The Elkhorn Mountain Scenic Route
Rising up on the outskirts of Baker City is the Elkhorn Range of the Blue Mountains. A paved loop road winding up and around the south side of these mountains features scenic vistas, access to the outdoors throughout the year, and even a couple of sparsely inhabited ghost towns. Start this loop by heading south out of Baker City on Ore. 245, and then take Ore. 7 west to Sumpter, 30 miles from Baker City.
As you approach Sumpter, you'll notice that the valley floor is covered with large piles of rocks. These are the tailings (the refuse left after the mining operations have worked over the land) from the Sumpter Dredge, preserved as the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area (tel. 541/894-2486; www.oregon.gov/oprd/parks). Between 1935 and 1954, the ominous-looking dredge laid waste to the valley floor as it sat in its own little pond sifting through old streambed gravel for gold. Although you can stop and view the dredge any time of year, between May and October it is possible to board the strange machine (open daily 8am-5pm), which has a few interpretive exhibits on board. Admission is by donation.
In its wake, the dredge left 6 miles of tailings that formed hummocks of rock and gouged-out areas that have now become small ponds. Although such a mining-scarred landscape isn't usually scenic, the Sumpter Valley is surprisingly alive with birds attracted to the ponds.
A favorite way of visiting the Sumpter Dredge is aboard the Sumpter Valley Railroad (tel. 866/894-2268 or 541/894-2268; www.svry.com), which operates a classic steam train on a 5-mile run from west of Phillips Reservoir to the Sumpter Valley Dredge. This railway first began operation in 1890 and was known as the stump dodger. Excursions are operated on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays from Memorial Day weekend through September; round-trip fares are $15 for adults, $14 for seniors, and $9 for children 6 to 16.
Gold kept Sumpter alive for many decades, and a bit of gold-mining history is still on display in this rustic mountain town, which, though it has a few too many people to be called a ghost town, is hardly the town it once was. In the boom days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sumpter boasted several brick buildings, hotels, saloons, and a main street crowded with large buildings. However, when a fire destroyed the town in 1917, it was never rebuilt. Today only one brick building and a few original wooden structures remain.
Continuing west on a winding county road for 14 miles will bring you to Granite ★, another ghost town with a few flesh-and-blood residents. The weather-beaten old buildings on a grassy hillside are the epitome of a Western ghost town, and most buildings are marked. You'll see the old school, general store, saloon, bordello, and other important town buildings.
Beyond Granite, the road winds down to the North Fork of the John Day River and then heads back across the mountains by way of the Anthony Lakes area. Although Anthony Lakes is best known for its small ski area, in summer there are hiking trails and fishing in the area's small lakes. The vistas in this area are the best on this entire loop drive, with rugged, rocky peaks rising above the forest. Also in this same area, you'll catch glimpses of the irrigated pastures of the Powder River Valley far below.
Coming down onto the valley floor, you reach the tiny farming community of Haines, which is the site of the Eastern Oregon Museum, 610 Third St. (tel. 541/856-3233), a small museum cluttered with all manner of artifacts of regional historic significance. It's open mid-May to mid-September, Wednesday through Sunday from 9:30am to 4:30pm; admission is $2. Here in Haines, you'll also find the Haines Steakhouse, a favorite of area residents.