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Painted Hills

Road Trip through Gold Mining History and to Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

Black Point Overlook, Hell's Canyon
Written by Oregon Media

Road Trip through Gold Mining History and to Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

Gold mining history, boomtown stories and the most spectacular views into the deepest canyon in Oregon define this road trip

there’s Gold in the Hills

Sumpter was founded as a gold rush town. This little place perched on the edge of the Blue Mountains exudes historical charm and has plenty of stories to tell of times gone past. Visit the Sumpter area to experience 150-year-old history, rugged scenery, a flea market, ghost towns and remote and meandering trails through the woods.

Sumpter Valley Railroad All Aboard!

A gold rush boom town called for a railroad, and so the railroad came. The Sumpter Valley Railroad was built to transport logs to the sawmill in Baker City. Today, experience the scenic Sumpter Valley via a ride for the whole family on the historic steam railroad. Open weekends in summer, the train rumbles through the scenic Wild West landscape just like it did a century ago.

Dig Up the Past

Dredging for gold was one way the precious metal was extracted, and one of Sumpter Valley’s three original historic dredges still stands to this day. One of the nation’s oldest gold dredges and an important link to Oregon’s pioneering past, the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area is open to visitors in summer. Stop by the dredge, take a tour, walk the trails, and mine for gold. Visit the interpretive center and gift shop to learn more about this valley’s rich, golden history.

Pedal Into the Mountains

Riding old gravel roads via bike is all the rage in the mountain biking community, and there are plenty of those around here in the old gold mining hills. Find trail systems at Phillips Lake near Sumpter for mountain biking, gravel riding and hiking.

Summer Shopping Spree

Sumpter’s Flea Market is a legendary summer tradition. Comb the streets for treasures sold by vendors, from antiques to jewelry to art. Book a room at The Depot Inn, conveniently located in the heart of downtown historic Sumpter.

Hiking and Biking trails around Phillips lake Cruise Along Towards Baker

The Elkhorn Scenic Byway is one of the three Scenic Byways that connect in downtown Baker City. The byway offers visitors an opportunity to explore the region’s rich turn-of-the-19th-century gold rush heritage and even offers a few ghost towns. Meandering through the spectacular Elkhorn Mountains, attractions include the Sumpter Valley Railroad, Sumpter Dredge State Park, the ghost town of Granite and Anthony Lakes Resort.

Historic Baker City

Americana is at its finest in historic Baker City, voted one of Rand McNally’s six most beautiful small towns in America three years in a row. Baker City was a gold rush boom town in its own right, once known throughout the West as the “Metropolis of Eastern Oregon” and the “Queen City of the Inland Empire.”

A series of gold-mining booms in the late 1800s inundated the fair city with capital, and the quality of the 100-plus downtown structures on the National Historic Register reflect that influx. As a result, Baker City is home to one of the largest and most well-preserved historic districts in Oregon.

Downtown Baker City a Downtown Tour

Baker’s history and one-time wealth left behind glorious historic buildings. Take a self-guided architectural tour with stops at charming businesses along the way. Begin at the fully restored grande dame of Baker City’s glitzy past and the cornerstone of downtown—the Geiser Grand Hotel. Architectural details include a three-story cupola, ornate stained-glass ceilings, cavernous wine cellars, Victorian-style suites and upscale cuisine. Sign up for a guided tour on the weekends, or book a room for the night and see if the hotel is really haunted, as rumored.

flavors of Malt, Barley, Grapes, Apples and Chocolate

Continue wandering downtown to discover the flavors of Baker City. A legendary craft brewery, Barley Brown’s Brewing Company’s beer competition medal holdings have reached triple digits. The taproom and brewpub both serve tasty food and more beers than you have fingers and toes to count them on. Start with the Pallet Jack IPA, which tops many “best” lists. At the award winning Glacier 45 Distillery, sip their hand crafted spirits including vodka, bourbon and gin.

Visit Copper Belt Winery’s tasting room on Main Street to sip on the products of the only winery on the Oregon side of the Snake River Valley AVA. There’s always beer on tap if wine tasting isn’t for you. Rain Barrel Ciderworks uses time-honored techniques to showcase the varietal flavors of fresh, sharp apples to make a refreshing local cider.

