East of Madras, US-26 veers farther away from the Cascades, crossing the Crooked River National Grasslands, which mark the geographical center of Oregon. Strolling the streets of Prineville (pop. 9,530), you’ll notice plenty of cowboy hats (and “gimme” caps, emblazoned with the logo of the wearer’s favorite fertilizer or tractor company) atop the heads of dusty citizens piloting dusty pickup trucks. It’s been a ripsnorter of a town since Barney Prine built his blacksmith shop and saloon here in 1868 following the discovery of gold in nearby hills. These days, the people of Prineville are still ranchers, loggers, and miners, plus perhaps 147 employees of social media company Facebook, which in 2011 established the first of a trio of data centers—the last, built in 2015, is a 487,000-square-foot “server farm.” Tourism too is slowly but surely making its mark as an economic force.
You can learn more about the region’s history at the A. R. Bowman Museum (246 N. Main St., 541/447-3715, Tues.-Fri. 10am-5pm and Sat. 11am-4pm winter, Mon.-Fri. 10am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 11am-4pm summer), two blocks west of the landmark Crook County Circuit Courthouse (300 NE 3rd St.). Two floors of exhibits include a campfire setup, a moonshine still, and a country store with a pound of Bull Durham tobacco. A tastier way to get a handle on life here in the middle of Oregon is to chomp down on a juicy steak at Barney Prine’s Steakhouse and Saloon (389 NW 4th St., 541/447-3333), known for its generous and eclectic menu. Lodging choices include the City Center Motel (509 NE 3rd St., 541/447-5522, $74 and up), in the middle of the city.
The drive along US-26 east of Prineville takes you up into the Ochocos, a low-slung gem of a mountain range once the heartland of the Paiute people. Seven miles from Prineville, US-26 skirts Ochoco Lake, a popular recreational reservoir with fishing, boating, hiking, camping, and a picnic bench or two for travelers—but not a lot of shade. The rest of the Ochoco Range, which reaches heights of nearly 7,000 feet, holds acres and acres of lovely meadows, clear streams, pristine pine forests, and views of the jagged Cascade Range, rising on the western horizon.