The last stop on our summer road trip through Eastern Oregon was Hot Lake Hotel. We didn’t stay there, though I know people who have. I just wanted to tour it now, in the off chance the rumors of changing owners came true. I am so glad I did as the owner was lovely and accommodating, for a small fee which came with unlimited coffee we got a grand tour of the once hospital turned resort. It gives off serious Miss Havisham vibes in the best possible way (if you don’t know who that is you best go read Charles Dickens novels now).
History of Hot Lake Hotel
Well before any modern day structure existed on this spot of land just outside La Grande, Oregon the native people of the area were well acquainted with the spot which is known for its mineral hot springs. The area was well documented by Washington Irving in his recordings of the Astor expedition in 1812. And for many years leading up to the building of the hotel it was used as a trading post between natives and recent settlers and those passing through in search of gold. The trading post still exists on the grounds today and is included in the tour.
The first incarnation of the Hot Lake Hotel was built in 1864 in the Colonial Revival style. At the time of the original construction the hotel operated as a multi business complex complete with post office, blacksmith, barber shop, spa, bathhouse as well as other small businesses.
In 1904 the original structure was demolished and John V Bennes (whose name is also attributed to the Geiser Grand Hotel) started construction of the Georgian style structure you mostly see today. With 105 guest rooms, 60 surgical bed and a 1,500 person ballroom.
When Hot Lake Hotel opened it opened as a luxury resort and sanitarium, advertising the healing properties of the sulfur rich water to cure what ever ails you. Unfortunately in 1934 half the hotel burned. The glorious beginnings of this luxury spa were not seen again as it was used as a retirement home, asylum and a nurses training station during WWII. The building was abandoned in 1991, even though it had been added to the National Registered of Historic Places in 1979.
In 2003 the building was purchased by David Manuel a rather well known bronze statue artist in the Pacific North West. He and his family worked for two years in order to open it back up to the public, and continue to work on it now. Today it operates as a bed and breakfast, spa and restaurant as well as a museum of native and munitions artifacts which is the private collection of Mr. Manuel.
Experiencing Hot Lake Hotel
It is important to remember when visiting Hot Lake Hotel where it started when it was last bought, and that the restoration work was done with private funds. This is not a billion dollar restoration project done by a team of professionals. This was a restoration project done with money raised privately and done as a family because they loved the building so much. As such you will see it is an eclectic mix of furnishings and styles.
As a part of a the tour or as a paying guest of the hotel you will be offered the chance to view a video put together by the owners detailing some history of the building but more importantly the history of the family and the work they put into the restoration. I would highly suggest taking them up on the viewing.
There are several floors of rooms, and each floor as seating areas both inside and outside. There are also several museum type rooms in the guest room section of the building that provide information regarding the surgical suites and exercise facilities that used to be on site. And of course there is the onsite spa, both indoor and outdoor pools offer up a cooler version of the mineral waters that exist in the area for your soaking pleasure. The cooler part is important to note as the small lake in front of the hotel that is fed directly from the underground hot sprints is so hot it will disintegrate bone, best not go swimming in it directly.
There have been rumors of hauntings, though I did not experience anything odd while there. The owners are reluctant to say much about it, but that isn’t surprising when you meet them. They just aren’t the type to suffer that type of rumor or gossip. I did not stay at the hotel myself, it was just a stop off on the way home. But if I was out in the area for a night I most certainly would spend the night at Hot Lake Hotel. I do not mind the slightly rambling and mismatched décor. I am quite frankly never looking for a 5 start resort. Just a clean place to stay with nice folks running the place. The interesting history is of course a huge bonus.
The Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City is a place I have been dreaming of visit for probably over a decade. A chance scanning of an Oregon travel magazine in a waiting room left me gawking at the interior shots and gorgeous stained glass ceiling of this hotel. I may have stolen the magazine from the waiting room (this was before I owned a cell phone that took decent pictures). So when I planned the road trip this last summer I knew this hotel was on the list, truth be told I planned the entire trip around three hotels I wanted to visit (Frenchglen, Idaho Hotel and Geiser Grand).
History of Geiser Grand Hotel
The Geiser Grand Hotel opened in 1889, designed by John Bennes in the Italianate Victorian Style. Bennes is responsible for a number of buildings in Oregon including 35 on the University of Oregon campus, as well as the Hollywood Theater in Portland and the Liberty Theater in Astoria (both incredibly gorgeous and still working theaters).
