Western U.S. Loop: The Oregon Trail

Travel Dates: October 4 & 5, 2018

It’s just under 454 miles (724 kilometers) from Tom and Nancy’s house to home. So coming or going we are usually in a hurry – either to get out of Oregon or to get back home again. But every time we drop into the valley where Baker City is we say “It’s beautiful here; we really ought to stop sometime.”  Also, the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is just out of town so it was only a matter of time before we stopped. And this was the time. It’s only a couple of hours outside of Boise meaning we’d have plenty of time to look around town and hike around the Oregon  Trail site.

The mid 19th century was the time of western expansion in the United States. The “official” starting point of the Oregon Trail  was Missouri and it ended in Oregon City – which is about 30 miles south east of where we live. But in reality there were dozens of trails. The Oregon Trail and its related routes carried hundreds of thousands of settlers from the east out west. The eastern part of the trail also carried travelers destined for California. In Oregon we like to joke that at the cut off point there was a rock painted gold with an arrow pointing south toward the gold rush fields of California and a sign that read “Oregon” pointed to the north. The people who could read went to Oregon.  (I grew up in California so I can tell that joke).

The most infamous travelers to California were the Donner family. They didn’t listen to the practical advice to “hurry along and don’t take no shortcuts”. Nevertheless, Lansford Hastings convinced them to take a detour through the Sierra Nevada mountains. They got caught in winter snow and had to resort to cannibalism for the lucky (?) few to survive the winter.

The Donner Party was but a small part of the death on the Oregon Trail. The trip was not for the faint of heart. Ten percent of the people who set out on the trail died before reaching their intended destination. That is the equivalent of a grave every 80 yards (73 meters) from Missouri to the west!  Contrary to popular belief very few people died as a result of battles with the Native Americans whose land they crossed. Most deaths were accidents – falls, drownings, and such.

The Interpretive Center is north of Baker City at the spot that used to be called – if memory serves –  Flagstaff because a large lone tree on a hill marked the way for the travelers. After arriving at the Center we walked through some wagon replicas.

Replica wagons at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon. (Photo credit: Carla)

Replica wagons at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon. (Photo credit: Carla)

Replica wagon at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon.

Replica wagon at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon.

The museum part of the Interpretive Center was excellent. We wound our way along the exhibits following the diary of one of the families. We got an eye-opening recounting of the rigors of the trail.

There was a group of elementary school kids getting a tour just ahead of us. They were gathered around one of the docents who passed around an object. As we passed we heard the docent say “Don’t put that in your mouth!”  We chuckled – Kids! It gave Linda a refreshed appreciation for being retired.

Out back of the museum is a long winding hiking trail that provided a nice overview of the area. In the next pictures you can get an idea of the beautiful valley Baker City is situated in.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Baker City is in a beautiful valley; but valleys mean mountains – as you can see in the pictures above –  and one of the biggest obstacles of the Oregon Trail was just a few days before them: The Blue Mountains. There is no easy way down the Blue Mountains – even driving down the steep grades today is daunting. Many had to take the wagons apart to lower them down the mountain and reassemble them down below.

As usual,  Carla and Linda jumped out in front while I dawdled behind. Look at that tiny little wagon in the middle of the picture. Can you imagine just how alone and overwhelmed you might be in that vast openness?

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

You can probably tell from the pictures it was getting cold up at that elevation. We definitely ran out of summer on the trip gine. But we took time to commemorate our visit with some pictures.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Carla and Linda hiking at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon

Carla and Howard on the trail at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker City, Oregon (Photo Credit: Linda)

It was getting near to evening and the Interpretive Center was getting ready to close – they started their winter hours a few days before on October 1. On the way back to Baker City, near the entrance to the Interpretive Center, is a turnoff where you can still see a set of wagon ruts – over 150 years old!

Original Wagon Ruts on the Oregon Trail

Original Wagon Ruts on the Oregon Trail. Baker City, Oregon

These wagon tracks evoked some strong emotions. It seemed to tie us together with the original settlers from the 19th century and gave us some small idea of what the trail was like.

When preparing for the trip last summer, Carla and Linda got us reservations at the old Geiser Grand Hotel. We had cocktails in the bar and then a lovely dinner. Apparently the hotel is haunted; but the ghost(s) seem to stay on the third floor. Our rooms were on the second floor and we weren’t bothered.

The Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City, Oregon.

The Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City, Oregon.

In the morning the temperature was well below freezing and the car windshield was encased in ice. No worries we could wait until things warmed up a bit. We walked down the street to the Lone Pine Cafe where we had a fantastic lunch the day before – I had spicy mac and cheese. Among other things I had a delicious cinnamon roll for breakfast.

IMG_0420

Although Baker City is far from just about everywhere – except Boise which is only two hours away – I highly recommend a visit. The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is stunning and the scenery fantastic. And, the Union Pacific Railroad rolls through part of town. You can tell how much I enjoyed our adventure that I didn’t hang around track side for train pictures. Yet another reason for a follow up visit.

After breakfast we got on the road and drove through the Blue Mountains, down to the Columbia River and through the Columbia Gorge to home. When I checked the odometer as we pulled into the garage I discovered we had driven 3,574.3 miles on our 15 day trip I’ll save you from doing the math; that’s and average of 238 miles per day. But averages lie: we didn’t travel every day. Like I’ve always said if you put your feet in the fire and your head on a block of ice, on average you are pretty comfortable.

 

 

 

 

About howardwthompson

I'm a person who likes to travel, read, cook, and eat
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