La Grande: 260 miles E of Portland, 52 miles SE of Pendleton. Baker City: 41 miles SE of La Grande, 75 miles NW of Ontario
Though pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1840s found good resting places in the Powder River and Grande Ronde valleys, where Baker City and La Grande now stand, few stayed to put down roots in this remote region. It would not be until the 1860s that pioneers actually looked on these valleys as places to live and make a living. However, even those first pioneers who just passed through left signs of their passage that persist to this day. Wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail can still be seen in this region, and outside of Baker City stands the most interesting and evocative of the state's museums dedicated to the Oregon Trail experience.
By 1861, however, the Blue Mountains, which had been a major impediment to wagon trains, were crawling with people -- gold prospectors, though, not farmers. A gold strike in these mountains started a small gold rush that year, and soon prospectors were flocking to the area. The gold didn't last long, and when mining was no longer financially feasible, the miners left the region. In their wake, they left several ghost towns, but the prosperity of those boom times also gave the region's larger towns an enduring legacy of stately homes and opulent commercial buildings, many built of stone that was quarried in the region. Today the historic commercial buildings of Baker City, the ornate Victorian homes of Union, and the Elgin Opera House are reminders of past prosperity. Although the gold has played out, signs of those raucous days, from gold nuggets to ghost towns, are now among the region's chief attractions.
One of the most arduous and dangerous sections of the Oregon Trail -- the crossing of the Blue Mountains -- lies just west of present-day La Grande. These mountains are no longer the formidable obstacles they once were, but they are still among the least visited in Oregon. The Blues, as they are known locally, offer a wide variety of recreational activities, including skiing, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping, and even soaking in hot springs. With their numerous hotels and restaurants, both La Grande and Baker City make good bases for exploring this relatively undiscovered region.