The hotel was build during the Oregon Gold Rush and as such saw its fair share of incredibly wealthy and incredibly shady characters throughout its history. In 1968 the hotel closed and in 1993 it was reopened after an enormous restoration effort which brought the hotel back to life with historic fixtures, paint colors and furnishings. Including an enormous research process to design and remake the stained glass ceiling which had long since been destroyed in a hail storm.
Hauntings of the Geiser Grand Hotel
For those of you interested in the paranormal the Geiser Grand Hotel has had numerous spectral sightings. Which include a young girl, a saloon dancer, a cowboy, a headless chef, and a lady in blue. A quick internet search will bring you all kinds of confessions of sightings and even information about a ghost hunters type crew that camped out set on finding definitive evidence of the hauntings.
For those of you not interested in the paranormal I can tell you without a doubt that I experienced nothing but a stellar stay and an excellent nights sleep.
Out Stay at the Geiser Grand Hotel
I was so thrilled to finally be experiencing this incredible historic hotel, I was on cloud nine the entire stay. It probably helped that I hadn’t had a decent shower in a couple days or a very great bed in the last couple days. I was beat.
I wandered around the hotel for a good while snapping pictures and seeing that all the hotel had to offer. A reading/game room, a gym, a dining room and a store were all on premises. And the store even had movies for rent that could be played in the room.
Once I had sufficiently went everywhere I could without risking ejections from the hotel, we got ready for dinner. We chose not to eat at the hotel because I had found a steak house in Haines that looked like a hoot. But we returned with full bellies, dessert to go and settled in for a couple movies. This was the first time we had decent wi-fi all week so we picked a few Netflix movies and streamed them from bed.
The rooms are absolutely stunning, well decorated, large windows and gloriously tall ceilings make the rooms seem palatial. The beds and pillows were superb, I don’t think I have had a better nights sleep since. We had breakfast in the dining room and then set off toward Portland. All in all I give the Geiser Grand Hotel 5 stars, beautiful, historic, comfortable, interesting history, and no actual ghost encounters.
Right off I-84 in eastern Oregon is the Oregon Trail Center. Providing visitors a variety of experiences related, well, the Oregon Trail. I have very little reason to be approximately 6 hours away from my home, but this last summer as a part of my ‘getting to know Oregon better’ quest I found myself way out east. And knew I needed to make a stop at the museum.
Overview of the Oregon Trail Center
The museum itself lies just north of Baker City, which in and of itself is not a very large town, but it does happen to be a very important role in Oregon’s history. A lot of wagon trains passed through this area. After long harrowing journeys families were greeted with wide open pastures and the unfortunate realization that they still had mountain passes to traverse.
The Oregon Trail Center is an incredible museum maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. It offers sweeping view of the area, as well as life sized displays, films, exhibits, presentations and more.
The buildings and views are well worth the drive, sitting on top of a large hill in the middle of BLM land, you get the opportunity to experience an unobstructed view of the valley and Rock Creek Butte. You can also hike all over this area, BLM lands are open for recreation. The types of recreation are always clearly marked or communicated on the areas website if you have any questions regarding land use.
The facilities also have a very nice walking path down the face of the hill and out toward some mines that are set up for educational purposes. I being terrified of ticks, did not choose to go tromping through the open lands and stuck to the path being sure not to brush up against any long grasses. We saw plenty of ticks just walking by. So if you choose to hike through the pastures be sure to come prepared and always check for ticks after being outside.
My Impressions of the Oregon Trail Center
We had been driving for quite a few hours by the time we got here, and having left Silver City behind (sadly) I think we were both a little dazed. And for some reason I had in my mind that it would be providing research materials to look through in order to locate names and dates of family members that passed through the area but it did not. And that is okay, it is a lovely area with a wonderful exhibit.
There isn’t really anything in the area of the museum, hence the beautiful sprawling views. But just down the road is an excellent steak house Haines and Baker City is only about 10 minutes down the highway so it is an easy jaunt into town for excellent hotels, restaurants and other museums.
I thoroughly enjoyed by time at the Oregon Trail Center in Baker City Oregon. One I highly recommend if you are interested in Oregon history and find yourself in the area.
