Pendleton, a small community sitting on the plains near the Wallowa Mountains, is one of Oregon’s best-hidden secrets.
It’s steeped in history, with several eras and groups of people leaving their mark on the culture and structures of the city.
There’s even an underground tunnel system built and used by Chinese immigrants back in the 1800s, parts of which are now a main attraction in the downtown area.
Aside from that, the easter portion of the city is an Indian Reservation where the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes live in peace.
So the city is often called the cultural center of East Oregon due to all these factors.
And because of Pendleton’s proximity to a mountain range, it has lots of beautiful natural attractions for nature lovers and adventure seekers.
This charming destination has something for every preference, so make it your top choice for your upcoming weekend vacation.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Pendleton, OR:
Explore the Wonders of Umatilla National Forest
Umatilla National Forest is an expansive attraction spanning more than 1.4 million acres.
While it’s a little far from Pendleton’s city proper, it still attracts thousands of visitors every year because of its stunning panoramas.
It’s an important ecological hotspot, with untouched old-growth forests covering most of its valleys and slopes.
These are the home of Oregon’s native wildlife, such as moose, elk, black bears, and other large mammals.
Its rivers and lakes are also teeming with freshwater species like Chinook salmon, trout, and steelheads.
That’s why fishing is a favorite activity in the national forest.
Other things to do include backcountry camping, hiking, biking, and skiing during the snowy winter months.
Hunting is also permitted in various sections, as the practice helps control populations of deer and other game in the forest.
Learn About Native American Heritage at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute
The Tamastslikt Cultural Institute is a museum and research facility based in the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Pendleton and the surrounding regions were home to many tribes back in the day, and the institute seeks to preserve the heritage of these ancient peoples.
The main tribes on display here are Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, with their artifacts and cultural items being part of the permanent exhibit.
While perusing the displays, you’d see many types of weapons, clothing and fabrics, farming tools, and many other collections.
The temporary exhibits are also related to Native American cultures, with visiting organizations and artists displaying art pieces and other works.
On occasion, the institute holds events in line with its advocacy.
These include craft lessons, children’s day camps, live performances, and powwows, all of which you’re welcome to attend.
Let the Kids Play at the Children's Museum of Eastern Oregon
For those bringing kids to their Pendleton trip, make a stopover at the Children's Museum of Eastern Oregon.
This attraction is designed to stimulate the imagination and enhance young learners' knowledge about various topics.
By combining interactive exhibits and educational programs, adults can easily engage kids in experiments, activities, and classes.
There are also various sections where kids can role-play and become the professionals they aspire to be in the future.
Let them play in the pizza cafe, fire station, and wild west adventures.
For those who are more interested in physics, biology, and other similar subjects, there’s a STEM corner stocked with magnets, machines, and other fun contraptions.
Your child might never want to leave the place once they start enjoying the exhibits!
Tour the Pendleton Round-Up & Happy Canyon Hall of Fame Museum
The Wild West culture and Native American way of life blend seamlessly at the Pendleton Round-Up & Happy Canyon Hall of Fame Museum.
This attraction was established to honor distinctive individuals (and even livestock) who have made a contribution to the community.
But most people come here to see the very best of Pendleton’s heritage.
Upon arrival, you’d notice the majestic bucking horse sculpture right at the front, which gives you a hint of the things you’ll see inside.
The exhibits contain various iconic memorabilia that you’d instantly recognize as part of the Wild West.
From horses in the middle of gallop to lines of covered wagons, the displays are as cowboy as they can get.
Then there’s the life-size teepee, Native American artifacts, and majestic tribal regalia complementing the western displays.
Immerse in History at Heritage Station Museum
There’s no shortage of attractions in Pendleton that showcase its storied past, but one of the most comprehensive ones is Heritage Station Museum.
The attraction contains artifacts that span more than 150 years of modern history.
So you’ll see an array of structures, equipment, and machines that were integral to the town’s development during the bygone years.
