Traveling East-Central Oregon via Motorcycle
Sitting on the patio sipping a quality cup of hot coffee, we await the morning sunrise that is about 20 minutes away. The yellow-orange hue of the coming morning light is the backdrop for the picturesque valley before us. It stretches away to the east and has a deep golden color, as it had been planted months ago with several different grain crops.
On this trip, our travels are based out of Ruggs Ranch, located in a relatively remote area of Morrow County in east-central Oregon. Primarily a hunting ranch, Ruggs Ranch caters to the sportsman.
Herd-managed big game hunts include elk and deer, taken by bow or rifle. Wild birds, including Hungarian and Chukar partridge, pheasant, and quail, are hunted by horseback or horse-drawn wagon, with Ruggs’ specialty – side-by-side and over-and-under shotguns. Sporting clays are also available.
At over 2500 feet in elevation, Ruggs Ranch affords a pleasing view in most any direction one chooses to look. As more light enters the valley, dark shapes move slowly or stand to test the morning air with a sharp sense of smell and sharper hearing. Their long ears first cocked this way, then that, alert for any possible danger.
Some 30 deer are counted that include a mixture of mule and whitetail deer. As the first rays of sunlight strike the valley floor, one big muley buck ushers his harem of does to the edge of the field and towards the gullies that reach down into the valley from the ridges above.
Breakfast and coffee are finished, and we move out towards our motorcycles. We pause a moment before the engines are fired. One rider points out the distant crow of a pheasant, then the cackles from a flock of Chukars, possibly disturbed by some wandering coyote. It is time to go.
Wasco-Heppner Highway leads visitors up the valley to the ranch from the nearest town of Heppner, some 20 minutes away. Beautiful distant mountains and high plains are noted by those who make their way to this sprawling 86,000-acre ranch.
During the off-season for hunting, Ruggs Ranch is a fertile destination for motorcyclists enjoying the region’s appealing weather. Whichever direction is chosen, the freedom to ride these open roads allows the rider to see great expanses of this part of The Beaver State. The roads lay paths that run between the wheat fields, and then rise, fall, twist and turn, crossing large areas of farmland. One small valley after another is traversed, taking you to the treed valleys and thicker forests at the higher elevations.
Starting out from Heppner after fueling up, there are a few sightseeing stops made before leaving town, including the court house, the one room school house, the U.S. Forest Service building, and an old horse barn complete with a variety of horse tack hanging on a large sliding door set right up against Oregon Route 207. There is more to see, but the summer morning is warm and the riding gear is crying out for ventilation.
Within a few minutes, a nice set of S-curves are encountered while climbing up out of the valley. The Triumph Scrambler and Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide demand we kick it up to top gear once we are on Route 206 as the road straightens out. Visibility is unencumbered passing between wheat fields that stretch way off into the distance.
Riders need to stay alert as these straight shots can abruptly end, when the road may turn sharply then traverse back and forth down the side of a valley, giving time only for a short flat run before heading up the opposite side of the cut. This is repeated time and time again, with each mile traveled revealing a change in the view.
Farmhouses that are passed share no common architectural style, causing the eyes to be drawn to them for a brief moment to try to spot some item of interest. Usually there is some old vehicle, a weather worn building, or animals wandering about; that is the reward for the moment taken for the glance.
After about 45 minutes we pull over at the crest of a ridge for a stretch and see in the distance, miles away, dozens of gigantic electricity-generating wind towers, with their massive blades spinning against a deep blue sky backdrop. There is just something alien about their presence here on Sixmile Canyon Highway, leading to the town of Condon.
That image is washed from memory a short while later, as a great set of turns – seven to be exact – has the boot toe-and-heel twitching the shifter as the road drops over 900 feet within a mile.
Arriving in Condon we are greeted by Rob Turrie, proprietor at the Hotel Condon, which offers exquisite accommodations set in the theme of vintage Las Vegas, complete with The Rat Pack. Dean, Sammy, and Frank are represented, along with a host of other period jetsetters, with photographs, paintings and statues a-plenty. The hotel has all of the modern conveniences and is a definite must-see stop.
