During the summer of 2010 the two of us followed the Oregon Trail from the pioneers’ major jumping-off point in Independence, Missouri, to the “promised land” of Oregon City, Oregon. While the pioneers required from four to six months to cover the 2,000 miles, we reached Oregon’s Willamette Valley in a little over three weeks. We did it more rapidly than the pioneers, of course, because we enjoyed mostly paved roads and a lot more horsepower, but after completing the trip, we regretted that we had not taken more, not less, time.
Following a return home to Georgia we occasionally discussed places where we should have spent more time. At the top of the list was the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon. During the 2010 trip we arrived in town about noon and were concerned about finding a place to camp for the night. Thus, we failed to devote the time the interpretive center deserved. A recent trip to the Northwest corrected our five-year-old misstep.
Return to Baker City
Like many western towns that came to life in the 1800s, Baker City was born during a search for mineral wealth—in this case gold. Situated in eastern Oregon in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, the site was bypassed by several hundred thousand pioneers headed west on the Oregon Trail. It wasn’t until gold was discovered nearby in 1861 that several thousand people decided to linger for a spell in an attempt to get rich.
Baker City was platted in 1864, with the town’s first hotel going up the following year. Churches, a newspaper and a variety of businesses followed. By 1890, the railroad had arrived, and the town population had grown to nearly 6,700, putting it ahead of Spokane and Boise. Over the following two decades, a second mining boom brought the construction of numerous elaborate buildings including a wonderful hotel that debuted in 1889 and continues to welcome visitors to downtown Baker City.
The mining and timber industries rose and then declined over the years, and the city now has a population of about 10,000 and serves as the county seat and center of commerce for the surrounding area. It offers a number of museums and historical sites along with art galleries and a wealth of outdoor activities. The town boasts over 100 buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places and a walk through the downtown area is a treat. However, it is the outstanding Oregon Trail Interpretive Center that is the crown jewel of Baker City.
Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
At stops in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho during our 2010 trip tracing the path of the Oregon Trail, we were told how much we would enjoy the interpretive center at Baker City. Having already visited some excellent locations along the way, including Fort Kearny, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Fort Laramie National Historic Site, the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming, and the National Oregon/California Trail Center Museum in Montpelier, Idaho, it was difficult to imagine how things could get much better. Well, they did! The facility at Baker City is simply outstanding.
The interpretive center opened in 1992 and is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The impetus for building the center stemmed from the Regional Economic Development Act passed during Oregon’s 1987-89 legislative session that encouraged projects to attract tourists.
Dioramas depict covered wagons on the Oregon Trail.
Photo Credit: David and Kay Scott[/caption]Upon entering the 19,000-square-foot interpretive center situated atop Flagstaff Hill, visitors stroll through a series of dioramas intended to make them feel as if they are walking along the Oregon Trail. Replica wagons and realistic depictions of oxen and pioneers are situated along the trail from Independence to Oregon City. Walking along the center’s trail between the dioramas triggers audio interpretations from pioneers, while signposts along the way indicate a display’s mileage from each end of the trail. The interpretive center includes a 1,500-square-foot Flagstaff Gallery that houses temporary exhibits. During our visit, exhibits in the gallery challenged visitors to decide what equipment and items they would pack or leave for a trip along the trail.
In addition to exhibits, the center offers a gift shop and limited snacks. Films are shown throughout the day, and there are living history demonstrations on such topics as flint knapping and gold panning. At the conclusion of the gold panning demonstration we attended, visitors were given a pan and allowed to try their skill at separating real gold flakes from the gravel. Unfortunately, we were not permitted to keep the tiny gold flakes that remained in the pan after sloshing out most of the gravel. A monthly calendar of demonstrations and events is available on the center’s website.
The interpretive center is near the site of an old mine that operated on the north side of Flagstaff Hill in the early 1900s. An outdoor exhibit behind the center includes a replica of a gold mill used to pulverize rock and extract gold.
Several hiking trails, ranging from easy to difficult, originate at the interpretive center. A 2.5-mile loop trail composed of portions of three other trails requires approximately one and a quarter hours and leads to ruts of the Oregon Trail. Trail ruts can also be accessed along State Highway 86, the road that leads to the interpretive center. Flagstaff Hill, on which the interpretive center is located, overlooks seven miles of trail ruts. A map illustrating the hiking trails is available in the interpretive center.
In and Around the Area
Eastern Oregon is sparsely populated and wildly beautiful. To explore the area, try Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, a 218-mile loop drive around the Wallowa Mountains. Locals recommend travelers devote at least two days to complete the trip, which includes small towns, mountains, rivers and a lot of solitude.
For serious cyclists, a 134-mile loop bicycle tour begins in Baker City and follows a figure 8 with the town of La Grande at the northern end of the top loop. The route, considered “challenging,” offers a scenic ride through Union and Baker counties and is one of nine designated scenic bikeways in Oregon.
Oregon Trail Visitors Park, nine miles west of the town of La Grande, offers some of the best-preserved traces of the Oregon Trail. La Grande is approximately 45 miles north of Baker City via Interstate 84. A half-mile paved walking path with interpretive panels parallels the trail.
As mentioned above, a walk around Baker City’s downtown is a worthwhile experience when visiting the eastern side of Oregon. Much of the charm of the old gold mining era remains in numerous buildings in the city’s historic district.
Other activities available in the area include jet boat tours on the Snake River, theater productions and museum hopping.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at www.valdosta.edu/~dlscott/Scott
If You Go:
Getting there: Baker City is two hours northwest of Boise, Idaho, via Interstate 84. The Interpretive Center is five miles east of Baker City on Oregon Highway 86.
Oregon Trail Interpretative Center: The center is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily during summer and closes two hours earlier during the spring and fall. It is open only Thursdays through Sundays during winter. Entrance is $8 for adults and $4.50 for seniors from April through October, and $5 for adults and $3.50 for seniors the rest of the year. Children 15 and under are free, and federal passes are accepted for admission.
Camping: Mt. View RV Resort at 2845 Hughes Lane offers 87 mostly pull-through sites, some of which can handle 70-foot rigs. The park includes a heated swimming pool, Wi-Fi, spa, and free cable TV. RV sites are $33 to $35 per night with weekly discounts. AAA and Good Sam members receive a 10 percent discount. (800) 806-4824.
Lodging: The city has several bed and breakfasts plus a number of mid-range motels. The plum, however, is the 30-room Geiser Grand Hotel, an 1889 downtown lodging facility that received a $7 million restoration over a five-year period ending in 1998. Rates range from $99 to $279, with most rooms at $129 during high season from June to September. A large parking lot behind the hotel can accommodate large rigs for campers who prefer a night in a hotel. Parking behind the hotel is also a possibility for lunch or dinner. Call (888) 434-7374.
Dining: The Geiser Grand offers fine dining. On the recommendations of several residents, we enjoyed an excellent pizza at Paizano’s located at 2940 10th Street.