The absolute best thing I did this year was spend the night in a ghost town. Silver City and the Idaho Hotel are truly a treasure of American history and the old west. I cannot wait until next summer so I can make the grueling 500 mile drive back to spend more than just a night in Owyhee Mountains, it is well worth the drive.
History of Silver City and The Idaho Hotel
Silver city was a mining town, mostly silver but some gold as well. It was a very bustling town in the 1800s with a population of 2,500 it boasted 75 businesses and was the county seat until 1934. In the late 1880s one of the largest stage coach lines in the west operated through the area and in the 1890s electricity was brought to the area. It was even once considered one of the four major settlements in the Idaho Territory.
However about the time that Idaho officially become a state the mines were depleted and people slowly moved out of the area. The electricity was removed and rerouted to a nearby airbase and due to its remote location the city was left largely abandoned.
It was never entirely abandoned though, descendants of original settlers and intrepid mountain folk have keep the spirit of the place alive through handwork and a love of the unique site. Several families maintain houses in the area, returning each summer once the mountain roads are open again to spend their summers in the solitude of the quite community. During the open season there are several events to help raise funds to pay for a winter watchman who spends the winters in the cold mountains accessible only by snowmobile until the weather turns each year.
The Idaho Hotel was originally build just down the road in Ruby city, but in 1866 Rudy City lost the county seat and so the Idaho Hotel and many other buildings in town were dismantled, loaded on sleds and moved up the river to Silver City. In 1868 the popular hotel got running water, making the stay for those in town on business with the county much more comfortable. By 1889 a gambling hall, barroom, kitchen, bathrooms, and billiards parlor were all completed with hand milled woodwork from local craftsman. And by 1898 a five story addition was completed which included two stories of rooms, a dining room and a basement with storage tunnel beneath the hotel connecting to the mining shaft.
In 1942 due to the city losing the county seat, its power lines and the mines being shut down the hotel was closed and soon fell to disrepair. But In the 1972 Edward Jagels bought the Idaho Hotel which had been previously abandoned 30 years prior and began the slow process of restoring the old hotel. The current owners bought the hotel from Ed in 2001 and continue to operate the hotel and restore it.
Getting to Silver City and the Idaho Hotel
I won’t lie to you and say getting to Silver City is easy. Even if you don’t live several hundred miles away it is still quite the adventure. Today the city sits on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, so the roads are somewhat maintained. I say somewhat because yes there are roads, but you need a four wheel drive vehicle with plenty of clearance to get there safety. I was told the fire department is dispatched several times a summer to rescue folks who have gotten themselves stuck. Before you embark on your trip be sure to have written directions, a map and a compass. You will not have cell service or GPS satellite.
If coming from the Oregon side, when you leave Jordan Valley, it is a left at the first fork where you leave the pavement behind in favor of a gravel road. You will encounter three more forks in the main road, but with no road sign to follow. The first fork is a right (there is a sign for Silver City here), the second a left (a sign for a mining company) and the third is a right ( at the public restroom). The Oregon approach is by far the harder of the two, the roads are in much worse condition. From the Idaho side, take the main road up from the main highway continue left at the public restroom and you will be there in no time. We came from the Oregon side having driven over from the Frenchglen Hotel.
Visiting Silver City and the Idaho Hotel
There are several events throughout the season in the area, mostly to help raise funds to pay for building repairs and the winter watchman. The area usually opens in late May around Memorial Day Weekend and stays open until the first snow. The main event is the open house which takes place two weekends after Labor Day every year, where local families open their houses for the public to walk around and learn about the town. There are also holiday celebrations for the 4th of July and Labor Day.
We went for the sheer joy of staying in and exploring a ghost town and spent our time either hiking around or chatting it up with the hotel owners. It may have been summer, but it was the beginning of summer and it was cold. At six thousand feet above sea level, the snow had barely cleared from the mountain passes and it had been snowing the day before we arrived. We didn’t see any ourselves, but it was raining a bit when we got there. After checking in and being shown to our room, one of four with a working heater, we put on as much of the clothing as we had packed as possible and set out to walk around.
Every building in town is privately owned so exploring was done with utmost respect. We wandered around the roads, which are more four-wheel tracks than anything. And found ourselves at the top of the ridge overlooking the hotel where the school and church buildings are. Both of which were closed. Had we visited during the open house week however, we would have been able to go inside.
