Weekend adventures in Baker County
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Weekend is a happy word with a brutally cruel finish.
Look at those last three letters.
E. N. D.
We wait for what seems an inordinately long time for the weekend to start, and always it ends long before we're ready.
The weekend, with its measly share of two days, simply can't compete with the five-day work week.
And this complicates travel plans.
The Oregon Tourism Commission entices us with glossy color brochures touting the beauty of famous destinations such as the Coast, but by the time you reach the beach it's almost time to wheel the car around and drive back home.
But maybe you're looking too far, stretching the weekend's limits beyond its capacity.
Have you pitched your tent in each of Baker County's campgrounds?
Cast a line into every stream or lake?
Parked at every scenic overlook?
If not, you can put together a weekend plan that won't leave you stressed and disappointed when dusk arrives on Sunday.
Baker County's campgrounds range from plush and paved, to pure pine needle.
Most are managed either by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department or the U.S. Forest Service.
Campgrounds in state parks typically feature more amenities, such as sites with electric outlets and dumping stations for RVs.
There are two in the county Farewell Bend, on Brownlee Reservoir about three miles east of Huntington; and Unity Lake, on the lake a few miles northeast of Unity.
o Farewell Bend, 541/869-2365, or 1-800/551-6949; to reserve a campsite, call Reservations Northwest at 1-800/452-5687.
Farewell Bend is the place where Oregon Trail pioneers left the shores of the Snake River.
With the exception of the river itself, this is dry and desolate country where summer afternoon temperatures often reach triple digits. Farewell Bend's groves of shade-giving trees are as welcome as any oasis in the hottest of deserts.
The campground at this state park includes 93 sites with electrical and water connections. They cost $16 per night ($15 from Oct. 1 through April 30).
Campers also can rent a tepee (there are four, at $27 per night), a covered wagon (three, at $27), or a log cabin (two, at $35).
Day-use fees are $3, or $25 for an annual permit.
Besides its proximity to Brownlee's warmwater fishing, Farewell Bend includes plenty of picnic tables, a swimming area, boat ramp, basketball hoops, horseshoe pits and a sand volleyball court.
o Unity Lake, 541/932-4453 or 1-800/551-9649.
Unity, on the south shore of the lake (actually it's a man-made reservoir that stores irrigation water), is a smaller park than Farewell Bend, but it features many of the same amenities, including a boat ramp and day-use area.
Thirty-five campsites have electric outlets 21 at 30 amps, 14 at 50 amps; all cost $15 per night.
Campsites can't be reserved in advance, but the park's two tepees ($27 per night) can be by calling 1-800/452-5687.
This federal agency operates more than a dozen campgrounds and picnic areas in Baker County.
Some are free, some charge fees.
Of the latter group, the largest and fanciest is Union Creek, on the north shore of Phillips Reservoir about 16 miles southwest of Baker City. The phone number at Union Creek is 894-2505.
Union Creek, which is operated by a private company under a Forest Service concession contract, is one of the few Forest Service campgrounds in the country with full hookups for RVs (electricity, water and sewer). There are 24 of those, at $18 per night, as well as 34 others with water and electricity ($16). Campsites for tents cost $10 per night, and day-use fees are $5 per vehicle ($10 for a van or bus carrying 12 or more people) or $1 for a bicycle or motorcycle.
There are two other campgrounds on Phillips' shores (Southwest Shore, a fee site, and Millers Lane, which is free), as well as the day-use-only Mowich Loop picnic area.
Just below Mason Dam, which impounds the reservoir's water, there are two other recreation areas, one of which, the Powder River Recreation Area, includes wheelchair-accessible trails and fishing platforms.
Other Sumpter area campgrounds are Deer Creek and McCully Fork. Both are free.
There are three Forest Service campgrounds in the Anthony Lakes area. All are operated by a concessionaire, and all require fees.
None of the three is open yet due to lingering snow and emerging mud, although Anthony Lake campground should be open by next weekend, said Rob Gump of the Baker Ranger District.
In southern Baker County the Unity Ranger District manages clusters of campgrounds along U.S. Highway 26 west of Unity, and on the banks of the South Fork Burnt River.
On the east side of Baker County, on the Pine Ranger District, the Forest Service maintains several campgrounds along Eagle Creek and its forks, and in the Fish Lake/Twin Lakes region northeast of Halfway.
The latter area is still snowbound.
Most of Baker County's highways are part of either a national or state scenic byway.
The two most popular are the Hells Canyon and Elkhorn Drive byways. The former is one of Oregon's three All-American Roads, the latter a National Scenic Byway.
Either can be driven in one day, but both pass plenty of campgrounds that make it easy to stretch the drive over a weekend.
o Hells Canyon 218 miles.
Rarely can you drive a single route encompassing a greater variety of scenery than this one.
During the trip you will see both the county's lowest point (in Hells Canyon) and its highest (the summit of Red Mountain, in the southern Wallowas).
You'll also drive through a desert and across subalpine mountain passes.
No auto tour in Oregon so beautifully showcases the sometimes spectacular erosive forces of water, both in its liquid and solid forms.
Hells Canyon is the deepest river-carved gorge in North America, and although its deepest point actually is in Wallowa County, its Baker County portions are pretty spectacular, too.
The best views near the tour route are from the Hells Canyon Overlook, reached by a paved side road. If you have the time, a steep gravel road detour to Hat Point allows you to gaze into the maw of the canyon's greatest depths.
This tour begins in Baker City, follows Ore. Highway 86 east through Richland and Halfway, bears north on Forest Service Road 39 (the Wallowa Mountain Loop), then heads north and west on Ore. Highway 82 through Joseph and Enterprise to route's end in La Grande.
o Elkhorn Drive 106 miles.
If you want to know the Elkhorns, one of Oregon's tallest but least known mountain ranges, this tour is required.
The entire loop around the range is paved, and rarely are motorists out of sight of the high peaks, one of which, 9,097-foot Rock Creek Butte, is the tallest point in Northern Oregon between the Wallowas and the Cascades.
Elkhorn Drive also passes some of the state's best-preserved 19th century mining towns, including Granite and Sumpter.
If you drive the loop one of the next few weekends you'll still see snowdrifts, although at least one lane is open throughout, Gump said.
Elkhorn Drive begins and ends in Baker City. You can drive it either clockwise or counterclockwise, although most drivers follow the latter, heading first for Haines on U.S. Highway 30, then branching onto the Anthony Lakes Highway.