Road Trips for the History Lover


written by Allison Miles

In Oregon, history and road trips are one in the same. Oregon history aficionados and outdoor enthusiasts will find common ground across the state, from Astoria to John Day, Baker City and Joseph. Just don’t forget to take a break for a beer.



photo by Alamy

Although Astoria is well known today as the film location of the classic ’80s movie, The Goonies, the small coastal town was put on the map much earlier. Astoria is, in fact, the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Perched at the northwestern corner of the state near the mouth of the Columbia River, Astoria boasts a history as rich and stormy as the waters churning just off its coast. At different points in history, Astoria has been called both “the most wicked place on earth” and “a bustling, booming, hell-raising town.”

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent a treacherous winter at nearby Fort Clatsop in 1805 and 1806, a wealthy New York fur trader named John Jacob Astor saw potential in the location for a trading outpost and sent two parties to the site. In 1811, the parties established Fort Astor, but John Jacob Astor himself never actually visited Astoria. During the War of 1812, Astor’s fur traders sold the post to the British, which they renamed Fort George. Though the war ended in 1815, the British did not completely abandon Astoria until 1846.

Through the years, Astoria has witnessed shipwrecks, a Japanese invasion, the rising career of Clark Gable, the infamous dark period when sailors were commonly “Shanghaid”— and the riot that ultimately eliminated the gruesome practice. The best way to experience Astoria’s intriguing and tumultuous history is to visit the town and its surrounding historical sites, including the 125-foot Astoria Column, offering panoramas of the surrounding Columbia River, Young’s Bay, the Coast Range and the Pacific Ocean. Fort Stevens State Park, a former military defense station, now hosts wildlife, beaches, trails, forests, sand dunes and the Peter Iredale shipwreck. Carrying on the famous monikers, the 35,000-acre Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge and the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (which commemorates the expedition) are must sees. When all of this history has worked up your thirst, head over to Fort George Brewery and ask for a pint of 1811 Lager, the Official Bicentennial Beer of Astoria, and then peruse the quaint shops and hip cafés downtown.

Interesting fact: John Jacob Astor IV, the great-grandson of Astoria’s founder, intended to attend Astoria’s centennial celebration in 1911, but he perished on the Titanic during its tragic sinking.

Baker City

Established in the 1860s, Baker City was named for United States Senator Edward D. Baker, who was killed in 1861 while leading the Union Army into combat and is the only sitting senator to have been killed in military engagement. The town grew slowly until 1884, when the Oregon Short Line Railroad came to Baker City, bringing growth and trade. By 1900, Baker City grew to become the largest city between Salt Lake City and Portland and a thriving trade center for the region. An emblem of the wild west and pioneering days, Baker City offers no shortage of history, and with the Blue Mountains to the west and the Wallowa Mountains to the east, the area provides an abundance of adventure.

Within Baker City itself, you could spend a day or a long weekend exploring the town’s roots. The Historic Walking Tour will take you to many of the 130 historical sites, at least half of which are masonry buildings built between 1870 and 1915. Particularly noteworthy are the nine-story Baker City Tower, dating back to 1929, and the tallest building in Oregon east of the Cascade Mountain Range, as well as the Geiser Grand Hotel, built in 1889, where legend has it you can see bullet holes in the walls—a testament to the wild past. Don’t leave without visiting the Baker Heritage Museum, formerly the Oregon Trail Regional Museum, a 33,000-square-foot building that houses cultural and wildlife exhibits, as well as ruts that remain in place from pioneer wagons. Afterward, quench your thirst at Barley Brown’s Brew Pub with any of their twenty-two beers on tap, including a number of award-winners.

Once you’ve had your fill of history lessons and craft beer, it’s best to head for the hills. The Elkhorn Mountains (part of the Blue Mountain Range), to the west, offer granite peaks, alpine lakes, camping, hiking, backpacking, biking and skiing during the winter, a perfect road trip.

Interesting fact: The cannon presently on the east lawn of the county courthouse courtyard was believed to be from the Imperial Japanese Army.

