15 Best Things to Do in Umatilla, OR

 Umatilla, OR
Jcon64.28, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1864, the city of Umatilla was first incorporated, with a mayor, recorder, marshall, five aldermen, and treasurer.

Sitting on the south bank of the Columbia River, the place gets its name from the Native American tribe that lived there.

Their descendants make up the present-day Confederated Tribes of Umatilla.

Umatilla is a bustling metropolis with stores, saloons, homes, and hotels right on the Columbia River.

The city saw its heyday during the 1860s Gold Rush when its location on the river made it a key transportation junction.

When the John Day Lock and Dam were built in the late 60s, they moved the city to higher ground due to expected flooding.

The Army Corps of Engineers gained the land linking to the Columbia River, and the 130-acre area that didn’t flood as expected is now called Old Town.

Old Town is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and archeological digs confirmed that an ancient settlement once thrived there.

Today, the river enriches life in Umatilla.

Umatilla is a great place to connect with culture and nature!

Here are the best things to do in Umatilla, OR:

Enjoy Tee Time at Big River Golf Course

Big River Golf Course is an 18-hole municipal course in Umatilla, where some holes provide you with a view of the Umatilla River and McNary Dam.

Big River Golf Course is quite unusual in that the first three holes are all par 3s.

The next are par 5s, with the back nine longer and harder than the front.

The first nine opened in 1948 as a private, member-owned course called McNary Golf and Country Club.

The second nine opened in 1968, reopening as Umatilla Golf Course.

At some point, Jerry D. Smith bought it and changed its name to McNary Golf Course.

Finally, in 2007, Big River Golf Club LLC purchased the course and called it Big River.

Celebrate the Umatilla Landing Days

Umatilla Landing Days celebrates the heritage of Umatilla, which is the oldest existing community in Eastern Oregon.

You can take the entire family to enjoy kids’ activities, fantastic food, bounce houses, water fun, craft vendors, entertainment, fireworks, and more.

It features an opening parade through downtown Umatilla and the first fireworks of the season.

Your kids will have fun at the bounce houses, water activities, face painting, fishing pond, tree/rock climbing, and more.

About 50 to 60 vendors serve the best food and drinks in the vicinity.

Vendors are also here to sell crafts, so you can buy a one-of-a-kind gift for someone you love.

Still, others offer games and activities, including a rock-climbing wall and Knockerball.

Stage entertainment also includes many area acts who are eager to show off their talents.

You can finish up your evening with an incredible fireworks show over the water.

Grab Fresh Produce at Umatilla Farmer’s Market

The city of Umatilla holds a Farmer’s Market every day from June to September.

You can buy jewelry, produce, handmade bags, custom-made decals, and much more.

It also features farm vendors who sell milk, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and other agricultural products directly to customers.

Visitors will also find baked goods, coffee, poultry, seafood, and meat.

Almost every Saturday, there are additional crafts, displays, and activities that families can enjoy together at the market.

Sometimes, the Umatilla Fire Department provides safety demonstrations and displays a fire apparatus.

The Umatilla Police Department also promotes National Night Out with a display of patrol vehicles.

Supporting local farmers at the market helps strengthen the community and local economy.

You can experience real flavors, enjoy seasonal goods at peak taste and nutrition, and start a healthy lifestyle.

Appreciate Biodiversity at the McNary National Wildlife Refuge

McNary National Wildlife Refuge serves as a welcome anchor for ecosystem conservation and biodiversity.

You can find it in Burbank, Washington, 42 minutes from Umatilla.

It has 15,000 acres of ponds, sloughs, islands, and streams (or wetland and riparian habitat) and cliff-talus and upland shrub-steppe habitat.

These habitats are highly important to shorebirds, songbirds, and migratory waterfowl.

Almost half of the Pacific Flyway mallards spend winter in this part of the Columbia Basin.

You can find rare and endangered birds, including peregrine falcons and bald eagles, as well as colonial nesting birds who nest on the river islands.

The refuge also supports significant populations of raptors, many species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

McNary National Wildlife Refuge was created to replace the wildlife lost upon the construction of the McNary Dam.