There are several building for sale at present, one of which is the masonic building that spans the small creek that runs through town. However no bank will ever loan money to buy buildings in town (as confirmed by the hotel owner) so individuals looking to own a heavenly slice of this secluded town must bring cash offers, plus plenty of money to help restore the old buildings.
After walking every road in town, talking to everyone we came across, and making our way up to the cemetery for a little look around. We wandered back to the hotel, where I couldn’t resist a little look around, largely with my cell phone operating as a flash light since the small solar power grid only provides very weak LED lighting and not every room is wired. I respectfully did not wander up to the third floor even though I was dying to see it, and also a little spooked thus a tad relieved to see the sign not to go up the stairs. After our look around we went back to our room cranked the heat, broke out the cheese and crackers and watched a downloaded episode of the Ted Bundy story on Netflix.
Since the power lines were diverted to the airbase many years ago, and given the lack of cell service we knew going in that if we wanted to watch anything we would need to download it ahead of time. We also knew we would need to have fully charged devices and backup batteries. Upon checking in the owners will remind you of the sensitivity of their solar power grid, long story short don’t even think about plugging in a phone or a hair dryer. You would kill the power to the entire hotel. And since the hotel is the only place in town to eat, you would be effectively ruining any chance of getting fed during your stay. You would probably also be asked not to return.
At the appointed time we made our way down to the main dining room which leans ever so slightly outward so while eating dinner you feel a bit like standing on a cliff. The dining room is likely no different than it was in its heyday, a little rough and tumble flanked by a gorgeous hand plained bar on one side and antique shelves covered in artifacts from the town. A veritable museum of the towns history which was thankfully heated by a gigantic cast iron wood stove in the center. It was the warmest part of the hotel and we wound up staying quite a while during both dinner and breakfast chatting with the owners and their daughter. A couple hours after we had finished our dinner a group of locals made their way to the dining room and we made a graceful exit back to our room. The diner was delicious and huge, we were tired and stuffed so we went back to watching our downloaded Netflix and settled in for the night.
We had zero encounters with things that go bump in the night. The daughter of the hotel owners ensured me that never once had she experienced anything weird in the hotel. I felt 100 percent safe and comfortable the entire time. But that doesn’t mean I was thrilled to have to use the restroom in the middle of the night which was outside our room and down a very long, dark, freezing cold hallway. When morning came, despite the constant running of our heater (we got one of the few rooms with heaters) the windows were frosted over, and our truck had to be de-iced. We once again made a mad dash in all our clothes down to the dining room to fill up on hot coffee and stand around the stove.
We chatted with the owners more after breakfast, getting a tour of found objects in the area, like these opium bottles with intact labels. We learned all about the history of the town and the hotel. We got to hear funny stories about locals and what it was like growing up there. We listened with rapt attention to stories about renovations, brining ovens and fridges up to the hotel in the dead of winter on sleds. And thankfully unfounded evacuation plans during fire season. We were both reluctant to leave, feeling kindred spirits with this lovely family whose seasonal life and cautionary tales reminded us both so much of the fishing season. The migration every year, the off the grid lifestyle, the characters you meet and the friends that become your family. It felt like home and it was difficult to pull our selves away. But our long drive ahead and the trepidation of meeting tourists coming up the hill on the narrow roads finally motivated us to head down the mountain.
The drive down was blissfully easier on the Idaho side, though marked by the occasional traveler the road was much wider and entirely covered in crickets. Big super jumpy fat Morman Crickets which were clearly in their swarm phase. A couple times we wanted to get out and take pictures of the views but the fact that they were jumping close to two feet in the air kept us locked in the cab the entire way down the mountain.
We ended our ghost town adventure with smooth sailing north through Idaho to cross over to Baker City Oregon for the night. While our stay there was much more luxurious I will always prefer the adventure and sense of belonging from places like Silver City and the Idaho Hotel. I hope to make my way back next year, hopefully later in the sumer for a couple nights so I can make use of the ample hiking in the area.
Visiting the Pillars of Rome in Oregon is not easy unless you are already in the area.For the sole reason that it is quite literally hours from most anything else. But if you do find yourself in the area of South Eastern Oregon, and want to see something really spectacular then you should certainly take the detour to experience it.
The Pillars of Rome were named by William F. Stine a homesteader in the area. And were a landmark for those crossing through the southern part of Oregon on the Oregon Trial.
