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The other Oregon: Great golf doesn't begin and end on the coast

By Chris Santella,
Contributor
Wildhorse Resort
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The sun sets on the inland links of Wildhorse Resort, in the shadow of Oregon's Blue Mountains. (Courtesy of Wildhorse Resort)

While Oregon golf starts with beautiful coastal golf courses, it doesn't have to end there. Get out. See the sites. And don't miss great eastern Oregon golf courses like Wildhorse Resort, La Grande Country Club, Buffalo Peak and Quail Ridge Golf Course.

I will begin by saying that I love Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the southern coast of Oregon: the crashing surf and occasional passing whale, the monolithic waste bunkers, the vertigo-inducing greens of Tom Doak and Bill Coore and the unfawning friendliness of the staff.

The Greater Bend region is no slouch, either. With nearly 25 golf golf courses open to the public, ample Cascade Mountain views and a veritable outdoor recreation oasis awaiting you once you step off the greens, this region of central Oregon has rapidly established itself as a golf destination.

But Bandon, as we Oregonians say, can be a bit spendy. And while Bend is a bit easier on the pocketbook, it's not exactly undiscovered.

So, I propose to you the other Oregon, one that many visitors don't even know exists (though it comprises nearly two thirds of the Beaver state's total landmass). The drier, rugged cowboy country that's eastern Oregon, where antelope and bighorn sheep do indeed still roam. Where mountain ranges approaching 10,000 feet rise without warning, draining enough water to support verdant valleys and tumbling trout streams that seem an oasis against a sometimes stark country.

And, where for the green fees of one peak season round at Bandon, you can play five or six rounds of golf and still have enough change left for a big steak dinner.

Golf in eastern Oregon

I recently set off for the east with my friend and sometime instructor Roberto Borgatti (author of "A Swing You Can Trust") from my home in Portland - a reverse Oregon Trail, if you will - to explore what eastern Oregon has to offer.

While the golf courses I found there - Wildhorse, La Grande Country Club, Buffalo Peak and Quail Ridge Golf Course - did not rival Pacific Dunes or Crosswater Golf Club, they were thoughtfully laid out among sprawling western scenery. And there were enough rewarding diversions, from historic exhibits to fly fishing to one of the west's great scenic drives, to fill out any golf vacation.

Wildhorse Resort in Pendleton

Our first stop was the Wildhorse Resort & Casino (green fees: $34) on the eastern edge of Pendleton. The complex is owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, which are made up of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples.

These peoples have long lived on the Columbia River Plateau in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington and are considered to have been successful in incorporating gaming/entertainment into their larger cultural traditions, which are highlighted on site at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.

The Wildhorse Resort golf course is an inland links layout that's nestled against the western foothills of the Blue Mountains and plays a longish 7,128 yards from the tips. The length is exacerbated when the wind is up, which is not an uncommon occurrence, as testified by the tumbleweeds that blow across I-84 in the region.

The golf course rolls up and down and around several lakes, which attract abundant birdlife. Looking west across seemingly endless agricultural fields as the sunset shimmered through a mostly cloudy sky, it was not too much of a stretch to imagine the course resting against a calm sea of wheat.

Pendleton, home of the famed Pendleton Woolen Mills, has a rich wild west history, the celebration of which is culminated with the Pendleton Round-Up, a rodeo held each September that dates back nearly 100 years. History enthusiasts will want to embark on the Pendleton Underground Tour, which shines a light on the life of Chinese immigrants in the west - as well as the once boom town's underground economy, circa 1900.

Though Wildhorse has ample fairway-side accommodations, we had ground to cover and continued east across the Blue Mountains, eventually descending into the Grande Ronde Valley and the town of La Grande. La Grande is a metropolis for these parts, home to Eastern Oregon University and boasting a population of nearly 13,000; the valley was once a popular gathering area for the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe, who came to harvest salmon.

Many still use La Grande as a jumping off point for angling adventures on the Wallowa or Grande Ronde Rivers, where rainbow trout and steelhead (depending on the season) await. There's a lot of fine beef raised in eastern Oregon, and we found a first-rate steak at Ten Depot (541-963-8766). We turned in that night at the modest but comfortable All American Inn.

Golf at La Grande Country Club

We arose the next morning for a visit to La Grande Country Club (green fees: $28), a nine-holer that dates back to 1928, making it one of the oldest golf courses in Oregon. La Grande boasts mature trees (it's in close proximity to apple orchards), making it stand out from the inland links that typify the region. While perhaps not a destination venue, La Grande proved an excellent warm-up for the afternoon's round and the highlight of the trip, Buffalo Peak Golf Course.

Buffalo Peak Golf Course in Union

Buffalo Peak (green fees: $31) is set in a valley overlooking the hamlet of Union, 15 miles southeast of La Grande. While bison were never indigenous to eastern Oregon, the native grasses festooning the hillsides certainly recall the vegetation of the Great Plains. (During our spring visit, the hillsides were still quite green; in summer, they brown up, making a dramatic contrast with the greens and fairways.)