Refuge habitats include backwater sloughs, rivers, irrigated farmlands, shrub-steppe uplands, delta mud flats, and river islands.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Take Pictures at McNary Lock and Dam

The waters of McNary Lock and Dam
Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

McNary Dam is a 1.4-mile-long concrete gravity run-of-the-river dam that joins Umatilla County with Benton County, spanning the Columbia River.

The McNary Lock and Dam office operate it, and it belongs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The dam provides for hydroelectric power generation, slack-water navigation, recreation, wildlife habitat, and incidental irrigation.

Far view of McNary Lock and Dam
CatonPhoto / Shutterstock.com

It is 7,365 feet long, rising about 183 feet above the streambed, and comprises a concrete structure with an earth-fill embankment.

The dam provides power for the Pacific Northwest, creating hydropower when water flows down a powerhouse with a spinning turbine.

Lewis and Clark passed through this area on their October 19, 1805 journey back to the Pacific Ocean.

You will also find the Pacific Salmon Visitor Information Center, where you can see the iconic Pacific salmon and the local wildlife living in the Columbia River.

Aerial view of McNary Lock and Dam
Sam Beebe, Ecotrust, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Go Birdwatching at Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge

In 1969, they built the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge to replace the wildlife habitats lost to flooding upon the construction of the John Day Lock and Dam.

You can find it in Paterson, Oregon, 14 minutes from Umatilla.

It is a network of lands bordering the Washington and Oregon shorelines of the Columbia River.

Its 23,555 acres offer a vast collection of habitats, including shallow marshes, open water, croplands, islands, backwater sloughs, and shrub-steppe uplands.

In the refuge, you can find colonial nesting birds, bald eagles, migrating waterfowl, resident wildlife, migratory songbirds, and rare and endangered species.

Its strategic location within the Pacific Flyway provides ducks and Arctic nesting geese with a resting stopover and a wintering site.

Spring and fall are exciting times to visit the refuge.

In the spring, you can see lots of species nesting, including long-billed curlews and burrowing owls.

You can also see species of songbirds throughout the wetlands, such as yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, white pelicans, and red-winged blackbirds.

Throughout the winter, thousands of waterfowl make their return, foraging, resting, and preparing for nesting season.

Explore Native American Culture at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute

Tamastslikt Cultural Institute is a museum and research institute on the Umatilla Indian Reservation: the only Native American-owned center on the Oregon Trail.

It dedicates itself to the cultural history of the Confederated Tribes or Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes who have lived in the region for 16000 years.

Its permanent exhibits explore the tribes’ past, present, and future and the reservation on which they live.

It also has a gallery for temporary exhibitions featuring craftwork, Native American art, history, and folklore.

The We Are exhibit features the persevering people as warriors, soldiers, and government players, balancing the modern and traditional.

The We Will Be exhibit centers upon the tribal community’s aspirations, achievements, and concerns.

The We Were exhibit transports visitors to another time when horses thundered across the plateau, storytellers lived in the winter lodge, and translated hymns rang out in the church.

See Unique Sights at Hat Rock State Park

Daytime view of the unique Hat Rock
Real Window Creative / Shutterstock.com

Hat Rock State Park is located nine miles east of Umatilla on the south shore of Lake Wallula, behind McNary Dam.

Find the park in Hermiston, Oregon, 13 minutes from Umatilla.

The legendary Lewis & Clark expedition first crossed this distinctive landmark on their way to Columbia.

Lewis and Clark saw the geological formation on their expedition and noted how it looked similar to a man’s hat.

In the park, you can find a desert oasis embraced by sagebrush hills and basalt outcroppings.

Escape the blazing heat under a shade of cottonwood and black locust, surrounded by a shelter of green grass.

A boat ramp gives access to the lake, which is noted to contain sturgeon, walleye, and other fish.

The park also has a pond teeming with rainbow trout and is inhabited year-round by waterfowl.

Popular recreations at the lake are jet-skiing, water-skiing, boating, and swimming.

Admire the Forest at the Blue Mountain Forest State Scenic Corridor

You can find Blue Mountain Forest State Scenic Corridor along the Old Oregon Trail Highway.

It's in Meacham, Oregon, an hour and 42 minutes from Umatilla.