Other towns encountered along the way are simply named Mayville, Fossil (check out the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument), Service Creek, and Spray. Every town on this route has the welcome mat out for motorcycle riders. Pictures pinned to the walls of the businesses attest to the variety of motorcycles and riders that have passed through these parts. Our group was treated quite nicely, and locals were a wealth of information regarding sites to be seen around their community.
Just outside of Service Creek we join John Day Highway and, within a few minutes past the town of Spray, the Heppner-Spray Highway (still Route 207) gains elevation and enters another forest of evergreen trees with their wonderful fragrance filling the air. Highway 207 takes more than a few good turns and bends, with several posted as low as 15 mph.
Taking a break, the motors are shut down for a short time at Bull Prairie Lake. As the lake is located over a mile from the highway, it is very quiet here with the low voices of other visitors across the lake carrying to our location. Back on the main road, we continue on at a faster pace as we are still climbing higher. It is getting noticeably cooler as we rumble on towards the comfort and warmth of the lodge at Ruggs Ranch.
Hardman is the last community we visit, about 15 minutes shy of Ruggs. A cluster of homes is located here, with some much older homes that were built for large families in a farming community. The more children in a family, the more helpful hands there would be to run the farm.
It is nearly possible to hear the laughter of the children that must have run here and there about this small community of pioneer-spirited families. Some children are seen as we pass by and give a small wave. Of course, we return the wave and reward them with a beep from the horn.
Locals suggested that towns farther east, towards Pendleton, also hold the interest of many who visit there. One fellow said a good place to dine is Hamley Steakhouse in Pendleton; just ask for Par, the owner.
The town of Joseph was also mentioned as a destination for motorcyclists who favor two-lane roads that wind through evergreen forests. Located just a few miles north of pristine Wallowa Lake, it is a good day’s ride from Ruggs Ranch, but well worth it to experience the Wallowa Mountains.
I remember my Boy Scout summer camps at Wallowa Lake, and a local once telling me I should take notice of how they stand their mountains on end rather than lay them down like most other areas may do. Steep mountains, as this area has, result in highway designs that favor motorcycle enthusiasts as the roads usually follow some winding stream that cuts through the narrow valleys.
We arrive back at Ruggs Ranch right at sunset and are greeted at the lodge by the wonderful smells of dinner being prepared by resident chef and part-time photographer John Kulon. The handmade dinner table accommodates but a dozen people, making the dining experience uniquely personal and intimate, and the chef can customize the menu for any dietary requirements you may have.
Rather than a sprawling and overwhelming place to spend the week, Ruggs Ranch’s lodge is just six bedrooms and seven baths. There is also a pro shop, which has a pair of deluxe rooms. There is a rustic, though not aged, feel. General Manager Dave Ford is serious when he says, “If our staff does not do everything within their ability to make your experience at our ranch as good as it should have been, you don’t owe us a dime!”
Set on a bluff, the lodge has a 360-degree view of the Rhea Creek Valley. Glancing out the huge windows facing east across the patio the small herds of deer are seen returning to the valley to spend the night. I retire to my room, with its custom Pendleton bedding – a great way to end a fantastic day.
It is decided on the final day we would head north out of the area, catch Interstate 84 and travel west to the town of Hood River a good two and a half hours ride following the Columbia River as it heads towards the Pacific Ocean.
Folks had told us of some great wineries there and they were proven right. Stopping off at Cathedral Ridge Winery, there were many varieties of wine offered with many wearing the awards they had gained in numerous tasting competitions. There is no shortage of wine selections here, and an attentive staff as well.
Before everyone parts ways, we gather around the map we used to highlight the routes traveled since our arrival. As much fun as had been packed into the short time we were here, we realize that we had only ridden a small portion of the numerous intriguing two-lane routes throughout the area.
Eastern Oregon offers a playground for motorcyclists, and Ruggs Ranch is the perfect centralized home base to explore the area. The Umatilla, Malheur, and Ochoco National Forests are all within easy reach to the south and east. To the west is Mount Hood and to the north the Hood River and the state of Washington. We will return.
Photography by Jim Chun and John Kulon
This story is featured in the Mar/Apr 2013 issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine—available on newsstands and good bookstores everywhere. The issue is also available free to readers on Apple Newsstand (for iOS devices) and Google Play (Android). To subscribe to the print edition, please visit our Subscriber Services page.