Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway - Oregon Scenic Drives
This 106-mile loop road takes you through the Elkhorn Mountains - a country rich in scenery, history, geology, and natural resources. Many recreational opportunities are available along the way, including hunting, fishing, camping, picnicking, boating, skiing, and hiking. Special points of interest are the varied gold mining operations and the historical narrow-gauge railroad grade.
Scenic Byway signs along the way mark special points of interest and road junctions; the entire route is paved. Gas is available only in Baker City and Sumpter. The route is not snowplowed between Granite and Anthony Lakes in the winter.
At the top of each paragraph, the distance from Baker is noted. The mileage and descriptions are based on driving clockwise around the route, going first by Phillips Lake.
Additional information on any of these topics may be obtained from: Baker County Library, Baker County Chamber of Commerce, and the Baker Ranger District, all located in Baker City. The production of this information has been a cooperative effort of Baker County, the USDA Forest Service, and the Baker County Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Post Office Square, Baker City
Nearly a century and a halt ago, wagon trains bringing pioneers over the Oregon Trail rolled through this valley on their way to greener futures. Some stopped here in what was originally called Lone Tree Valley after a solitary pine that grew near the present day airport. The area flourished as an agricultural center, supplying nearby gold boom towns with the staples of life.
In the spring of 1868, a few citizens decided that the town of Auburn was too lawless to be suitable as seat of the county government. Early one morning they drove into Auburn with a wagon, took all the county records, and announced as they left that Baker City was the new county seat. Later that year, a formal state election officially voted the county seat to Baker City.
Approximately 4 miles up this graveled road is the site of the town of Auburn. Once a booming mining camp and the original seat of Baker County, all that remains now are a few tombstones.
A rough frontier town where laws were drawn up and nailed to trees, Auburn leaves behind a trail of legends such as the elusive Blue Bucket Mine and the intriguing tale of Spanish Tom who murdered his two gambling companions and then was killed himself by a group of local vigilantes.
On your left is the Dooley Mountain State Historic Highway. The road was first proposed by B. F. Koontz, a pioneer who lived on the south side of the mile-high mountain in the mid-1800's. He later died of exposure after snowshoeing from the town of Auburn to his home in the middle of winter. The road was finally built by a consortium of partners and was known as the Boyd Toll Road after the principal investor. Boyd's interest was purchased by John Dooley in 1871, and the name of the road was changed to the Dooley Road. In 1889, it was sold to the county and became a public road.
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Boundary
The Baker City Forest Reserve was established in 1904, then combined with the Blue Mountain Reserve to become the Whitman National Forest in 1908. Many subsequent boundary changes were finalized in 1954 when the Wallowa and Whitman Forests were combined into one National Forest, now the largest in the northwest, with 2-1/3 million acres.
This area of public land is administered by the Forest Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Multiple-Use Act of 1960 specifies that National Forest lands will be managed for sustained yields of wood, water, forage, wildlife, and recreation.
Red Bridge Crossing
A bridge crossing for the Sumpter Valley Railroad (SVRR) once stood in this gorge. Painted a bright boxcar red, it was called the Red Bridge and was frequently photographed. Though later rebuilt as a trestle bridge, it retained its name. This portion of the scenic byway closely follows the alignment of the SVRR which ran between Baker City and Prairie City carrying lumber, freight, and passengers. The narrow gauge line crossed three mountain ranges with dramatically steep grades and impressively abrupt curves.
Mason Dam Picnic Area
Just a mile down this side road is a shaded picnic area accessed by a quaint footbridge. Try fishing in the Powder River here.
Union Creek Campground
No matter what your favorite outdoor activity is. from fishing to water skiing to snoozing under the pines, you can pursue it at this full-service campground. With 58 overnight camping units, 80 picnic areas, a fish cleaning station, boat ramp, swimming area, and hiking trails, you can enjoy nature in the finest of settings here.
Day use and the boat launch are free, there is a fee for overnight camping.
The Union Creek Campground is located on the edge of serene Phillips Lake, which is actually an irrigation reservoir. The body of water was named after local cattleman Fred Phillips who was instrumental in getting the project completed.
Social Security Point
A 1/3 mile gravelled road leads to a popular spot with the over-65 crowd. The narrow road is not recommended for motor homes.
