Early French traders, upon seeing this broad, seemingly circular valley, declared it to be La Grande Ronde, or 'the Big Circle.' Indeed, from the historical marker on US 30 above town, it does seem as if the mountain peaks form a giant ring around the valley.
The Oregon Trail crossed this valley, and the pioneers rested here in preparation for traversing the challenging Blue Mountains. Some saw the valley's agricultural potential and its pretty Grande Ronde River, and decided to settle down instead. Today La Grande is home to Eastern Oregon University and provides services to the region; it also offers a surprising wealth of outdoor recreation, though the city itself isn't all that memorable.