These include the old schoolhouse, a barn and homestead, a cozy cabin with old furniture, and a bright yellow caboose.
At the heritage gallery, you’d find informative panels, photographs, and artifacts that showcase the Umatilla County heritage.
These include the past wheat industry and gold mining practices that served as the main source of income for much of the region’s history.
Walk or Run Along Pendleton Riverwalk
One of the ways the city’s residents took advantage of Umatilla River’s scenic views is by installing the Pendleton Riverwalk.
This well-paved route spans 3.2 miles and runs parallel to the aforementioned body of water.
And it’s frequented by joggers, bikers, and other cardio enthusiasts, especially in the early morning when temperatures are cooler.
But you can still explore the path any time of the day.
It will bring you to some gorgeous spots and Pendleton’s attractions like Roy Raley Park, skateparks, and baseball fields.
There are also sections where you can go shore fishing along the Umatilla River or simply enjoy the relaxing sound of rushing water.
Try Your Luck at Wildhorse Resort & Casino
If you find thrill in gambling, make sure to add the Wildhorse Resort & Casino to your itinerary.
This place is located away from the city center, so the players can be loud and rowdy, especially when games are heating up.
As a vast complex, this destination has many attractions that are perfect for entertainment lovers.
The casino itself is packed with slot machines, poker tables, roulettes, and even arcade games, allowing you to have fun however you like.
Then there’s the events place that holds live music concerts by talented local and national bands.
For golfing enthusiasts, the 18-hole Wildhorse Golf Course has a well-planned layout for a challenging few rounds.
Wildhorse Resort & Casino also serves a great accommodation for the whole family, so make this your base during your Peddleton adventures!
Cool Down at Pendleton Family Aquatic Center
The summers of Pendleton can sometimes get uncomfortably hot, but thankfully, there’s Pendleton Family Aquatic Center!
This outdoor facility is where locals and visitors come to cool off and have fun with loved ones at the same time.
Within its expansive area, this destination contains many recreational facilities and modern amenities.
They have three pools, one with a zero-depth entry for kids and another reaching 50 meters in length for those who want to do laps.
If you want an exhilarating activity, you can take on the two towering slides and splash into the crystal clear waters down below.
Around the pools, there are shaded sections and picnic areas where you can enjoy meals with the whole family.
If you need more fuel after hours in the water, stop by the concession stands and grab a satisfying snack.
Brave the Rapids of Umatilla River
Spanning more than 89 miles in length, the Umatilla River is a lengthy body of water that also serves as an important resource to the inhabitants of Pendleton.
It starts at the Umatilla National Forest before finally spilling its waters onto the Columbia River as one of its main tributaries.
Along the way, it cleaves Pendleton, creating a neat divide that separates the northern and southern sections of the city.
Shore fishing is one of the favorite activities on the river, but there are plenty of other activities to try in the isolated segments.
You can join a local fisherman and ride a boat towards the best places for freshwater game.
Some of the species you can catch are Chinook salmon, walleye, and smallmouth bass.
But if you’re not up for fishing, you can always go kayaking or canoeing along the more turbulent sections.
Because of its width (or the lack of it), the Umatilla River has fast waters and many wild segments.
So be sure to have the proper gear and skills to navigate the rapids safely.
Tour the Storied Pendleton Underground
When the Gold Rush started in the middle of the 19th century, many Chinese immigrants moved to the region to seek their fortune.
Pendleton had a considerable population of this group of people, and they left their mark in the city long after they were gone.
One of these is the Pendleton Underground, which is said to be an extensive network of tunnels built by Chinese railroad workers.
Sections of these are open to the public, and you can join tours to explore the deepest secrets of the city.
It’s said that this is where opium dens, gambling businesses, and other grim activities took place.
While the authenticity of the tales is still up for debate, you’d still be treated to a fascinating historical experience.
You’d get to see card rooms, sleeping quarters, kitchens, and the occasionally questionable section that makes you wonder about the things that happened there.
