Elkhorn Scenic Byway: Take a drive to the sky

July 19, 2001 12:00 am
Through each of its seasons, Anthony Lake offers something for every occasion. When ice clears from the crystal blue water, fishermen, canoes, shoreline strollers, campers and hikers can find summertime enjoyment and relaxation beginning at the popular attraction high in the Elkhorn Mountains. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Through each of its seasons, Anthony Lake offers something for every occasion. When ice clears from the crystal blue water, fishermen, canoes, shoreline strollers, campers and hikers can find summertime enjoyment and relaxation beginning at the popular attraction high in the Elkhorn Mountains. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Only one ribbon of asphalt in Oregon will take you closer to the sky than the Elkhorn Drive National Scenic Byway.

The 106-mile driving tour begins and ends in Baker City.

For about half that distance the two-lane paved road is above 5,000 feet elevation higher than most of the major passes across the Cascades.

Two miles west of Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort the byway reaches Elkhorn Summit, where theres a gravel turnout at an elevation of 7,395 feet.

From this spot it may be possible, on the clearest of days and with well-rested eyes, to see the white smudge of Mount Hood on the horizon, some 175 miles away.

Among Oregons paved routes only the Rim Road in Crater Lake National Park hits a higher elevation than Elkhorn Summit. The Crater Lake Rim Road reaches 7,960 feet at the Cloud Cap Overlook.

Of course the Rim Road encircles only one mountain Mount Mazama, which exploded about 6,600 years ago and in whose caldera Crater Lake formed.

The Elkhorn Drive encompasses an entire range of high peaks, including 9,106-foot Rock Creek Butte, the highest point in the north half of Oregon between the Wallowas and the Cascades.

Befitting its passage through all that alpine country, the byway is closed by deep snow for much of the year typically from about Halloween through mid June.

The tradeoff for the brief driving season is the vast array of scenery and recreational pursuits available along the route.

Because the byway keeps to the high country for much of its length, the chiseled peaks of the Elkhorn Range are visible from almost any point you wont even have to get out of your car.

There are myriad reasons to do so, however.

The byway passes seven U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, more than a dozen trails for hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers, and several sites that will fascinate history buffs.

Moreover, the route is easy to drive, and comprehensively signed.

You can drive the byway in either direction, of course, but the counterclockwise route affords passengers the grandest scenery without requiring lots of dizzying head-swiveling.

To take the tour, follow 10th Street in Baker City to the north; it turns into U.S. Highway at the city limits.

Just after entering Haines (10 miles from Baker City), turn left at a sign for Anthony Lakes. The byway curves through the Baker Valley, bordered on the west by the imposing Elkhorns. The effect of the elevation difference between the valley and the peaks and ridges is especially dramatic because there are no foothills in between.

About a dozen miles out of Haines the byway leaves the valley and begins the serpentine climb toward Anthony Lakes. Although the road gains 3,500 feet of elevation in 10 miles, its well-graded and not likely to induce vertigo even in squeamish riders.

The Anthony Lakes area, 34 miles from Baker City, includes three lakes reached by road (Anthony, Grande Ronde and Lake), each with its own Forest Service fee campground. Trails for hikers and equestrians lead to several other lakes.

During the winter, Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort caters to skiers and snowboarders. The snowplows stop near here in winter.

After climbing to Elkhorn Summit, the byway winds down 2,500 feet to the North Fork John Day River and a junction with the Blue Mountains Scenic Byway.

From the junction its 10 miles to Granite, an old mining town founded in the early 1860s. Theres a store/cafe/gas station, as well as a lodge.

Beyond Granite the byway climbs to another summit, 5,867-foot Blue Springs, then descends to Sumpter, the liveliest of Oregons ghost towns with a population of about 175. The views on the circuitous descent are among the best on the entire route, with the rounded summit of Rock Creek Butte dominating the distance.

Three miles past Sumpter the byway reaches Ore. Highway 7, which it follows 25 miles back to Baker City. The highway passes the main depot for the restored Sumpter Valley steam-powered railroad, skirts Phillips Reservoir and the Forest Services full-service Union Creek Campground, and meanders along the Powder River.

Information about current road conditions is available by calling the Baker Ranger District office at 541/523-4476.