It has an elevation of 1303 meters and is found northeast of Strickland Flat, between Spring Creek and Deadman’s Pass.

The corridor protects one of the few developed evergreen forests left between Utah, Ogden, and Dallas, Oregon.

The corridor contains undisturbed native plants and animals.

It comprises intermittent stands of western larch, old-growth ponderosa pine, Engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, and grand fir.

It also has mule deer, White-tailed deer, cougar, Rocky Mountain elk, and other wildlife.

Birds found in this mountain terrain are a brown creeper, saw-whet owls, hairy, black-backed, and pileated woodpeckers, rednaped and Williamson’s sapsuckers, and mountain and Western bluebirds.

Spring is quite a sight, exploding in a rainbow of flowers, and fall frost ends with a last riot of color.

The corridor is a welcome break from the freeway and is an excellent example of nature’s beauty along the highway.

Learn History at the Heritage Station Museum

In downtown Pendleton, the Umatilla County Historical Society operates and owns Heritage Station Museum.

It was established to preserve and collect stories and objects unique to Umatilla County.

These strengthen the present and future generations’ knowledge of that history through exhibits and various programming.

People arranged to convert Pendleton’s 1909 train depot into a museum in 1987.

And in 1988, after many renovations, the programs, collections, and exhibits finally converged under one roof.

Experience history by stepping into the Byrd schoolhouse, a rural school teaching children from grades 1-8, and the turn of the 20th-century barn and homestead.

Check out the Fix family cabin where Monrod Fix and his family settled in, farming and raising livestock.

See the 1909 Pendleton train depot, which includes the short film, The Land They Overlooked, a railroad ticket office space, Treasures From the Vault, the Century Farms exhibit, and more.

Try Different Activities at Umatilla National Forest

Welcome sign of Umatilla National Forest
Real Window Creative / Shutterstock.com

The Umatilla National Forest is located in Southeast Washington and Northeast Oregon.

It's in Pendleton, Oregon, two hours and two minutes from Umatilla.

It takes its name from the Native American term meaning “water rippling over sand.”

Lewis and Clark came upon this land in 1805 on their voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman went this way to establish a mission.

You can find almost every wildlife species in the Blue Mountains in the forest’s Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

These include bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain elk, whitetail and mule deer, cougar, coyote, black bear, and pine martens.

Dirt road at Umatilla National Forest
Jesse Stephens / Shutterstock.com

You can hike up to 715 miles of trails, pick huckleberries or wild mushrooms, choose from 20 campsites, and float down the rivers from April to June.

You can navigate the Grande Ronde River with canoes, kayaks, rubber rafts, and rowboats.

You can also go fishing on the North Fork Umatilla River which supports hefty runs of anadromous fish.

The elevation in the area ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 feet, assuring a challenging workout for equestrians and hikers.

Butterfly on a flower at Umatilla National Forest
Jennifer Bosvert / Shutterstock.com

Celebrate the Umatilla County Fair

The Umatilla County Fair is an annual fair celebrated in Hermiston, 16 minutes away from Umatilla.

They usually hold the fair from the middle of June to the middle of August every year.

It started in August 1912 as the Hermiston Dairy and Hog Show, a joint event with Morrow County.

It is an old-fashioned fair in Eastern Oregon, providing livestock and open class exhibits, traveling carnival rides, live entertainers, and open class exhibits.

Attend the kickoff parade, a glitzy event full of good old family fun, where entrants show off their creative sides.

Celebrate at the fair with a DJ, concert party, party pit, dancing, and much entertainment.

See the many exhibitors on the grounds with their displays, such as art, photography, dog shows, and horse shows.

Attend the important Youth Livestock Auction, where young agriculture students sell hogs, rabbits, steers, turkeys, goats, and lambs.

Sample Fine Products at Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery

Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery is a family-owned and operated facility in Pendleton, Oregon.

It is the first distillery in Oregon since prohibition and focuses on using locally owned products to produce top-tier craft spirits.

Owners Kelli and Rodney Bullington source or contract with growers to gain local ingredients for milling, distillation, fermentation, and bottling on site.