But if you hate tight spaces or being underground, you can skip this and stay outside where the sky is visible.
See Fierce Raptors at Blue Mountain Wildlife
Near the Mckay Reservoir, south of Pendleton’s city proper, lies the Blue Mountain Wildlife.
As the premier wildlife facility in town, this attraction is where you’d find native wildlife who need care and rehabilitation.
It was established in the 1980s as a center where animals, mostly raptors, were treated for injuries and diseases.
Over the years, it evolved into an educational attraction where people can visit and learn about the animals.
Most of these rehabilitated birds are released back into the wild, but some are just too injured and disabled to ever return to their natural habitats.
But they’ve been given another purpose here as education birds.
At the comfort of wide enclosures, these owls, falcons, kestrels, and other birds of prey stand proud as facilitators point to them and tell visitors about their importance to Oregon’s ecosystems.
It’s a fascinating experience to get up close and personal with these fierce animals, so make sure the facility is in your itinerary.
Check Out Incredible Works at Pendleton Center for the Arts
Even with a population that doesn’t breach 18,000, Pendleton still has a thriving art scene, showcased at the Pendleton Center for the Arts.
There’s a lot going on at this place, but it’s first and foremost a haven for creative work and artistic individuals.
So come check out the galleries and marvel at the intriguing pieces created by talented local artists.
Pendleton Center for the Arts is also a hotspot for performance art, so there are a lot of events that showcase human talent.
Live music concerts, dance recitals, and literary events are just some of the things you shouldn’t miss during your visit.
If you want to try your hand at a particular art style or medium, there are classes that are open for all ages.
Join one during your visit to brush up on your skills or find a hidden talent.
Give Your Thighs a Workout at Roy Raley Park
All year round, Pendleton’s Roy Raley Park offers many activities that will get the whole family moving.
Chief of this is the ice skating rink, which is open seasonally.
This facility is one of the favorite attractions by residents, as it allows them to enjoy the winter season with the rest of the community.
You’re allowed to join in as well, so bring your blades and glide across the smooth, iced-over surface.
During summer, there are still many other activities to try at the community park.
There’s a grass amphitheater that occasionally holds events, lots of picnic benches for the whole family, as well as reservable shelters for bigger celebrations.
If you want something more active, the basketball courts are open for everyone, or you can jog on the nearby Pendleton Riverwalk.
Watch the Sunset at Deadman Pass Lookout Area
Oregon is more well-known for its rugged coasts, but its interiors are just as beautiful.
One of the best places to see the low plains of the state is at Deadman Pass Lookout Area, which is a few minutes away from the city proper.
This attraction is a plateau located on the interstate highway, so you can simply park your car on the side of the road, and you’d already see the stunning panoramas.
Thanks to the treeless, grassy hills, the lookout provides uninterrupted views of the green valleys below.
It’s truly a marvel to behold, especially when the sun is setting and the sky is awash in bursts of orange, violet, and reds.
Bring a good camera to capture the magnificent vistas, or you can just stand in the middle of it all and breathe in the beauty.
Marvel at the Display of Pendleton Air Museum
Budding aviation enthusiasts and history buffs will have a great time exploring the wonders inside the Pendleton Air Museum.
It was built in 2000 to preserve aviation and military history.
Today, it stands as a tourist attraction and educational facility where you’ll learn lots about various aircraft and the role they served during the war.
And you can get up close in personal with some of these airplanes as the museum has some on display.
There are also lots of war memorabilia, uniform, photographs, and other items that offer a glimpse of a tumultuous past.
They are great reminders of the heroism that allowed us to have more peaceful present times.
Pendleton may not have Oregon’s iconic coasts, but the attractions here offer another perspective of the state that’s just as exciting.
From underground tunnels to vast open plains, from national forests to aviation museums, there’s a lot to see in this charming city.
So when planning for your next vacation, consider adding these top spots to your itinerary.