Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Postcard from Baker City, OR

June 21, 2008

After our continental breakfast at the Weinhard Hotel in Dayton, WA, we stopped in at McQuary’s Grocery to pick up several bottles of moderately-priced Washington wines, then headed out for
Walla Walla on US 12. Since it was Sunday morning, and most attractions were closed, we decided to pass quickly through Walla Walla, to begin today’s highlight-the Wallowa-Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. Rather too quickly: we found ourselves in a 30-mph speed trap, hidden from view by a big rig we were passing. Marie yelled out: there’s a cop! Too late! Sure enough, the police car, lights flashing, pulled us over. Meanwhile, Marie’s nose was buried in our road map, so after the customary “license and registration, please” request, the officer offered to help us find the Byway turnoff. In the end, he let us off with just a warning (perhaps playing classical music on NPR helped!), and we were on our way, albeit a bit more slowly.

We continued south on WA-SR 125/OR SR 11 to
Weston, the beginning of the Tollgate Road (OR-SR 204) that linked us to the Byway. The landscape changed rapidly from the green and tawny hues typical of the loess-covered Palouse Hills to the deep greens of the conifer-clad Umatilla Wilderness.

The Byway began with OR-SR 82 at the tiny village of
Elgin. The drive then took us through the hamlets of Minam, Wallowa and Lostine, affording us magnificent views of prosperous horse ranches set off against the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains.

Horse Ranch in the Wallowa Valley.

There are few opportunities to purchase gasoline in this remote area, so we decided to refuel in the small Wallowa County Seat town of
Enterprise. After taking photos of the 1909 County Courthouse and strolling the quaint downtown, we continued southeast to Joseph, the gateway to the Hells Canyon National Recreational Area. Joseph is also known for its outdoor bronze sculptures and art galleries. There are several foundries in the area that cater to collectors and some of the finest examples of metal art can be found here.

Wallowa County Courthouse, Enterprise, OR.

Outdoor metal sculptures, Joseph, OR.

We decided to picnic at lovely Lake Wallowa, located just south of Joseph. During our picnic the wind had picked up to such an extent we stayed inside the car. Ominous clouds started to build in from the north and we were concerned about the prospect of bad weather during the most arduous part of the Byway drive just ahead. Forest Road 39/OR-SR 39, from Joseph to near Oxbow is open only in summer and could be treacherous in heavy rain. But we were fortunate in two respects: a) the road was much better than we expected, and b) the weather held off.

Our picnic site at Lake Wallowa.

This part of the Byway was most rewarding! Wildflower displays were spectacular and the views of Hells Canyon were resplendent with shades of green over reddish slopes. We spent some time at the readily accessible
Hells Canyon Overlook with the wide-open skies. What a panorama!

Wildflowers at Hells Canyon Overlook.

Panoramic view from Hells Canyon Overlook.

One should note that this road is very popular with the motorcycle culture, and groups of motorcyclists would roar past us on the sharp curves. An aside: there are apparently subgroups of motorcyclists identifiable by make; for example, we saw Harley-Davidson, Ducati, Honda, and BMW aficionados parked at the Hells Canyon Overlook, segregated by brand name.

We then came to OR-SR 86 for our continuation drive to
Baker City. By the time we reached the town of Halfway, we became enveloped by heavy rain that had chased us down from the Wallowa Mountains. The weather lifted just as we entered Baker City, although the high overcast threatened rain later on. We learned later that this same weather disturbance produced the “dry” thunderstorms that started the devastating Northern California fires June 20-21.

Baker City, population 10,000, is the seat of Baker County. It was an important stop along the historic Oregon Trail. Baker City has a remarkable collection of historic buildings downtown. About 100 structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The centerpiece is the
Geiser Grand Hotel, built in 1889 and meticulously restored. We had a passing thought of booking a room (from $79 up) there, but Baker City was hosting the Elkhorn Classic Stage Race, a major bicycle race held annually in June. The race is routed right through the heart of downtown, so we opted to stay at the quiet Always Inn Motel, located about three miles east, adjacent to Interstate 84. A couple we had dinner with in Dayton recommended the Always Inn. We were almost too late, but they had a handicap room available for the $65 AAA discounted price, so we took it.

It was still afternoon, so we decided to return to OR-SR 86 to see the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center we had passed earlier. Most unfortunately, the afternoon electrical storm knocked out the power to the center, so it was closed. Bummer!

Instead, we returned to Baker City, to see some of the bicycle races. The occasional showers led to slippery conditions, but they did not seem to slow the riders down. We ended the day by going to a Safeway deli, to pick up some goodies, and retired for the night.

Historic storefronts, Baker City.

Elkhorn Classic Stage Bicycle Race, Baker City.
Note the Art Deco 1929 Baker City Tower in the background.

The 1889 Geiser Grand Hotel, Baker City.

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