Labor Day weekend outdoors activities in Baker County

August 31, 2005 11:00 pm
Ahoy, matey! Baker County's new floating restroom is anchored at Hewitt Park, but it's not ready to use. The restroom, acquired through a $100,000 grant from the Oregon Marine Board, will be out one more week, then stored for the winter. It will ready by next spring, said Parks Director Lorrie Harvey.. (Submitted photograph).
Ahoy, matey! Baker County's new floating restroom is anchored at Hewitt Park, but it's not ready to use. The restroom, acquired through a $100,000 grant from the Oregon Marine Board, will be out one more week, then stored for the winter. It will ready by next spring, said Parks Director Lorrie Harvey.. (Submitted photograph).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Kids are turning their scalpel-sharp pencil tips into blunt instruments as they scrawl the teacher's words.

Shoulder pads are colliding on green fields.

And you awaken shivering, wondering why you didn't shut at least one window last night.

Summer is on the wane.

But your tent doesn't care.

And of the passage of seasons, your hiking boots and fishing poles know nothing.

The coming weekend is not summer's finale, if you concur with the calendar.

But it is, according to the federal government's definition of holiday, the last official three-day weekend til Columbus Day, and that's in October, and October, though it often mesmerizes with weeks of warm sunshine, can turn as coldly treacherous as an April blizzard.

Some people will drive hundreds of miles during this Labor Day weekend, seeking a place to relax.

Except it's hard these days to relax while you're refueling and watching, in stunned silence, as those little white numbers on the gas pump spin so rapidly that they blur, like the cherries and lemons on a slot machine.

Baker County, though, is rich in relaxing destinations near enough that the travel bill won't drive you into the poorhouse.

There's quite a variety of sights, too, so you ought to be able to find a satisfactory spot whether you define "relaxing" as moving as infrequently as possible, or climbing the highest peak between the Wallowas and Mount Hood.

Following is a trio of weekend trips, one designed for backpackers and hikers, one for people who prefer to sleep on a mattress rather than on pine needles, and a third for travelers who would rather float away summer's last long weekend.

FOR CAR (OR RV) CAMPERS

Where: A weekend on the Elkhorn Drive, with several possible campsites; this can be a one-, two- or even three-night trip

How Far: The Elkhorn Drive spans 106 miles, and it starts and ends in Baker City

What Do I Need: Camping equipment (if you don't have an RV)

Highlights: Views of the Elkhorn Mountains from every angle (you drive all the way around the range); Elkhorn Summit, 7,392 feet, is the second-highest point reached by a paved road in the state; Sumpter Valley Dredge State Park; Phillips Reservoir; Anthony Lakes

Six Forest Service campgrounds lie within a lantern's light of the Elkhorn Drive, and several others are within five miles of this paved, two-line route.

If you travel clockwise, the first — and largest — campground on your itinerary is Union Creek, beside Ore. Highway 7 on the north shore of Phillips Reservoir about 17 miles from Baker City. It's the only campground on Elkhorn Drive with electric, water and sewer connections for RVs.

From Union Creek drive 10 more miles on Highway 7, then turn right at a well-signed junction for Sumpter, three miles away.

Although Sumpter is one of Oregon's better-known 19th-century ghost towns, during summer's three holiday weekends the little city's population inflates from its customary 175 to. . . . well, a lot more than that.

The attraction is the flea market.

Dozens of vendors stack, hang, drape and otherwise display wares ranging from T-shirts to antique tools. Also grease-drenched curly fries.

Granite, another tiny town founded during Northeastern Oregon's gold-mining heyday, is 15 miles from Sumpter. Granite seems sleepy by comparison, but you can top off your gas tank there, or slake your thirst with a cold soda.

FOR BOATERS

Where: Brownlee Reservoir, the 53-mile-long Snake River impoundment that forms the boundary between Oregon and Idaho

How Far: Farewell Bend State Park (541/869-2365), at the reservoir's upper end, is about 55 miles from Baker City via Interstate 84; the reservoir's Powder River arm near Richland is about 45 miles via Ore. Highway 86

What Do I Need: A boat — Brownlee is a big reservoir in a wind-prone canyon, so it's not well-suited to canoes, kayaks and other small craft; if you're boatless, you can fish from shore

Highlights: Probably Baker County's best fishing — certainly its most eclectic, with catfish, crappie, perch, bluegill, smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and several other species; water warm enough for comfortable swimming and skiing

Although Brownlee Reservoir is about 25 feet below full, a common situation for late summer, most major boat ramps remain submerged — including the ones at Farewell Bend and at Hewitt Park, on the Powder River arm.

Here's a plus: Farewell Bend State Park is one of the few places in Northeastern Oregon where you can light a campfire.

FOR BACKPACKERS

Where: Camp at Twin Lakes, in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City; scramble to 9,106-foot Rock Creek Butte, the pinnacle of the Elkhorns

How Far: From Baker City, a one-way drive of either 17 or 30 miles, and a one-way hike or either 3 or 4 miles, depending on which trailhead you choose; Rock Creek Butte climb is a 4-mile round-trip from Twin Lakes

What Do I Need: Your regular backpacking kit — pack, tent, sleeping bag

Highlights: The best place in Oregon to watch mountain goats gambol across cliffs; fishing for brook trout; wildflowers; three-state view

As you bask in the bright alpine sunshine at Twin Lakes, you ought to thank cold clouds for the grand vista.

Those clouds deposited the snow, which accumulated over eons and consolidated into the glacier, which gouged the pair of holes that today are lakes.

The shorter but much steeper of the two trails to Twin Lakes follows the gorge that that glacier carved. Only now it's not deep ice but a shallow stream, Lake Creek, that flows through the gorge.

To get to the trailhead, drive south of Baker City on Ore. Highway 7 toward Sumpter. Follow the highway past Phillips Reservoir and into Sumpter Valley. About 20 miles from Baker City, and just before McEwen, turn right onto graveled Deer Creek Road. Take the left fork, which climbs a hill.

Follow the gravel road about four miles to a four-way intersection just after the road crosses Deer Creek. Continue straight 2.4 miles on a road that's steep and rough, but passable to passenger cars. Then turn right at a Y intersection and drive another three-tenths of a mile to the trailhead.

The first quarter-mile is actually an abandoned road. Then a much narrower footpath follows Lake Creek, occasionally veering away from the stream, to lower Twin Lake at 7,665 feet.

The upper lake is a few hundred yards uphill.

The thickest stands of whitebark pine trees — and thus the best, most sheltered campsites — are on the east shore of the lower lake.

The trail continues past the lower lake and climbs the ridge to the east, where it intersects with the Elkhorn Crest Trail about a mile above the lake.

Turn left (north) and hike the Crest Trail for another mile. Rock Creek Butte is the prominent, round-topped peak to the northwest. There's no trail to the top, but the route, which starts at a saddle, is easy to follow. The elevation gain from the saddle to the summit is about 750 feet.