Eastern Oregon Offers Backcountry Bliss at Minam River Lodge
The lodge is open from late May through mid-October
By Danielle Centoni June 28, 2019
Two miles into my 8.5-mile downhill hike on this muddy, rocky horse trail and I’m suddenly quite thankful for my quads. By mile 3, however, I’m cursing my feet and their burgeoning blisters, which have turned my trusty hiking boots into torture devices. But I cinch up my backpack and plod on, focusing on the lush deep green of the forest all around me and the sound of the Little Minam River rushing alongside. As the mud sucks at my boots and my ankles twist this way and that on the sharp, jutting stones, I try to distract myself by imagining what I would cook with all those dinner-plate-size porcini mushrooms dotting the hillside. And when that fails, I just focus on my destination.
Accessible only by foot, horse or small plane, the Minam River Lodge, nestled in a small, remote valley within eastern Oregon’s pristine 360,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness, offers motivation unlike any other. With its promise of unplugged and unspoiled nature combined with creature comforts and culinary pleasures, I would pretty much walk through fire to get there (and nearly 6 miles later, it feels like I have). But I know it was worth every step as I sit back in a log chair on the expansive deck, the scent of wood-grilled Carman Ranch rib-eye steaks and roasted carrots with juniper butter wafting from the open kitchen behind me, and soak in the serene mountain views with a cold pint of Terminal Gravity beer in hand and my phone blessedly silent for the next two days.
Some guests arrive at the remote lodge by private plane
Opened in spring 2017, the lodge of this former dude ranch was razed and rebuilt, along with nine cabins and three tent cabins, and transformed into a rustic-luxe destination ideal for hikers, horseback riders and fly-fishers, sporting dusty jeans and hip waders by day, enjoying cocktails and garden-to-table cuisine by night. The project was no small feat. It took six years, and with no routes in except by horse trails and primitive landing strips, everything from the windows to the dishes had to be flown via charter plane or chopper—everything that’s not wood, that is. The lodge and cabins, and the handsome furniture within them, were all hand-built using reclaimed wood and the land’s timber.
A private cabin at Minam River Lodge
Only open to guests from late May to mid-October, the full-service lodge is run by a small, dedicated group of seemingly tireless and multitalented live-in staffers. Like counselors at summer camp, they do double or triple duty: as the housekeepers who clean your room before leading you on a horseback ride through the valley; as the massage therapist who eases your aching muscles and also guides yoga sessions in the open-walled barn. Oh, and that masseuse helps tend the impressive vegetable garden, too.
Only Chef Carl Krause, who earned his stripes at Barbara Lynch’s upscale French restaurant Menton in Boston and later at beloved Biwa in Portland, sticks to one job, but he’s at it all day and late into the night. Long after I’ve returned from a session in the wood-fired sauna (followed by a brief dip in the icy river) and snuggled down in a pillowy, Pendleton-blanket-topped queen bed in my lodge room upstairs, Krause is still prepping for the next day. And when I tiptoe downstairs early the next morning, he’s already there, coffee brewed, cooking a cowboy-ready breakfast of house-cured pastrami hash, two eggs, a Dutch baby and fresh fruit.
DINING IN Meals are a highlight of the lodge experience. The on-site chef prepares three meals each day using locally raised meats and produce
These all-from-scratch meals of locally raised meats and just-picked produce are the highlights of the day, and when the dinner bell rings later that evening after a busy day of reading, napping and walking in the woods, I gather with the two dozen other guests at the long communal tables in the dining room overlooking the meadow. The couple next to me, both pilots from Texas, flew in earlier that week, their vintage Piper Cub plane so small that they removed the back seat to make room for their dog. The group at the other end of the table rode in on their own horses, which they trucked up from Chico, California.
As we pass platters of roasted, crisp-skinned Hawkins Sisters Ranch chicken, brown butter spaetzle and strawberry shortcake with smoked whipped cream, we share life stories with the kind of kinship that can only come from being happily marooned together in a wilderness paradise with no cell service.
I leave my newfound friends to finish their bottles of Willamette Valley Pinots on the deck and head for the wood-fired hot tub to soak under the stars. I get one more night of stress-free bliss before my journey back to the real world of emails and deadlines and news cycles. It’s all uphill from here, but this time I’ll let a horse do the walking.
There are a variety of accommodations, from rooms in the lodge (above) to glamping-style tent cabins