The light-filled gallery of upscale art and gourmet chocolate at Peterson’s Gallery and Chocolatier provides a true sensory delight. More local art can be found at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center, Churchill School and White House Art & Design. At BELLA Main Street Markets, seek out versatile and innovative kitchen items, wine, chocolate, fine linens and greeting cards, and is also home of the famous locally brewed Ruby D Tonic.

National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center Of Pioneers and Wagon Trains

Just east of Baker City, visit with pioneers at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center before taking a stroll in the original ruts of the Oregon Trail, first carved by wagons 175 years ago. The BLM-managed 500-acre historic site offers exhibits, interpretive programs, living history and workshops, in addition to four miles of hiking trails. Other highlights at the 23,000-square-foot hilltop facility include a full-scale wagon train diorama, a replica gold stamp mill and a gold panning demonstration area for the enjoyment of tourists and locals alike.

Modern Arts

Baker County’s burgeoning arts community offers visitors a chance to celebrate the arts throughout the year at a variety of award-winning festivals and fun events including the We Like’em Baker City's First Friday Art Walk Short Film Festival, Pine Fest Music Festival, Baker City’s Little Big Show and Open Studio Tours. For aspiring artists, the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center and Churchill School both offer a variety of classes.

Rancher for a Day

Throughout Baker County, visitors can see the ranching heritage that still shapes the community today. With more than two dozen Oregon State Heritage farms and ranches in Baker County, the working West is still a way of life here. Geiser Grand Hotel owner Barbara Sidway noticed that many of her guests had an interest in what it is like to live on a ranch in Eastern Oregon, so she created the Geiser Grand Ranch Experiences, connecting local ranchers with visitors who would like a taste of the economically and culturally important ranching industry.

Baker City Cycling Classic Cycle Tour Time

Cycling enthusiasts find plenty of backroads to explore, including the Hells Canyon, Journey Through Time, and Elkhorn Scenic byways and the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway. Cycling events include the Baker City Cycling Classic the last weekend of June each year. The event brings hundreds of road cyclists to the region to ride and race on scenic roads. Soaking up the history and beauty of the region doesn’t hurt either. If motorcycles are more your style, don’t miss the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally, an official Harley-Davidson event which descends upon Baker City each July.

Into the deepest Canyon

Hells Canyon is tucked into the northeast corner of Oregon, and is defined by “dramatic” and “deep.” A glimpse of and a tour through North America’s deepest river canyon are not to be missed.

The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway encircles the Wallowa Mountains. The route extends from Baker City to La Grande around the back way, along the rim of Hells Canyon and through the rugged Wallowa Range. The 208-mile route is only open June to October in its entirety, and covers some of the region’s most spectacular scenery.

Meandering through rolling farmlands—showcasing sweeping views of the Wallowa and Elkhorn mountains—and following the winding Powder River before reaching the bottom of Hells Canyon, the route is about as dramatic as it gets.

Mountain Towns Unite

The small towns of Halfway and Richland are jumping off points and home bases for the southern end of Hells Canyon. Each offers a variety of lodging choices, restaurants, and other amenities. Enjoy the Halfway Whimsical artists’ co-op for local arts and the Main Place for burgers and beer. These two towns are home to numerous festivals including the Hells Canyon Jr. Rodeo, Eagle Valley Days, PineFest and the Richland Brownlee Panfishing tournament. 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the Baker County Fair and Panhandle Rodeo, held Labor Day weekend in Halfway.

jet boat or white water, on the river we go

Line up a jet boat tour or rafting trip along the Snake River. Explore the deepest river gorge in North America with the experts at Hells Canyon Adventures, at this for more than forty years. Wet and wild jet boat tour options range from daylong family-geared trips to fast-paced thirty-minute jaunts.

Halfway Whimsical Rather paddle? Jump aboard a whitewater tour with Hells Canyon Outfitters, which also offers fishing experiences. Enjoy a day of fishing with spectacular views, like the one just below the Hells Canyon Dam on the Snake River.

In Search of a Vista

If getting down into the canyon isn’t an option, seek out one of three viewpoints worth the drive: the Buckhorn Overlook, Hat Point and Hells Canyon Overlook. Bring the camera and a sack lunch and enjoy a meal with one of the best views you’ll ever see.