John Day


photo by Russ Roca

John Day started with a homestead in 1862 and grew slowly and steadily until the turn of the century. In the early days, it was largely populated by Chinese immigrants, who had come to the area during the gold rush, and by residents of Canyon City who were displaced by a series of fires between 1870 and 1898. A trading post dating to the 1860s was purchased in 1887 by two Chinese immigrants, Lung On and Ing Hay, who turned it into a general store and community center that thrived until the 1940s. In the 1970s, the building was converted into a museum and today, it’s a National Historic Landmark and a wellpreserved record of a nineteenth-century Chinese apothecary.

The town sits along an Oregon Scenic Bikeway and a Transamerica bike touring route at the junction of Routes 26 and 395. It also serves as a jumping off point to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument to the west, the Strawberry Mountains to the south, and the Blue Mountains to the east. Before leaving town, however, it’s worthwhile to make a stop at the local watering hole, The Dirty Shame Saloon.

Preserved within the colorful rock of the John Day basin is a record of changing life and landscapes that spans more than forty million years. Scenic drives and hikes at three separate units, as well as exhibits and a working lab at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, bring the science to life as visitors explore Oregon’s prehistoric past.

Interesting fact: The town of John Day was named for the John Day River, which was in turn named after a member of John Jacob Astor’s 1811 Expedition.



photo by Leon Werdinger

Coined the “Little Switzerland of America,” Joseph sits amid the Wallowa Mountains in the northeastern corner of Oregon, bordering the state’s largest natural wilderness areas. Layers of snowcapped granite peaks sit at the edge of the small western town, cradling alpine lakes, moraines, massive canyons, and forests teeming with elk, wolves and other wildlife. Nearby, Hells Canyon comprises one of the wildest places in Oregon.

Once a cherished home of the Nez Perce people, the beautiful land holds a tragic history. Under pressure to move onto a reservation in the late nineteenth-century, the Nez Perce fled toward Canada with more than 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers in pursuit. In 1887, just forty miles from the Canadian border, suffering thousands of casualties, including women and children, Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph surrendered, saying, “… Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

The Wallowa Band Nez Perce Interpretive Trail, a Nez Perce National Historical Park, tells the story of the Nez Perce natives and other cultures in the area. In July, the Tamkaliks Celebration honors the Nez Perce heritage in the Wallowa Valley with a friendship feast and powwow. Beyond the interpretive center, the town of Joseph celebrates art, Western and Native culture and history with events throughout the year.

Before heading out to explore, stop by Arrowhead Chocolates for made-toorder coffee and small-batch treats. For libations, Mutiny Brewing and Embers Brew House in Joseph and Terminal Gravity Brewing in nearby Enterprise offer plenty of craft beer options. If you’re feeling adventurous, swing by the Stein micro-distillery to sample handcrafted whiskeys and other liquors.

Interesting fact: Joseph, originally called Silver Lake and then Lake City, formally named itself after Nez Perce Chief Joseph in 1880.

For another interesting road trip in Oregon, try our Eco Vacations.

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  1. says: Quinn English

    Even little travel articles should be fact-checked. There were less than 800 Nez Perce involved in the 1877 war, so "suffering thousands of casualties, including women and children" is extremely inaccurate. Also, Mutiny Brewing is, sadly, closed. Has been for months. Meanwhile, there's still lots to see and do and eat in the area. Especially wonderful are the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Interpretive Center in the town of Wallowa, and the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture and the Silver Lake Bistro in Joseph.

  2. says: Sharon Spencer

    All lovely to visit…on your way up the Gorge, take a twenty mile jaunt south on highway 97 to Moro. One of the best museums is located there . The Sherman County Historical Museum features the history of our county's growth from being part of the Oregon Trail, to agriculture past to present,to our military history full of pride and heroism. So much history….come visit!5NV9W

  3. says: Barbara Andersen

    Those are all great spots and another sweet little historic district is Brownsville…one of our best kept secrets. There is a wonderful museum with a nearly restored 1881 Italianate mansion. The whole town is like a step back in time. Halfway between Albany and Eugene it is only 4 miles east if I-5, but a whole world away from the hustle bustle.