The layout makes full use of the site's elevation changes, with the opening of each nine beginning on the upper edge of the valley, then slowly winding down to the valley floor. Several holes have blind approach shots, and flat lies are in short supply. None of this deterred Roberto, who rattled off six straight birdies before settling down to mere par play. Several of the hillside holes at Buffalo Peak remain vivid in my mind, particularly the 417-yard, par-4 fifth, where your drive from an elevated tee is framed by the Blue Mountains in the distance, and ponds shimmer on the valley floor below.

From Buffalo Peak, we moved on to Baker City, a former gold-rush town that once rivaled Portland and Pendleton in terms of population and mischief. Baker City was a major stop on the Oregon Trail, and just outside of town, on the grounds of the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, you can see ruts preserved from the original trail.

We were on a tight schedule and took the most direct route to Baker. Travelers with a day to spare will want to head back toward La Grande and take the 218-mile Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, which winds north in the shadows of the picturesque Wallowa Mountains before bending south to take in the craggy 8,000 foot depths of Hells Canyon - America's deepest canyon. Though at times slow-going on secondary routes, Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is considered one of the nation's most beautiful byways.

Quail Ridge Golf Course in Baker City

After another fine steak dinner and night's rest at the Geiser Grand Hotel (www.geisergrand.com) - an edifice dating back to Baker's 1890s heyday, and purportedly haunted by ghosts of past denizens - we rose to play Quail Ridge Golf Course (green fees: $28) before heading back to Portland. Originally a nine-holer, Quail Ridge was expanded to 18 in 1999 with the help of Bill Robinson, at least in part to accommodate the steady stream of weary urbanites and active retirees seeking a laid-back, semi-rural existence.

Like Buffalo Peak, Quail Ridge winds around a scantily treed, rock-rimmed valley. While the site itself lacks the intimacy and seclusion of Buffalo Peak, the 270-degree mountain views - Elkhorns to the south, Blues to the west, Wallowas to the north - help make Quail Ridge an enjoyable track.

Over the course of 60 hours, we played 72 holes of golf, seldom waiting on the tee - indeed, often having much of the golf course to ourselves. We covered some miles (nearly 700 in all) but had as little traffic as we found on the fairways. We saw scads of wildlife - deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, a host of birds and a dark-colored cow that was mistaken for a bear. Our green fees totaled exactly $120; our shared accommodations, another $80 each. Throw in a few good meals and a few post-golf Terminal Gravity IPAs, the local beer of choice, and we were heading back to Portland just $300 lighter.

That's something that will have golfers spending a little less time on our beautiful coast and a little more time out east.

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Buffalo Peak Golf CourseQuail Ridge Golf Course - Baker City
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Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Southern Oregon Golf

    Dick Young wrote on: Feb 25, 2010

    The Runing Y Resort is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the west. The course is very well maintained and each hole has it,s own unique view. This is one of Arnold Palmers top 15 courses that he has designed. A must play course!!!!

    Reply

  • Golf in Northeast Oregon

    Bill Rosholt, PGA wrote on: Dec 11, 2008

    Chris, thanks for the the great story about golf in Northeast Oregon. We who live on the eastside know what great golf we have available. But it is always appreciated when others toot our horn for us! You, Roberto and any other friends that wish to tag along on your next trip are always welcome at Buffalo Peak...

    Reply

  • golf eastern oregon

    Diane Berry wrote on: Dec 11, 2008

    Unfortunately, you skipped Echo Hills Golf Course. It is a great little 9 hole course sitting on the hills above historic & scenic Echo Oregon. As well as challenging hillside lies, it offers wonderful views of the Echo Meadows, Umatilla River Valley, Blue Mountain Foothills and vineyards across the valley. Contact Randy Sperr @ the golf course for more info: 541-376-8244 or link to the course at www.echo-oregon.com

    Reply

  • Golf in northeast Oregon

    Janet Dodson wrote on: Dec 10, 2008

    Happy to hear the golfers had such a great time enjoying their sport in beautiful northeast Oregon. As Chris points out, the scenery, wildlife and mix of visitor services makes this region worth exploring. It's also hard to beat the bargain prices!

    Reply

  • Golfing East of the Cascades

    Alice Trindle wrote on: Dec 10, 2008

    What a nice article regarding golfing east of the Cascades in Oregon! Watch for great packages to several of the golf courses you played coming out in 2009! Makes for a great "rural" experience! Visit www.eova.com for golf and vacation packages.

    Reply

  • Golf Packages

    Barbara Sidway wrote on: Dec 10, 2008

    Thanks for telling the world about the great golf experiences here in Eastern Oregon. Readers should ask for a GOLF PACKAGE at teh Geiser Grand Hotel, where green fees are included. Not available on line, this is only available by calling the Hotel directly. Here to serve you golfers 24 hrs/day, toll free 888 434 7374.

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