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This year, on our 16th wedding anniversary, Norman and I moved our youngest into her college dormitory and became empty-nesters! This kicked off a 7 day Eastern Oregon road trip that began with 3 days camping with family on BLM land near Fort Rock, and ended with a tour of Oregon ghost towns.
I had read articles on TravelOregon.com, OnlyInYourState.com, and ThatOregonLife.com about a ghost town tour road trip. Each site offered a slightly different list of stops so I put together a list that included stops from each that was somewhat streamlined so we could see the most in the amount of time we had to travel.
Since we were already near Fort Rock, we began our tour at the Fort Rock Valley Pioneer Museum. The historical society there has collected old homes and shops and other buildings and arranged them similarly to how the town might have been at one time. In a normal season the buildings would be open to walk through, where they have put together incredible displays of what life was like in the pioneer days. But we are in a time where nothing is normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the site was closed. That didn’t stop us from getting some great photos from the outside though.
From there, we went on to LaPine State Park to empty the dirty tanks and refill our water supply. We usually stop there after camping in the Fort Rock area because it is free to dump, they have a garbage and recycling center, and the park is a beautiful stop on the river to play and cool off. It is a beautiful campground as well, but we have not stayed there yet. We then went on to Bend for lunch, gas and a stop at Wilco for dog food. And a new ball for Sweet Baby Ruben.
We decided to go to the John Day Painted Hills on our way to the next stop on our ghost town itinerary. By the time we arrived at the Painted Hills, just outside of Mitchell, Oregon, the sun was beginning to set. The Painted Hills weren’t a primary stop for our trip, but I would’ve been heartbroken to miss them in their splendor, so we decided to camp out for the night and see them in the morning. There is BLM dispersed camping sites throughout the area, we found one that was easily RV accessible approximately 5 miles back down the road toward the highway. There were already a few campers set up there but we were lucky enough to snag a beautiful spot right next to the creek. Norman pulled out the propane fire pit while I made the cocktails and we were all set up for a lovely evening. By the way, my playlist for the evening was Dark Americana on Spotify and it was the perfect soundtrack to such a gorgeous night.
After a short hike at the Painted Hills the following day, we resumed our ghost town trek. Our first stop was Sumpter. We were advised by a hiker at the Painted Hills not to miss the Sumpter Dredge. I’m glad she told us this because I would’ve had no idea it was a sightseeing stop. From the road it looked like an abandoned mill or somewhere dangerous to wander! I guess it is a type of abandoned mill, the dredge was a behemoth of a machine with a chain of giant buckets that were used to scoop up the river bed and filter out the gold. We were able to walk around inside and see how it all worked. Next door was the historic train depot. We were only able to walk around the outside and get a couple of photos. They were closed but had a poster advertising a schedule for riding on the historic train. Now I have to come back!
From Sumpter, we headed to Granite. Granite had a couple of old buildings but they didn’t appear to be maintained for visitors. The old church/schoolhouse building was designated as a museum (but was closed at the time, either because of COVID or because it was after 5:00 p.m.) where
I captured my favorite photo of the whole trip. Our next stop was going to be Greenhorn, but at the turn there was a sign that said the road was down to one lane and was impassable by larger vehicles. Now, in the past Norman would likely have accepted that as a challenge, but after our terrifying experience on the Historic Columbia River Highway when leaving Ainsworth State Park,
I don’t think he will be intentionally taking on those challenges.
We had planned this leg of our adventure as a loop that began and ended in Austin. It originally included Galena/Susanville but it was getting late so we decided to set up camp at Bates State Park and break out the old fashioned paper map to revise the next leg of our trip. There was no cellular service except in Sumpter, so be prepared.
Oregon Parks and Recreation Department purchased the Bates Mill property from Grant County in April 2008, using lottery fund dollars. It has since been transformed into Bates State Park, a well-manicured campground. You can tell the park is still somewhat new because the landscaping and trees are juvenile. There are no hookups in the campsites, but there is water available for filling your tanks. Still no cellular signal here.
In the morning we inquired with the camp host about the nearest place to dump our tanks and were informed of a campground in nearby Prairie City that would have a dump site. Just about 20 minutes away, I wish we had known about this stop ahead of time. I would have preferred to stay at Depot RV Park overnight. Full hookups, cable TV, cell service, shops and a museum I would have loved to explore!
But alas, we were on a mission to see as many ghost towns as we could and this was our last travel day. Our next stop was Galena/Susanville. We didn’t actually stop because the ghost town buildings were on fenced private property. Perhaps they are occasionally open for visitors, but it was clear they were not at this time. Unfortunately, there was no turnout or broad shoulder to stop and take pictures either.
From Galena, we had intended to stop in Hardman and Condon before reaching Shaniko, our final stop. We had already crossed Lonerock off the list because it was out of the way and after realizing how much longer the drive was taking due to steep inclines, sharp and dangerous curves, livestock and wildlife in the road, we also scratched off Hardman and Condon. This is the drive where we developed Norman’s Drivability Scale- a real life look at the roads we travel. For example, a rating of one steering wheel would be a relatively flat, relatively straight interstate that even a new driver could handle well. Five steering wheels means if you value your life and/or your shorts do not attempt. The majority of our Ghost Town Tour drive would be ranked a solid 3 steering wheels. There were many sharp turns, cutbacks, steep inclines and descents as well as wildlife and livestock appearing around many corners.
By the time we reached Shaniko, it was just after 5:00 p.m. Nothing was open and it had begun to pour down rain! We were able to walk around and take a few photos, but we definitely plan to visit again when we will be able to enter the buildings and see more of the town.
It was evening now on our final travel day so we planned to drive as far as the Dalles, have dinner and decide if we were going to go on home or find a place to stay the night. We decided to find a place to stay the night but that proved to be difficult. As we left the gas station, it was very dark and a torrential downpour began. The visibility was low and cell service was spotty so we missed a couple options. We went on to a rest area outside of Portland and slept like babies. Driving in that rain had to be exhausting for Norm, I know for me it ranked 5 fingernails on April’s Rideability Scale!
After a good rest, we went on the rest of the way and got home just in time for Sunday Bloody Mary Sunday breakfast with our friends! It was an amazing trip and I can’t wait to do it again!