AFTER THREE DECADES OF RVING THIS GREAT COUNTRY, it’s sometimes
difficult to find a new road to explore or new vistas to admire. On our
most recent visit to the Pacific Northwest, we found a real jewel.
Oregon’s Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway isn’t really hidden, but you do have
to swing off the interstate and allow a day or two to enjoy a road that
offers dramatic scenery, gold rush history and plenty to do.
The best place to pick up this drive is in Baker City, a pleasant
community in eastern Oregon. Anyone who has traveled in this part of the
state is aware of the long stretches of little but high-plains scenery,
but the Elkhorn Range west of Baker City provides a lovely respite,
especially for those who prefer tree-covered mountains. Except for side
trips, the entire route is paved.
When you leave Interstate 84 at the Baker City off-ramp, check your
fuel gauge. There are a couple of service stations on the 106-mile-loop
drive, but prices are bound to be higher there.
Baker City is one of many boom towns that were established during a
Civil War-era gold rush. Most of them were abandoned, but the cattle
industry and the coming of the railroad spared Baker City. You might
want to stop by the U.S. Bank on Main Street to see the 5-pound gold
nugget on display there.
From Baker City, you’ll go south on State Route 7 to begin your
scenic tour. Following the Powder River, you’ll notice a distinct change
in scenery as you drive through a canyon and enter the Wallowa-Whitman
If you are driving a small motorhome or your dinghy, you might
venture four miles up a gravel road to the site of Auburn, once a
booming and reportedly lawless mining camp. It also was the county seat.
That changed in 1868 when a few law-abiding citizens loaded all of the
county records on a wagon and announced that Baker City was the new
county seat. All that remains in Auburn are some tombstones and legends
of gambling and gunfights.
If your plans include an overnight visit, check out Union Creek
Campground on the shores of Phillips Lake. En route to the turnoff for
the campground, you’ll come to the Mason Dam picnic area, where you can
try your hand at fishing in the Powder River. You’ll also enjoy a view
of the lake at the Mason Dam Overlook, on your left.
Union Creek Campground, which has some full-hookup sites, is a
great base if you’re driving your dinghy around the loop the following
day. The sites are spacious, and the lake is suitable for boating with
plenty of room for water-skiing. You’ll find a fish-cleaning station and
a boat ramp, as well as a swimming area and lots of hiking trails.
If you are interested in seeing and photographing wildlife, your
best opportunity will be at the Mowich Loop Wildlife Viewing Area, where
you will find picnic tables and restrooms. Some of the wildlife you
might see, depending on the time of day and the season, are waterfowl
and shorebirds, mule and white-tail deer, squirrels, weasels and
In addition, there are reports that gold can still be found in the
area. A site that has been designated for this purpose can be found at
Miller Creek Campground. However, it is situated four miles up a narrow
gravel road that is not suitable for any motorhome. If you want to look
for gold, take some gold-panning equipment and your dinghy. Any gold you
find in this area is yours to keep.
Plenty of parking is available at the depot of the Sumpter Valley
Railroad. (The other end of this short line is in Sumpter.) If you time
your trip on a summer weekend or a holiday, you can board the train for a
short ride on the remaining rails through piles of tailings left by the
gold dredge. There is a wood-burning engine parked at the station,
which looks just as it did more than 100 years ago.
When you come to Sumpter Junction, State Route 7 will head south;
to continue on the byway, take County Road 410 into the little town of
Sumpter. Without a doubt, the largest attraction in town is the enormous
Sumpter Valley Dredge, adjacent to the railroad station.
The dredge, which is the centerpiece of a state heritage area, is
one of the largest still intact in the entire country. Although a
half-century has passed since it lifted its last load of ore-bearing
material, it is a silent testimony to man’s quest for gold. The dredge
could lift 25 one-ton buckets of gravel per minute, dumping it into six
sluice boxes where gold was recovered. The dredge was responsible for
producing $4.5 million in gold, and it left behind more than six miles
of tailings in the valley. It must have been awesome to see this
enormous piece of machinery in action.
The town of Sumpter is worth a visit. It was established in 1862 by
five Confederate soldiers seeking gold. Word of its discovery spread
and, before long, the town had grown to include 15 saloons, three
newspapers and an opera house. The arrival of hydraulic placer mining
brought even more people to work the hard-rock mines and the dredging
operation, as well as the brickyard, sawmill and smelter. By then, there
were five hotels, three general stores, a school, four churches, a
telephone system and a fire department to serve the 3,000 residents.
In 1917, a devastating fire leveled most of the commercial
buildings to rubble and ashes, and Sumpter never regained its prefire
momentum. The dredging operation ceased in 1954, but Sumpter is not
considered a ghost town. About 130 residents call Sumpter home today.