At the distillery, they have a comfortable tasting room where guests can sample products, observe the distilling process, and buy their favorite flavored vodka, whiskey, and gin.

The Bullingtons like to incorporate locally grown ingredients like wheat, watermelon, mint, lavender, and huckleberries in their spirits and cocktails.

They try their best to use Eastern Oregon, if not Oregon, products to go into distilling.

Whenever they use a farmer’s product is a spirit, they put their names on the bottle labels and host educational discussions with those farmers present.

Spend a Day at McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge

McKay reservoir at McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge
Bobjgalindo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge is tucked between the plains and the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon.

You can find it in Pendleton, Oregon, 51 minutes from Umatilla.

In the early 1900s, people discovered that the wildlife and migratory bird populations were decreasing.

A national conservation movement spearheaded the establishment of wildlife preserves across the nation.

For example, President Calvin Coolidge established the McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge as a breeding ground and refuge for birds.

It supports a high diversity of wild creatures, providing sanctuary to migratory and breeding birds in an otherwise sparse desert environment.

It now serves as a recreational mecca, receiving over 50,000 visitors annually.

The majority of visitors like to go fishing.

Upland bird hunting is also popular, with hunters pursuing quail and pheasant.

Other visitors simply like to drive, walk, picnic, birdwatch, photograph, and observe nature’s beauty.

Take Your Kids to the Children’s Museum of Eastern Oregon

The Children’s Museum of Eastern Oregon or CMEO is a non-profit play place that offers a vast range of educational exhibits, games, and activities, for children of every age.

Located in downtown Pendleton, their hands-on exhibit exposes children to an imaginative realm while opening their minds to real-world lessons.

They further stimulate the children’s education with structured programs every month.

Their camps, classes, and events will help your child focus on the world, with an emphasis in science, engineering, technology, math, and the arts.

Here they will develop essential skills and the means to self-expression, setting the foundation for a passion for learning.

The CMEO has over 14000 enrollees a year and hundreds of memberships.

Many childcare providers, families, and teachers in the community count on the museum to deliver an educational place that they can enjoy with their children.

Marvel at Native Artistry in Crow’s Shadow Institute for the Arts

Crow’s Shadow Institute for the Arts is in the iconic Saint Andrew’s Mission schoolhouse on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Walla Walla artist James Lavadour, one of the most critically acclaimed painters in the Northwest, founded the institute in 1992.

Its mission is to provide social, educational, and economic opportunities for Native Americans via artistic development.

In 2001, the institute brought a full-time Master Printer to its staff, narrowing its focus on fine printmaking.

Nowadays, each artist works with the Master Printer to produce a series of monoprints or monotypes or produce a lithographic edition.

Today, Crow’s Shadow now boasts over 200 prints by over 45 artists-in-residence in the permanent collection.

Most of the permanent collections at Crow’s Shadow are loaned to learning and cultural institutions.

Along with printmaking, Crow’s Shadow also plays host to various Traditional Arts workshops.

These include classes such as basket weaving/twining, keyhole, horse mask making, and beadwork.

At the institute, they devote themselves to recognizing art as an intrinsic element of Native American culture.

Celebrate a Great Heritage at the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame

At the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame, there is great recognition of the animals, individuals, and the Native American culture of Eastern Oregon.

Five horses and ten men were the first honorees of the Hall of Fame.

Every year, they set up a special display case for the current inductees, including clothing, photographs, and memorabilia touting their contributions.

Exhibits in the Hall of Fame span over a hundred years of the Round-Up and Happy Canyon’s storied past.

Here you will see saddles, photographs, Native American regalia and beadwork, trophies, weapons, and more.

Other objects on display are show memorabilia, cowboy artifacts, firearms, and wagons.

View the full history of the Pendleton Round Up through fascinating displays of past presidents, royalty, champions, and even rodeo stock.

Final Thoughts

Umatilla is a highly livable and desirable community that promotes wholesome small-town values and is also a jump-off point for adventurous exploration.

It sits in a stretch of Eastern Oregon, where you can visit friendly museums, lively farms, thriving wildernesses, iconic attractions, and unique Oregonian treats.

So grab your map and head for Umatilla today!