The 100 foot tall, 5 by 2 mile site is a geologists dream. Layers of fossils, ash and sediment were slowly eroded by wind and rain to reveal the towering rock formation that today resemble roman architecture.
Visiting the Pillars of Rome in Oregon
Granted the drive to the location is likely not for everyone, but is a dream come true for photographers and rock hounds alike. The site can be accessed by a well graded gravel road just off I95 in Malheur County Oregon.
Situated slightly North West of Rome Oregon, otherwise known as Rome Station, so named for the only business in the unincorporated community. You can find it tucked up in a narrow valley near a number of farms. It also happens to be near a landing area of the Owyee River, which makes the area a perfect stop for rafters.
For this reason if you plan on hiking around the area I suggest doing your research and ensuring you won’t be trespassing on a local farmer’s private land. Many of the access points were behind cattle fence, which also suggests a need to ensure you won’t be chased down by the local bull.
Additionally falling rocks are very common at formations like this, so please tread carefully as any movement could dislodge something. And given the area, be properly prepared with hat, water, tick and rattle snake prevention measures.
Our visit was mostly just a drive by. We had somewhere specific to be well before nightfall and didn’t want to burn too much daylight poking around this area. We got out stretched our legs, which was much needed after three hours of driving from the Frenchglen Hotel, we just took some pictures and carried on.
Visiting the Pillars of Rome in Oregon was an opportunity I was very thankful to have. Especially given how remote it is to most other things in the state. I wouldn’t often have the chance to be this far away from home, so I am glad we took advantage and the detour to experience such a magnificent geologic site.
I can’t recall how I heard about the Frenchglen Hotel but it was years ago and I was entirely enamored with the idea of a historic hotel, so significant it was protected and run directly by state employees. I also loved the idea that guests ate family style with the rest of the guests at a specific time. It seemed so quaint and easy. And it was.
Frenchglen today is an unincorporated community in Harney County sitting at the foothills of the Steens Mountain. It sits next to some of Peter French’s original landholdings. After Peter French was killed the secretary of his company took over P Ranch and sold off some of the land the pay off debts. In 1906 P Ranch and Diamond Ranch were sold, and then partnership of a portion of this was sold 1916 to the owner of the Swift Meatpacking Company.
The hotel was built in 1924 to house guest who were in the area to do business with the Swift Meatpacking Company. As it was quite an organization and in 1924 it took more than a few hours to reach this remote part of Oregon.
For a few years in the 1930s Frenchglen also operated a school, which taught children of local ranchers though it has since closed. In 1934 The Department of Fish and Wildlife owned and restored the hotel, while also expanding it a bit. In 1959 the hotel got electric power, and in 1973 Oregon Parks and Recreation Department took over the property. In 1984 it was official added to the National Register of Historic Places, and ever since then the eight room hotel (plus a newly built overflow hotel) has been operated by the state department.
Staying At Frenchglen
To book reservations you need to call the hotel directly, they are a small staff and don’t always answer the phone. But they are rather good about calling back so if you miss them leave a message.
If you are looking for a nicer more modern accommodation I would suggest asking for a room at Drovers Inn (the overflow building) but in truth if you are all the way out here you probably aren’t that picky. The rooms in the hotel are modestly decorated with historic pictures, and antiques.
They do have running hot water, clean shared bathrooms (private single use but shared with all guests) and offer family style dinners as well as made to order breakfast during a couple set hours in the morning. They do have electricity and Internet but no television.
Things to Do at Frenchglen
There is an enormous about of things to do directly in the area. For one the hotel sits literally across the street from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. We started out to explore it before we took off in the morning and got eaten alive by mosquitoes in about 2 min. Bring lots of bug spray.
It is also a short drive to the Diamond Craters and Round Barn to the north and the Alvord Desert to the south. Heading south is also the road to go up into the Steens for a hearty amount of hiking, though sadly the roads were still closed from the late snowfall. The Steens is also home to several historic ranches which have since been abandoned and can be explored by foot if you can find them.
Frenchglen itself is little more than the hotel and a few houses for people who work in the area. We spent a few minuets walking around taking pictures while we waited for the gas station to open.
The gas station is actually worth seeing the women who runs it has been in the process of fixing it up to provide tourists in the area a few amenities. She has included some basic groceries for camping or hiking. Some local antiques for sale and a sweet little coffee shop that I wished we had time to hang around in. But we had a long drive ahead of us and needed to get our gas and hit the road.
