegan bakeries. But I've yet to meet anyone who didn't need a break from Doom Town.
When the time comes to feel the hot sun on your face, smell the sage and eat a big corn-fed T-bone, you want to make the trip to Pendleton. You can catch a flight from PDX for $59 on Boutique Air, or make the 200-mile drive.
There's more to do here than in most cities quadruple its 16,000-person size, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better budget weekend trip within a three-hour drive of Portland.
Here's what to do.
You can fly here from PDX without going through a TSA checkpoint, or you can take the freeway. The drive out to Pendleton from Portland is pretty straightforward—just get on I-84 east. Be aware the freeway can be icy in winter and prone to heavy gusts of wind. Summers in Pendleton are hot, and there is very little shade. Parking downtown is free, though Main Street is closed to motor vehicles during the Round-Up, which takes place Sept. 15-18 this year.
IDEAL TIME TO VISIT
There's winter sunshine here. It's also a great spot to stop over if you're headed to the Wallowas or Baker City to ski at one of Eastern Oregon's charming little ski resorts.
The Pendleton Woolen Mill & Retail Store
1307 SE Court Place, 541-276-6911, pendleton-usa.com.
Pendleton is very much a city of cowboys and Native Americans. It's home to one of the most notable rodeos in the country, and to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The name "Pendleton" is known around the world because of the bright-colored blankets made and sold to indigenous peoples in the area. You can see some of those bright, beautiful blankets being made here, plus get good deals at the factory store. It's not a bad place to start, because the backroom has a mini museum where you'll get a primer on the city and region.
Hamley Steakhouse & Saloon
8 SE Court Ave., 541-278-1100, hamleysteakhouse.com.
This steakhouse is a spinoff of a famous Western store in the center of town. The store opened in 1883, and the steakhouse followed more than a century later. It's an opulently appointed room with century-old bar tops, bloody corn-fed steaks and stiff drinks.
The Pendleton Round-Up Stadium
1205 SW Court Ave., 541-276-2553, pendletonroundup.com.
The town's massive rodeo, called the Round-Up, is held in September, and if you're planning to attend, you already made your reservations a year ago. The grounds, however, are worth stopping by even when they're still. This is the Fenway Stadium of its sport, with a unique grass infield that's known for providing wild rides. The grandstands include a number of places to get drinks, including the legendary Let 'er Buck Room, which hosts one of the most debauched scenes you'll ever set eyes on.
The Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame
1114 SW Court Ave., 541-278-0815, pendletonhalloffame.com.
When the steers aren't here bucking, you can take in the flavor of the rodeo across the street from the rodeo grounds, at the large museum, which imparts the lore of the rodeo and the area. There's more to learn than you'll ever need to know—they've even gutted and stuffed War Paint, who is to saddle bronc horses what Secretariat was to thoroughbreds.
Pendleton Underground Tours
31 SW Emigrant Ave., 541-276-0730, pendletonundergroundtours.org.
The most famous tourist attraction in town—and all of Eastern Oregon, for that matter—is the 90-minute exploration of the maze of underground tunnels and rooms below the city. The product of racist pioneer-era laws that banned Chinese from the city after dusk, these tunnels became a subterranean city of their own, with laundries, butcheries, bordellos and saloons. The guides will give you a rundown on every aspect of the history—which isn't all quite so far in the past as you might expect, since one downtown brothel was still operating in the 1960s.
Prodigal Son Brewing
230 SE Court Ave., 541-276-6090, prodigalsonbrewery.com.
This family-friendly brewpub in the heart of downtown does uncommonly good versions of most of the canonical American brewpub beers, from an amber to an oatmeal stout on nitro. It also handles hops well, making excellent IPAs. The food menu, likewise, covers a lot of ground, from wings and Scotch eggs to fried oysters, a Reuben and a house pickle plate.
Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery
511 SE Court Ave., 541-276-0070, oregongrain.com.
Pendleton is home to one of the Oregon distilleries making spirits exclusively from scratch—that is, it distills from beer it ferments with all-Oregon grain—as opposed to distilleries that run pre-made neutral grain spirits through a still and then market it as a local product. You can sample them at the tasting room for Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery, which is in a former auto dealership on the edge of downtown.
WHERE TO STAY
Pendleton house Historic Inn
311 N Main St., 541-276-8581, pendletonhousebnb.com.
Built in 1917, this ornate Rennaissance-style inn is a luxurious lodging experience. The pink stucco façade and classically furnished rooms will make you feel like you're in an Airbnb in Candy Land. Reserve your room well in advance, as this bed and breakfast is often booked out for months.