Mowich Loop Wildlife Viewing Area
At this picnic site, you are bound to meet some of the forest's inhabitants. Several separate environs meet in this area creating a site that attracts abundant and diverse wildlife. Water fowl, shore birds, song birds, raptors, mule and white-tail deer, squirrels, coyotes, weasels, and chipmunks are just a few of the animals that call this site their home.
The artificial snags you see along the edges of the lake have had osprey nesting in them since they were erected in 1977 and occasionally bald eagles perch on them.
Gold Mining Overlook
From this vantage point you can clearly see the tailings left from repeated dredgings of the valley floor. Gold was sifted out of the river deposits in this area by large boats called dredges which contained specialized mining equipment.
With the large dredges now silent and abandoned, the tailings have become revegetated. Many kinds of birds and animals live in the tailings area.
South Shore Campgrounds
Miller Lane Campground and the newly built Southwest Shore Campground are just a few miles from Hwy. 7 and offer serene surroundings and lake access.
Use is free.
Deer Creek Campground
Roll up your pantlegs and go for some color! Deer Creek Campground, 4 miles from Hwy. 7, has an area specially set aside for you to try your hand at recreational gold panning. Any gold you find in this designated area is yours to keep.
This primitive campground is accessed by a narrow, gravelled road and is not recommended for use by large campers or trailers.
Sumpter Valley Railroad
Traveling 1/4 mile south of the highway will take you back 100 years - to the depot of the Stump Dodger itself! A restoration of a section of the original run of the Sumpter Valley Railroad, the present line and engine takes passengers on an excursion through the valley tailings to the very edge of the town of Sumpter - once known as the Queen City. The narrow gauge train runs four times daily on weekends and holidays throughout the summer months. A small fee is charged for the ride; revenues support further restoration and general operating costs of this all-volunteer venture.
The scenic byway route leaves State Highway 7 at this junction, and continues north on State Highway 410.
The last dredge to work the main part of the valley spends its final days here. The only fatality in all the dredging operations happened with the winch in this boat when it caught Chris Rowe and instantly killed him. The dredge was later reported to have a ghost whose footsteps were heard coming up the steps to the winch room at night after the power was turned off.
In 1862, five confederate soldiers from the Civil War battlefields set up camp here at the confluence of Cracker and McCully Fork Creeks. Originally named Fort Sumpter, the town slowly grew as mining, lumber production, and ranching activities became established. The Whitman National Forest established its headquarters here in what is now One-Eyed Charlie's; and the town eventually had 15 saloons, 3 newspapers, an opera house, and a planked main street that kept residents out of the mud.
In 1917, a fire starting in the kitchen of the Capital Hotel quickly grew and swept through town, consuming buildings and boardwalks alike. The town's water supply failed 30 minutes after the start of the fire, and dynamite was finally used to stop the flames. The fire, combined with the shutdown of the gold mines, ended the boom in Sumpter which now has a population of about 130 people.
Town of Bourne
A fascinating seven mile side trip up Cracker Creek takes you back to the glory days of gold and the townsite of Bourne. Bourne was once the center of the hard-rock mining area yet was off limits to the Chinese miners in the lower valley. The Chinese were despised by the local miners because of their hard-working natures and unfamiliar customs.
One-half mile up Cracker Creek lies the hulking remains of the No. 2 Yuba dredge. still sitting where it last sifted out gold.
McCulley Fork Campground
Camp under the pines and try your hand at recreational gold panning at this specially designated site.
View of the Elkhorn Mountains
The fascinating geology of the Elkhorn Mountains is a result of a triple-decker conglomeration of rock formations from three entirely different sources and time periods. Ancient seas at one time covered this area depositing material which eventually made sedimentary rocks - this is one of the few areas of the state where this rock is visible. It was later intruded and displaced by molten rock which solidified into granite; much later flows of volcanic basalt surrounded and covered parts of the area. Finally sculpted by glaciers, the Elkhorns tell a intricate tale in their silent stones.
Blue Springs Summit and Snowpark
At 5,864 feet (1,787 m) above sea level, Blue Springs Summit is on the divide between Baker and Grant Counties. With over 150 miles of groomed snowmobile trails on Baker District, areas like this are often the sites of rousing winter activities.
