High & Wild in Eastern Oregon

Strawberry Mountain: Base Camp
By Joy Cordell
  |  Gorp.com
Eastern Oregon's Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is largely framed by arid ranchland.
The Strawberry Mountain Wilderness
Eating Well

There's something about driving past all those ranches in Eastern Oregon that make one hanker after red meat — either that or all that hiking brought on the craving. We ate good, perhaps because we asked locals for their recommendations. Here were the highlights:

Wallowa Lake Lodge: Top sirloin, fresh salmon, grilled chicken, or pasta. Not a huge menu, but it's all good. Excellent salads, and if you have room, homemade pie. Microbrews and a nice wine selection. Live piano music on Friday and Saturday evenings. South shore, Wallowa Lake.

R&R Drive-In: Sure enough, the sidewalks rolled up in Joseph after 5 p.m. on Sunday evening. We spotted pickups parked at this cafi one block off the main street and headed over for burgers. Mine was ostrich."Tastes like rich beef, but it's very lean," said the teen who took my order. She was right. Onion rings the way they ought to be, and Jeff downed a fresh blackberry shake, the kind made with real ice cream. Yum. 601 N. Lake, seven days a week, 10 a.m. - 11 p.m. in summer.

Ten Depot Street: We were told to try this place because of the variety of entrees on the menu. For once, the sourdough bread wrapping the prime rib sandwich was truly homemade. We loved it. Great prices, good food, and a dollar dessert special every day. Who could turn down raspberry-pear crumble, a la mode? In LaGrande, at its namesake address.

The Diner: Our camp host assured us this diner made the best bean soup in the world. After a long hike, we were savoring the thought. But no, Fridays were chicken-fried steak day, we were told upon arrival. With the works for $6.95. We adjusted just fine and ate up. Great small-town diner fare, intimate setting, good local gossip after the cook finishes preparing your meal. North side of main street in Prairie City. If you miss it, turn around and drive by again.


Admit it. You've never heard of this wilderness. Even most Oregonians would be hard pressed to tell you where it is. Unless you've driven Hwy. 26 through Prineville to John Day and Prairie City, you'd have no reason to know it exists. I visited Prairie City a long time ago in early spring, and saw a sunrise that tinted this snowcapped range the color of strawberry ice cream. I've been planning to return ever since that day.

When we moved into the Strawberry Campground, at the end of Forest Road 6001 out of Prairie City, the camp host, a retired woman who works the national camp host circuit, impressed two things upon us: Don't drink the lake or creek water without using both filter and iodine tablets, and don't even consider taking her firewood. We listened. The best camp hosts are repositories of local information, and this one was no exception. We found out that the plentiful berries around the campground were (large) blue mountain huckleberries and (small) red"squawberries," or kinick-kinick. By our third day there, we also knew where to find the best food in town, that the bears were mostly on the south side of the range, where we could get hot showers for 50¢, and which grocery store had unsafe meat-handling practices — that after we bought a nice steak there and happily grilled and ate it. We are both still among the living.

Because we really didn't have enough week left to hike deeper into this wilderness's 100 miles of trails, we chose to stay in the $6 per night campground on the north side and do a long hike one day before leaving the next. This camp was the closest to the trailhead of the three camps on that road, and it also had fresh (and safe) running water.

We suffered many fine adventures in this camp. We came home late one night from the county fair to find rainwater had skirted our rain tarp and dampened much inside. We awoke abruptly to a brilliant flash that lit our tent, then listened uneasily for a half-hour as the lightning struck around us at a three-mile radius. Then more rain, and dozing fitfully while wondering if we really fixed the leaky spot. And yes, the chipmunk who took refuge with a warm engine under the hood of my car, only to poke his head out at a gas station many miles away. Chip, we hope you're happy in your new home.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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