We had an absolute blast at the Frenchglen Hotel. And I am most certainly returning to stay here and explore the area in more detail. My favorite thing about the entire experience was that for one short night all the guests felt like a little family. We sat down at enormous wooded benches in the small front room, passed the dishes around, learned about each other, caught one another up on what we saw and did and everyone walked away with more idea and an urge to return.
One of the main reasons we were on this epic Eastern Oregon Road trip, which turned out to be near a thousand miles covered in 5 days was to see The Alvord Desert. As I have mentioned most of Oregon east of the cascade range is high desert. I am sure all manner of scientists would take issue with that term, but it is what we Oregonians call it. Compared to everything west of the cascades what ever they get isn’t classified as real rain. You don’t know real rain until you have lived on the Oregon Coast.
But I digress, the vast majority of Oregon is actually technically steepe or scrubland as it is a arid climate that gets just enough moisture a year to not be considered a true desert. Vast grass lands and wild sage is what you will most of the time driving around out here, with the occasional very small pine tree. It’s cowboy country.
The Alvord Desert however, is a true desert. It a dry lake bed that gets less than 7 inches of precipitation a year. At 4,000 miles above sea level, it sits east of the Coast Range, the Cascade Range and the Steens Mountain, which itself is nearly 10 thousand feet above sea level. It the winter it is well below freezing and in the summer upwards of 100.
The desert itself is ringed by geothermal activity, pushing both cold and hot springs up along its boarder, providing ample grassland and wildflowers which attract a large variety of wildlife. You can often see wild horses specifically in this area.
Getting to the Alvord Desert is not easy, which is why it took me so long to visit. It is hours from my house and due to its sparse human population many many miles from active gas stations. I say active because Fields just south of the desert sometimes has gas and Frenchglen just east of the Steens often has gas. But the area is also maintained by BLM, so the majority of the roads are not paved, which just add yes another level of risk and uncertainty to the trip. We had just left the Diamond Craters and were running low on daylight but set off all the same on the seemingly more difficult route of driving all the way past the Steens Moutain on the western side, then looping back up from Fields. And I am so glad we did, the other route coming from the north directly as a crow flies sounds easier but it is a couple hours on a gravel road and is more remote from gas stations and other services.
Things to Do
This area is the outdoor persons paradise. Houses are sparse, cars on the road even less frequent, wildlife everywhere, most of the area is BLM and as such open to public recreation of all sorts (providing you are respectful and follow the rules). We saw photographers, wind surfers, campers and motor bikers just at the entrance of the park. Which there are several, and are not well marked, be sure to take caution to not drive down someone’s private drive.
This would be the perfect place to set up camp for a weekend of day hiking up in the Steens. You would have no light pollution at night as there are so few homes and certainly no real towns in the area. The area is also a population destination for land speed enthusiasts. And the womens land speed record here by Kitty O’Neal in 1976.
Places to Stay
There isn’t really any place to stay in the area directly unless you are camping. The Frenchglen Hotel is about 70 miles away and offers modest accommodation. I love the place personally but it is not luxury by any means. The Alvord Hotsprings also offers bunkhouse lodging which is even less luxurious. Mostly you are roughing it, it just depends on what degree of running water you would rather have.
I am so glad I finally go to see The Alvord Desert, it was so beautiful and peaceful and so different than the rest of Oregon. I hope one day I can go back with more time on my hands to hike and camp. It would truly be a unique experience.
No these craters do not have diamonds in them, the Diamond Craters in Malheur County Oregon are rather located near Diamond Oregon. They are are monogenetic lava field that covers 27 square miles of lava flows and cinder cones.
We were in the area as a part of a larger road trip and wanted to check it out and maybe do a little bit of hiking but we were ill prepared for what awaited us. Which is just a very dramatic way of saying, this place is big, hot and there is not a single ounce of shade anywhere.
Carbon dating suggests that the lava fields were created roughly 7500 years ago. The craters themselves were officially named after the Diamond Ranch which once occupied the area and was owned by a man named Mace McCoy. In the 1970s there was a bit of hub-bub about the area due to a large volume of stone cutters taking lava slabs to sell. This prompted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to step in and offer protection for the site. Today it is maintained as an Outstanding Natural Area, which was made official in 1982 to protect the land and preserve it for public recreation.
