Picture a historic, charming downtown straight out of an old Western. Add good local beer, friendly people and stunning scenery.
You’re in Baker City, a town to visit in its own right and to use as a jumping-off point for adventure in Eastern Oregon.
It might be hard to imagine now, but in the late 1800s Baker City was arguably the most glamorous stop in this state. Gold flowed from mines and residents made fortunes on timber. That dried up around the time of the Great Depression, leaving a shabby downtown filled with shuttered businesses and few prospects. That was then—this is now.
More than 100 buildings in the downtown historic district are on the National Register of Historic Places. The downtown is teeming with art galleries, restaurants and gift shops perfect for a visitor stroll.
At the end of Main Street, the Geiser Grand Hotel is the obvious choice when deciding where to rest your head in Baker City. The hotel, built in 1889, closed in the 1960s and sat in disrepair until was lovingly restored in the late ’90s. The renovation uncovered and accurately replaced pieces of its former grandeur, including the incredible stained-glass ceiling and dark mahogany wood details. Dinner at the Palm Court inside the restaurant is the icing on the cake, with the Pacific Northwest’s best bounty on the menu.
Once you’ve walked the downtown, head to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, twenty minutes from downtown.
The airy facility, built in 1992 among the rolling hills in a desolate landscape, is a fourth-grade fever dream for all Oregonians who spent a lot of time learning about this part of American history. Even non-native Oregonians played the Oregon Trail game on ancient Apple computers—this is those 1800s wagon trains come to life. Life-size, educational exhibits inside the center can teach even the most educated Oregonians a thing or two about the remarkable pioneers who made this trek. And the exhibits are only the beginning—the surrounding grounds provide a variety of trails, including some that get you up close and personal to the still-visible wagon ruts.
While you’ve still got the history bug, check out the Chinese Cemetery, just east of Baker City. It features a monument to the Chinese who came to work in mines, construction and other occupations here in the 1800s. The Baker County Historical Society erected the monument, which was made in China and is a garden pavilion.
In the cemetery, you’ll only find one marked grave—Lee Chue, who was buried there in 1938—otherwise most of the sites were temporary, and bodies were returned to their homeland.
No trip to Baker City is complete without a stop at Barley Brown’s, the restaurant and taphouse a few doors down.
Barley Brown’s Beer keeps it old-school—really, really good beer that will surprise you. It’s one of those places that makes you look behind you to make sure that yes, you’re still in Baker City, population 9,800. Belly up to the wooden bar and grab a pint of Pallet Jack IPA to start, then sample as many as you can. The restaurant has delicious pub fare and atmosphere that will remind you what Deschutes Brewery’s public house looked like before its expansion.
Start the day at The Lone Pine Café, a small spot with big flavors—open daily for breakfast and lunch, the café has some of the best baked goods in town and brings a bit of modern flavor to town. Fuel up bigtime, because Baker City is the perfect jumping-off point to explore Eastern Oregon’s grandest landscapes.
For starters, Hells Canyon is just a couple hours northeast, and a great spot to hook up with one of the several river-rafting companies based in Oxbow, Joseph, Halfway or other small towns for a trip down the Snake River that divides Oregon and Idaho.
Beyond that, Baker City is close to Sumpter, a near ghost town with a state park complete with a huge and historic dredge that once used buckets to pull dirt up to be stripped of minerals. Just in case you didn’t quench your historical thirst with the Oregon Trail, Sumpter also has a historic steam train that runs on select weekends through the Sumpter Valley.
Eagle Cap Wilderness is less than three hours away from Baker City and provides new definitions to the word “isolated.” There are backpacking routes and plenty of opportunities here for backcountry skiing in the winter.
That’s just the start. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, which starts on Baker City’s doorstep, offers every outdoor activity you could think of—including hunting, horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking. The area has almost 3,000 miles of trails and four wilderness areas. If you want to experience the rugged beauty of Oregon without crowds, heading east out of Baker City is the spot to do it.
And if you’re not sure you’re comfortable doing it on your own, check out Go Wild Tours. The Baker City-based tour company will get you out on single-day and multi-day tours into the Eagle Cap Wilderness or Blue Mountains—kayaking, hiking, mountain biking. You can spend a day at a ranch or go on an Eastern Oregon booze tour.