Over a hundred years ago, this site was a stop for the horse-drawn stage coach line which carried freight and passengers between Sumpter and The Dalles on the Columbia River.
Above the road, a small settlement called Gold Center acted as a supply depot for local mining activities. The forest around this area was burned off by the miners to make gold prospecting easier.
Forest Management Practices
For the next several miles, you will be passing through a mosaic of live, dead, downed, and logged tree stands. The pine trees in this area were virtually wiped out by the Mountain Pine Beetle in the mid-70s. After harvesting much of the dead woody material, many areas naturally regenerated into the lush stands you now see. The trees will be thinned which will leave more room for the remaining trees to grow without the stress of competition. This treatment, coupled with commercial harvesting of the trees when they are about 60 years old, should help prevent such devastating insect outbursts in the future.
Boundary Guard Station
One of many crew quarters scattered over the remote areas of the National Forests, this Guard Station was built in the depression years by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews. The building has many unique and laborious details crafted with care by now unknown artisans.
These buildings were originally occupied in the summer seasons by field crews who worked in the woods marking timber to be cut, fighting fire, or surveying for roads. The buildings are now used primarily by firefighting crews.
Townsite of Granite
Still with the facade of a boisterous frontier town, Granite is a bit of living history. You might want to take a side trip through the streets of the town and read the names and histories of the remaining buildings.
Over the years, Granite has been the home of such characters as pioneer Skedaddle Smith and One-eyed Dick. Then there was '49 Jimmie whose only companion was a rooster with whom he shared all his meals. The rooster has been remembered as often perching on the edge of the bean pot helping himself to some grub.
The Fremont Powerhouse is just 5 miles south of Granite on Forest Road 10. The powerhouse provided electricity for mining operations in the area for almost 60 years, operating on water piped in from Olive Lake. The road to the powerhouse is unsurfaced.
After the easier gold had been placered out of these streambeds, the claims were leased to Chinese laborers who efficiently reworked them. As the men made their way upstream, they set aside the larger boulders and formed "walls" which paralleled the streams. This is the clue by which you can differentiate the areas worked by hand from those worked by dredges since the boom from the dredges left the tailings in lines perpendicular to the streambeds.
The Cougar-Independence Mine
Almost a million dollars worth of gold and silver came out of the hard rock mine you see across the draw. It played out at the start of World War II.
All mines in this area are located on mining claims or on private ground. Please do not trespass.
Deer or elk may be spotted in the long meadows of Crane Flats during the early morning or late evening hours. The North Fork John Day Wilderness boundary is a short distance west of this stop.
Wilderness is land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, and is managed to preserve its natural conditions.
Humans can find primitive recreation opportunities in these areas, as well as solitude and scenic beauty.
North Fork John Day Campground
The Elkhorn Scenic Byway continues on Forest Road 73 which takes a turn to the east (right) at the North Fork of the John Day Campground. This point is also the termination of the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway of the Umatilla National Forest which continues in the northwest direction and passes through the towns of Ukiah, Heppner, and lone. The Blue Mountain Scenic Byway begins on Oregon interstate 84 and is an alternate route you may wish to take.
North Fork John Day Wild and Scenic River
Approximately 54 miles of the North Fork John Day River became a National Wild and Scenic River in 1988. Such designated rivers are to be "preserved in free flowing condition, and ... they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations." Scenery, geology, cultural resources, recreational opportunities, and wildlife are some of the outstanding attributes of this river. it also supports one of the largest spawning populations of wild spring chinook and summer steelhead in the Columbia River system upstream of Bonneville Dam.
Baldy Lake Trailhead
This 7.5 mile trail of medium difficulty ends at Baldy Lake. Baldy Lake sets in a Glacial Cirque on the north slope of Ireland Mountain.
Peavy Cabin and Trailhead
At the end of this mile-long forest road, another CCC cabin stands and marks the beginning of Peavy Trail. The 3.7 mile-long trail ties into the Elkhorn Crest Trail.
Lower Crawfish Lake Trailhead
1.2 miles down this trail lies peaceful Crawfish Lake. The trail continues on beyond the lake and ends back on Forest Road 73.
A lightning storm and heavy winds set fire to over 6,000 acres here in 1986. The lodgepole pine in this area had stagnated and overmatured, making the perfect setting for a Mountain Pine Beetle infestation of epidemic proportions. The beetles left the trees dead yet standing, a natural setup for a fire.
