Base Camp Baker Adventures

September 12, 2014 (Updated September 29, 2014)

Outdoor adventures are easy to find across Eastern Oregon, where you can discover a treasure trove of activities that also teach you more about the state’s past. History runs deep across Oregon’s varied landscapes, including the border between Oregon and Idaho – not far from Baker City – where you can discover a treasure trove of places and activities that reveal much about our past.

Hells Canyon of the Snake River is the deepest gorge in North America; home to a wild river where danger’s easy to find and where a rugged and remote landscape is always by your side. Mark Yates makes his living in the deepest gorge in America. He’s a 12-year veteran river guide who owns Hells Canyon Adventures and he loves to share his vast “backyard” with folks eager to see an unchanged piece of Oregon from a different point of view.


We met Yates at the Hells Canyon Creek Recreation Site, the put-in point for a his company’s trips on the Wild and Scenic Snake River in the deepest gorge in North America called Hells Canyon. He told me that most folks are wide-eyed and awestruck by the canyon before they’ve even touched the water. “We’re in the deepest part of Hells Canyon right now and will be for about six miles downriver. You can see the shadows are longer here from the surrounding cliffs–not surprising when you consider we’re thousands of feet deep in the canyon right here.”

There’s a certain rush of adrenaline that hits you after you realize there are many really big white-water rapids waiting for just around each bend of the Snake River in Hells Canyon. The names conjure up images of frothy, foamy moments of terror: Wild Sheep Rapids, Granite Rapids, and Rush Creek Rapids. Each is unique, but all seem like brewing cauldrons of white water — and they each deserve respect.

We joined Mark aboard his 40-foot jet boat named “Calebra,” and he explained the boat’s name is Spanish for “snake.” He added, “This is quite an unusual western river, for it travels on a 1,056-mile journey from its headwaters at 9,800 feet in Yellowstone Park to its confluence with the Columbia River at Pasco, Washington at an elevation of 340 feet. That’s a lot of drop – with lots of fast-running whitewater rapids along the way.”

Hells Canyon of the Snake River offers you thrills, chills and maybe a spill along Oregon’s most challenging whitewater river.  But rugged and remote adventure is but one entree from a remarkable menu of Eastern Oregon adventures within easy reach of your base camp in Baker City.

45 minutes from Baker City, along the Snake River, stop in at  Farewell Bend State Park (at Brownlee Reservoir) and enjoy an oasis of green – where acres of spreading locust trees provide cool shady relief from the summer sun. Joe Kenick, Oregon State Park Manager, said that the historic site earned its name from the earliest pioneers who passed through the area on their westward treks. “This is where they had to say ‘farewell’ to the Snake River and move up toward the northwest and Baker Valley. You must remember that walking down Hells Canyon was not an option, so this place stood out and was a draw because it’s the only green around.”

The Farewell Bend State Park Campground offers plenty of elbow room across its 74 lakeshore acres, with more than 120 sites for tents or trailers. There are also two rental cabins that offer all of the comforts of home, so it’s a good place to spend some time, cast a fishing line and enjoy a break. “An archeologist once told me,” added Kenick, “that a good place to camp is a good place to camp whether it’s 150 years ago or today. That’s why this was a gathering spot on the Oregon Trail.”

Nearby Baker City sits at the crossroad for adventures. In fact, the Geiser Grand Hotel is in the center of what was once called the “Queen City” of Oregon’s gold country. There’s no finer place to rest your head!

“Baker City is the next historic chapter that followed the Oregon Trail,” said Barbara Sidway, the owner and General Manager of the Geiser Grand Hotel. “The Oregon Trail blew through this area and brought hundreds of thousands of pioneers into the Willamette Valley, but settlement in this area didn’t really happen until later – after gold was discovered.”

The Geiser Grand Hotel offers a certain elegance that may spoil you with fine crystal chandeliers, rich mahogany millwork and a spectacular stained glass atrium that collectively take the breath away. Thirty guest rooms invite you to linger longer; “We are big on comfort here,” said Sidway. “The scale of everything, including decorations and furnishings – you won’t see anything petite here. This should be your base camp to explore the area and I promise – there are more things to do in our region than you can find time for.”