As you leave Sumpter, you will take County Road 24 as it winds its
way up to Blue Springs Summit, which tops out at 5,864 feet. On this
stretch of the road, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the Elkhorn
Range. There are plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the scenery.
If you are a fan of winter sports, you might want to plan a return visit
to enjoy the 150 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in the area.
Between the summit and the turnoff for the townsite of Granite, you
will be driving through an area that provides a good example of how the
U.S. Forest Service met a natural disaster with a new-growth program.
In the 1970s, many of the pine trees in the area suffered from an
invasion of mountain pine beetles. After the salvageable dead trees were
harvested, new growth resulted in the young but lush forest you see
today. These trees will be thinned to make way for future growth.
Don’t miss the townsite of Granite. The original community, which
was situated about 1.5 miles south of the present settlement, was named
Independence, in commemoration of the discovery of gold there on July 4,
1862. When it came time to establish a post office to serve the
community, the name had to be changed; there already was an
By 1900, the town now known as Granite had been moved to its
present location, which was closer to the mining activities. At its
peak, there were two hotels, three stores, five saloons, a drugstore,
stables, a dance hall, a blacksmith shop and a newspaper. But just as
suddenly as it flourished, the town saw a quick demise and, except for a
few diehards, became a ghost town.
To fully appreciate the past and present of Granite, which is
enjoying a rebirth, take time to do some exploring. In addition to a new
service station and country store, it has an RV park, a lodge, two
restaurants and a bakery. Although many of the original structures were
razed in the 1950s, some are still standing.
When you leave Granite, continue north on Forest Road 73 about 1.5
miles up the road toward the Chinese walls. Like most mining camps, the
one here was home to a sizeable population of Chinese laborers. After
the placer miners had reaped all of the easy gold from the river, they
turned their claims over to the Chinese, who reworked them and gleaned
still more gold from the streambeds. As the Chinese miners made their
way upstream, they left behind walls of large boulders that they had
removed from the stream.
In about five miles, you’ll come to a meadow where wildlife can
usually be seen in the early morning or late evening hours. Beyond that
is the North Fork John Day Campground and the junction with the Blue
Mountain Scenic Byway, which leads to the northwest.
To stay on the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway, continue on Forest Road
73 and be prepared for an elevation change. Blue Springs Summit was not
the highest point on this byway; you’ll find that at Elkhorn Summit with
an elevation of 7,392 feet. En route to the summit, you’ll pass many
trailheads, including a loop trail to Crawfish Lake, which is a little
more than one mile off the road. (Note: Parts of this road are closed in
After leaving the summit, look to your left for a sign pointing to
Grande Ronde Lake. This little gem has a campground, but it’s not
suitable for large motorhomes. Stop for a while to enjoy a picnic or to
launch a small boat for a cruise around the lake. Notice the large
meadow to the west, which is beginning to support a few trees and lots
of wildflowers. All of this basin was once under water, and as streams
continue to carry debris into the existing lake, the entire area will
become a meadow, but that is many centuries into the future.
Less than one mile after returning to the loop road, turn right to
the Anthony Lakes Ski Area and Campground. This year-round resort offers
fishing and water activities, along with hiking and biking trails in
the summer and snowmobiling, downhill and cross-country skiing in the
winter. The small campground, which is open from June 15 to October 30,
cannot accommodate large motorhomes or those with slideouts.
There are two other lakes in the area, Van Patten and Dutch Creek,
but both require long and strenuous hikes to reach them. From Anthony
Lakes, you’ll be dropping back down into Baker Valley on a steep and
winding road, which is one reason for taking the byway in a clockwise
direction. The climb from Baker Valley to Anthony Lakes might be a
challenge, especially for big coaches. While making the descent, you’ll
be driving through more lush forests, so don’t rush this part of the
drive. Just switch to low gear and watch for lots of curves. You’ll also
find some pullouts for viewing the valley.
When you reach level ground, you will come to a junction with U.S.
Highway 30. Turn south toward the town of Haines, a little farming
community where the Eastern Oregon Museum provides a glimpse into the
rowdy mining camps you have visited. Continue on to Baker City to
complete the loop. You’ll be driving through some rich farmland that has
been yielding crops since the days of the gold rush. Baker City was
established as an agricultural supply center for miners and continues to
be a pastoral area for livestock, hay and grain.
We retraced the road from Baker City to the Union Creek Campground
at Phillips Lake, where we had left our motorhome, to spend another
night. Driving our dinghy had made the daylong outing much easier,
especially on the winding roads.
Most people who visit Oregon head for the coastline, but the
eastern region should not be ignored, especially if you are entering the
state from that direction. There are a number of scenic areas and
lovely places to camp that offer an escape from the sometimes unpleasant
heat in the lower elevations.
Give eastern Oregon a try!