We showed up mid day after having spent an inordinate amount of time at the Peter French Round Barn. We didn’t realize how big the area was going to be, and we didn’t really look that much into how to enter the park itself. We wound up spending a lot of time driving around on the BLM roads trying to find the craters, and after scaring our selves several times about getting stuck in soft sand and no one being around to tow us out we chose to sit on the edge of the one crater at the entrance of the park and eat lunch.
Planning a Proper Trip
If visiting lava fields, hiking in them and/or photographing them is your thing. This is a great place to visit and should not be missed. Do your research, plan to be there early. Have a map and a compass (there is no cell service), bring lots of water and sunscreen and wear a hat. Also I would suggest wearing snake boots, and checking about 40 times for ticks. And make sure you are driving a four wheel drive car.
The Diamond Craters are amazing, there is so much land to see, so many stunning views and so many places to hike or run around in an all terrain vehicle. I wish we had given ourselves more time, but it was mostly a curiosity stop as we had bigger ideas in mind for the trip. If I ever find my way out there I will most certainly be hiking the Diamond Craters.
The Peter French Round Barn is really fascinating, both the man, the history of the area and the surrounding scenery is enough to take someone’s breath away. The area has a lot more water than most other parts of Eastern Oregon and as such provides a vast sanctuary for migratory birds. The barn sits on the edge of one such lake (sadly for us the lake was still flooded into the barn) and provides a great stop if you are road tripping or an even better destination.
Peter French seems to be a bit of a notorious figure in Harney and Malheur counties. Born in Missouri but raised in California in the mid 1800s. He was raised in a sheep ranching family, as an adult he moved south toward Mexico and got hired by a wealthy stock-man as a horse breaker.
His business dealings continued with this Hugh James Glen which ulitmatly took him to prospecting land in southern Oregon to expand their enterprises. He established P Ranch around 1872 in what is now Malheur and Harney County. Through a series of underhanded business deals he managed to exploit Swamp and Overflow Act by flooding areas of land that he wanted to buy for cheap and then draining it once he owned the land. Allowing him to expand his cattle and horse business in the area to ultimately own (I believe) around 70,000 acres of land in south eastern Oregon where his company ranched 45,000 cattle at any given point during the duration of his holdings.
Not surprisingly his business practices didn’t earn him a lot of friends in the community (not to mention it seems he wasn’t the nicest of men personally), he was shot in the head by Ed Oliver December 26, 1897.
History of the Round Barn
Rounds barns are not an uncommon as I had thought going into the visit, they were very popular for a while in North America first made famous by George Washington himself, and continued to be relatively popular in Illinois until around the 1920s.
This barn in particular and most round barns are not really barns in the true sense, as they are not built to store or house animals. But rather are built to train horses in the winter months. The Peter French Round Barn was built sometime between 1883 and 1884. The center of the barn is set up to allow young horses to keep warm while not being worked, and the outer ring is used as the training circuit.
Oregon had a very long cold winter this year, with late snows and in the high desert of eastern Oregon summer is a couple months behind the western valley where we had driven from. So it was a bit of shock to us how cold and how wet it still was out here for being so late in the year. We had our waterproof hiking books (great for areas with ticks and scorpions) but sadly the barn was under a couple feet over water in most places.
We did manage to swing ourselves in rather dramatically by clinging to an old wire and the door jab but but even still we didn’t get to explore as much of the unique historic building as we had wanted. I had to take a picture of it with all the carved initials. The are probably newer, but for some reason it reminded me of the Dover Castle which for a brief period served as a prison and the carvings all over the building were from the prisoners.
Round Barn Visitors Center
The Peter French Round Bar is a state historic site, but I got the feeling that it is mostly maintained and perhaps the even the land it sits on is currently owned by the Jenkins family. The family runs a visitors center at the entrance of the turn off which has bathrooms, snacks, drinks, books, souvenirs and a terrific family museum.
We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the building, looking through the museum and talking with the man who is currently running the business. He has since retired from the Jenkins family ranch, it is now run by other members of his family so he spends his days teaching folks about the history of the area, maintaining the site and running the visitors center and tours to help pay for all the upkeep.
I highly suggest a visit to the Peter French Round Barn, it is a fascinating bit of Oregon’s history which should not be lost. Given how far out in the middle of nowhere it is, I suggest making a road trip of the en-devour and exploring other things to see in the vast open planes of Eastern Oregon. More which I will be covering in the following weeks.