There’s always something cooking in the kitchen at Geiser Grand Hotel too. Chef Travis Boothby eagerly shared his signature dish, a sausage fritatta. “We strive for perfection with every dish,” offered Chef Travis. “In fact, whether it be a steak, fish or eggs or baked items – we strive to be excellent with every item every time.”

Boothby is a big believer that buying local is part of that “excellent” treatment he provides his diners too. That includes a wide range of local meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. He prepared his signature dish by heating four cloves of minced garlic in a well-oiled, medium sized fry pan for one minute, then added one cup of fresh ground Italian sausage and a half cup of chopped onion. He cooked that through for a few minutes before he added four beaten eggs and a generous amount of grated parmesan cheese across the top. He cooked the dish over low heat for a couple of minutes and then placed the entire fry pan into the oven for a couple minutes more.

It was delicious! Boothby noted that the frittata was also one of the most popular breakfast entrees at the hotel. Sidway agreed and added that providing her guests with fresh ingredients is key to make everyone feel home at the Geiser Grand Hotel. “We support our local community and our guests appreciate that. They want to taste the region – they want to taste what we have here, and by buying local we deliver that.”

A short distance west from Baker City, the Sumpter Valley Railroad will “deliver” you on great adventure when you ride the rails of the “Sumpter Stump Dodger”.

Each weekend, the Sumpter Valley Railroad makes the twelve mile round trip run from McEwen Depot to Sumpter. “Last call! Train Number One to Sumpter departing in five minutes!” said Sumpter Railroad conductor Daniel Bentz. It’s a railroad that reaches back to the early days of settlement in NE Oregon, according to the railroad’s operations manager, Taylor Rush. “The railway meandered in and out of every canyon throughout the Sumpter Valley as it followed the timber line in the 1880’s. In those days they said the railroad engine would dodge the stumps as it crawled up into the mountains and that name just stuck.”

Conductor Bentz added, “The original purpose of the railroad was to haul logs down to mills in Baker City where they were cut and hauled out across the nation. But the railroad also hauled regular goods, passengers and during cattle season there would be long stock trains heading down to the valley.”

These days, tourists have replaced the cattle and timber. Folks travel here from all over the country to escape city hub bub and settle in for a slower pace and also learn more about Baker County‘s past — especially the county’s gold mining past, when giant gold mining dredges turned the Powder River and greater Sumpter area upside down for miles around. Decades later, the tailing’s piles undulate like snakes across the valley floor.

Bentz noted, “They (dredges) chewed up the rock, sifted out the gold and then shot the rock out the back end of the floating dredge. It was amazing but it also damaged the valley’s environment. Remember, this was long before major environmental laws were passed and no one was really concerned about it.”

When you reach the town site of Sumpter, stroll a couple of blocks and go aboard a unique Oregon State Park. The Sumpter Dredge offers you a chance to learn more about the area’s golden past. Square-bowed and built of steel and wood and iron, three giant dredges lifted and sifted the terrain, reaping a golden harvest worth $12 million during the peak of the depression era.

Today, it is a park that holds on to history and takes visitors aboard to see and touch the past at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area. “Each bucket (there are 72 total) on this dredge would pick up about 9 cubic feet of material. It would wash the gold off the rocks and would drop thru into some sluice boxes and then out the back,” said park ranger Garret Nelson.

Inside the heart of the dredge – big as a barn and filled with gears and belts, winches and pumps – the rock passed through steel cylinders, separating rocks by size before water and sluices separated the gold from the dirt. Nine tons of gold in twenty years!

Railroad engineer Dale Olsen added that a ride on the “Sumpter Stump Dodger” is a direct link with Oregon’s past and from where he sits, the railroad and the dredge are living museums that are worth a visit. “It’s important to keep in touch with our past. Both – in their own ways – are machines of beauty that are worth a visit and an understanding of their place in Oregon’s mining history.”

“The telling of Oregon history is an important mission for Oregon State Parks,” added Nelson. “By virtue of the dredge’s presence in the valley, many visitors ask those questions and then you can teach them about that time. It really does provide the opportunity to share that chapter of Oregon’s past – and it’s really fun – it’s really fun.”

Barbara Sidway agreed and offered: “When you make Baker County your home for a visit, you are really stepping back in time and connecting with what Eastern Oregon is about now. If you just show up we will get you pointed in the right direction for history and adventure.”

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.