On the road, out of the city and into rural Oregon, where Baker County lies.
Sometimes, if you live in an area where you are expected to own a cell phone and at least one decent pair of black pants, it feels good to get away. Surely, somewhere over the rainbow, everyone wears flannel and CB radios are still the emergency communication device of choice. As technology changes the landscape of our metropolises, some smaller cities and towns strive to maintain their traditional atmosphere.
Baker City, in Eastern Oregon, is one such place. Granted its city charter in 1870, the city now has nearly 10,000 residents and is one of the largest communities in the eastern half of the state. But instead of going the way of its big sister cities, Baker has preserved its historic ambiance.
Located off I-84, Baker City is easy to reach (unless you’re traveling in winter â€“ Meachum Pass between Pendleton and La Grande is often closed due to weather conditions). Historic downtown is not more than a mile from the highway. After passing by the initial signs of the times â€“ McDonald’s and Bi-Mart â€“ you will find yourself on Main Street in old downtown Baker, where people smile as they walk past you and wave to you from their cars.
The most magnificent building in Baker is the Geiser Grand Hotel. Constructed in 1889, the hotel boasted the third elevator west of the Mississippi. Although the original elevator has been removed (thank goodness), it is on display at the Haines Museum, about 10 miles away on Old Highway 30 (nearly all of the museums in Baker are open only in Summer).
The hotel itself is gorgeous. It was renovated in 1998, but the original structure (complete with 10-foot tall windows in every room) still exists.
Inside the Front Street Cafe.
The Geiser Grill is the most upscale restaurant downtown (which is not saying much) and also the liveliest. The relaxed atmosphere of the Grill is welcoming for the weary sightseer who just wants to take a load off. You can have a hearty hamburger for about 7 bucks or your choice of sandwiches, salads, pastas and steaks.
There’s not much historic district nightlife to speak of in the wintertime, aside from a few Budweiser-sign-in-window bars. But in the morning, you can get tanked on your choice of specialty coffee drinks at the Front Street Cafe. Just about anything goes well with one of their hefty, warm cinnamon rolls.
Baker City is about a 5Â½-hour drive from Portland, heading east towards Idaho on I-84. Just off the exit for the town you’ll see lots of cheap accommodation. You can learn more about Baker City and Baker County at www.visitbaker.com.
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If Baker isn’t historic enough for you, take a short road trip. (In the wintertime, be sure to call ahead for road conditions. If you are staying at the Geiser Grand, the desk clerk will be happy to make the call.) Although many of the towns are snowed in during the winter, Sumpter (pop. 175) is a wonderful ghost town to check out and is accessible year-round.
To get to Sumpter, follow signs through downtown Baker City to Scenic Highway 7, which winds west of town along the Powder River. You will pass the Sumpter Valley Railroad (yes, you will have to pass it in the wintertime) before you hit town.
As you enter Sumpter’s city limits, you will get a good look at the town’s original gold dredge. Built in 1935, the dredge operated until 1954 and was the town’s major economic source. Now however, it is only a tourist attraction.
According to one local, current Sumpter residents are all "retired or on welfare." But that doesn’t stop the tourists, who are the current source of income for the town. Gift shops and cafes line the sides of the main avenue. Some have plaques hanging over their doorways, telling people which building used to stand in its place. The Gold Post gift shop and museum, for instance, was once the Columbia Brewery. Now you can view old photographs, bottles, gold panning spoons and other Sumpter relics in the tiny museum. Unfortunately, most of Sumpter’s original buildings were destroyed by a major fire.
East of Baker City, following the Powder River in the other direction, is Highway 86 (be sure to carry chains in winter). The road will take you high into the mountains and through pastures where you will see plenty of cows and horses, regardless of the season.
You will also get fantastic views of snow-covered mountains, but don’t take your eyes off this windy road for long! You might miss Richland, the first small town on the road. The second town, Halfway, (pop. 311) is about 65 miles from Baker but well worth the trip.
The town, incorporated in 1909, changed its name in 2000 to Half.com, thus becoming "The World’s First Dot Com City." In January of that year, the young auction website www.half.com offered Halfway approximately $60,000 and 20 computers in exchange for the town’s name change as a publicity stunt. But you would never know a computer existed by visiting the town, which has retained its quaint country flavor. There are a few more than 300 residents, and every one of them is friendly.
At Stockman’s Restaurant on Main Street you can get two eggs and a cup of tea for $2.50. People will definitely do a double take when they see you walk in â€“ I get the feeling Halfway doesn’t see many tourists. But soon the initial stares give way to questions about who you are, where you’re from and why you’ve chosen to visit. By the time you leave Stockman’s, you will have at least one friend in Halfway (which will come in handy when your car gets stuck in a snow bank).
After lunch, take a stroll around town. Bring a camera: the town itself and the surrounding countryside are beautiful. But if it starts to snow, jump back in your car and head down the mountain. Unless, of course, you are looking for a good excuse to spend an extra day or two in Halfway.
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During winter remember to check road conditions before you set out. Some areas of rural Oregon may be completely impassable due to snow; some areas require chains or snow tires â€“ and believe me, you’ll want them. For current road conditions, call (800) 977 6368 (inside Oregon) or (503) 222 6721 (outside Oregon). Or click here for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Highways & Travel Information page.
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If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.