Growing up in the west, few things set my childhood imagination on fire like the dilapidated remains of once-booming frontier towns. As it turns out, they have that same effect on my somewhere-north-of-thirtysomething imagination as well. I was delighted to discover a slew of ghost towns within daytrip distance of Bend. This six-hour loop takes you by a number of historic sites and through a trio of towns where, I swear, you can close your eyes and feel the history of days passed. It's worth noting that, once off Highway 97, the roads here can be questionable and fences indicate private property whether posted or not.
Just 32 miles northeast of Madras, this dusty old ranch town serves as the gateway for numerous abandoned mines in the area. Like much of Central and Eastern Oregon, the land here was first held by Sahaptin and Northern Paiute people before they were forcibly relegated to reservations or killed. White settlers here raised wool both before and after the discovery of gold and the subsequent boom/bust. Today, little else but a few residents remain. The town features some still-standing historic buildings and is said to be a rock-hounder's dream.
Nine and a half miles due east of Ashwood and four miles from the Axehandle Mine on NE Gosner Road sit the remains of what was once Donnybrook; a.k.a., Kilts, a.k.a., Axehandle. Look for the ruins of the old schoolhouse. Head another 1.8 miles down the road and check out the remains of the Queen Oregon Mines; there are no buildings, but a few mine shafts remain.
Eight miles east of Queen Oregon is perhaps the most intriguing, if the least accessible, of the three sites—that of the fenced-off remains of Horse Heaven. While other mines in the area are known for precious metals, the mines at Horse Heaven produced mercury. The area, which was once a town, sat across the road from the mine. Fire swept through and took the whole place out sometime mid-century. One can peer through the fence, but the area inside is now a Department of Environmental Quality super-fund site, so best to look but not touch.