Current and future forest management will thin the new crop of pine so the trees will grow healthy and strong. Harvesting will occur before the trees overmature; these practices will help lessen the forest's vulnerability to both insect infestations as well as catastrophic fire.
Upper Crawfish Lake Trailhead
An easy 1.6 miles to Crawfish Lake, this trail continues beyond to the Lower Crawfish Lake Trail-head.
Lakes Lookout and crawfish Basin Trailhead
An easy half mile walk along the Lakes Lookout Trail takes you to a dramatic viewpoint overlooking both Hoffer Lake and Angel Lake Basins.
The Crawfish Basin Trail is a 2 mile hike and ties into the Elkhorn Crest Trail. Access to the trail-head is by a narrow, graveled road unsuitable for motor homes.
At 7,392 feet (2,253 m), you are at the highest point on the Scenic Byway.
This site overlooks the headwaters of the Grande Ronde River which flows northward from here to enter the Grande Ronde Valley near the city of La Grande. From there, it flows to the Snake River.
This high country acts as nature's sponge, soaking up water from snow and rain and then releasing it slowly to form streams which will run water through even the dry months of the year.
Grande Ronde Lake Overlook
Below you at this site is pristine Grande Ronde Lake.
Grande Ronde Lake Campground and Snow-park
Sited on Grande Ronde Lake, this campground offers camping units and picnic sites. A boat launch is available for fishing enthusiasts. Cam ping spurs are not suitable for large trailers or motor homes.
When snow is on the ground, the area along the byway serves as a parking area for recreationists pursuing snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and other winter sports.
Anthony Lakes Ski Area and Campground
Powder snow was invented at Anthony Lakes in 1933! Its annual recurrence draws downhill and cross-country skiers who enjoy the several downhill runs, groomed trails, and day lodge. Local efforts established this ski area in 1933, one of the first such sites in the country.
The Anthony Lakes complex offers several hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, and water activities. Sites are available for tents, trailers, and motor homes. Stop in the Forest Service Station and let the Forest host show you around.
Anthony Lakes was named in honor of Dr. Anthony, a pioneer circuit-riding doctor who worked in the Baker Valley. Local residents have enjoyed the Lakes area since at least 1915, traveling here by horses and wagons.
Elkhorn Crest Trailhead
Spectacular views and bidden lakes are some of the drawing cards of the 22.5 mile-long Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail. Following the ridge-top for much of its length, the trail passes through an area of the North Fork John Day Wilderness and links into several other trails in the Elkhorns.
Van Patten Lake Trailhead
This short 1-1/2 mile trail ends at Van Patten Lake. The trail is steep but the destination rewarding.
Baker Valley Overlook
Baker Valley greets the modern eye with as pleasing a pastoral scene now as it did the pioneers almost two centuries ago. Originally established as an agricultural supply center for the influx of miners, Baker Valley has since grown to produce livestock, hay, grain, timber, and a wide array of mining products.
The mountains to the east are called the Wallowas and are also part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Dutch Fiat Trailhead
This 11 mile-long trail passes pictoral meadows and Dutch Flat Lake before tying into the Elkhorn Crest Trail.
Pilcher Creek Reservoir
Just a few miles from here, the Pilcher Creek Reservoir stores water for irrigation and recreational fishing.
Town of Halnes
Stop awhile in the biggest little town in Oregon and enjoy true Americana Along with a city park, Haines offers the Eastern Oregon Museum on 3rd Street with an impressive collection of pioneer antiques.
Ranching is an integral part of the fabric of life in Baker Valley, one of the largest cattle producing areas in eastern Oregon.
The area was named for Edward D. Baker, Oregon's first senator and the only congressman to be killed in the Civil War.
Baker Ranger District
The Baker Ranger District is administered by the USDA Forest Service. its personnel will be happy to help you pursue other recreational activities here on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Post Office Square.
This scenic byway is only one of the many recreational opportunities available here in eastern Oregon. The Visitor and Convention Bureau Chamber of Commerce Office on Campbell Street can Introduce you to other points of interest such as the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Snake River.
When planning your next vacation for hiking, boating, exploring, or just enjoying nature, think of eastern Oregon!
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication