If we’re lucky, there’ll also be bears

Yellowstone -2311We’re going to be schlepping the family to Yellowstone this summer, and as you can probably guess, I’m just beside myself with ambivalence.

It’s time, though. On average, about three out of four exchange students will ask to see Yellowstone, and we haven’t even taken our own kids to see this American family vacation icon. I’ve always insisted it’s too far, too expensive. And who wants to sit in a hot car stuffed with crabby kids, driving through a big expanse of nothing on the off chance you’ll see a buffalo in the distance?

I mean, we got all kinds of scenery – trees and everything – right here. And a city zoo. I don’t know if they have buffalo, but I’m sure they have goats and stuff. And guess what? There’s concessions. And no drive. Bam.

This year, though, I’m relenting. I need to stop being such a stick in the mud.

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A 3-Day family vacation launched from Base Camp Baker

The Geiser Grand Hotel
The Geiser Grand Hotel

Every spring break, it seems a number of my children’s friends look forward to exotic vacations. Although the thought of making exciting plans for the break is always alluring, the realities of work schedules and finances precludes this possibility for our family almost every year.

Fortunately, in our region there are a number of opportunities for short, inexpensive and accessible family trips – some of which are surprising discoveries even for long time residents.

This spring, we spent three days in and around Baker City, Oregon, at the suggestion of Andrew Bryan, Baker County’s marketing director. Bryan is the visionary behind Base Camp Baker – an effort to brand the area as Eastern Oregon’s travel and recreation hub.

The famed stained glass ceiling at the Geiser Grand Hotel overlooking the Geiser Grill
The famed stained glass ceiling at the Geiser Grand Hotel overlooking the Geiser Grill

Two hours west of Boise off I-84, Baker City is steeped in northwest history and easy to access. As both of our children are prone to motion sickness on Idaho’s mountainous roads, we are always especially grateful given the chance to travel on such a relatively straight but scenic route.

Our stay began with dinner and check in at the historic Geiser Grand Hotel. The hotel is one of the most prominent buildings downtown and a symbol of the opulence of the gold rush era of the old west.

The Geiser Grand is also part of a story of the rebirth of a community. Following a heyday that lasted from the late 1800s to the early 20th century, the hotel had fallen into a stunning state of disrepair. With boarded up windows and chipping paint, it was a prominent eyesore. When the current owners arrived to study the structure for renovation, the hotel was within weeks of being demolished to make way for a parking lot.

Historic Baker City is a group of community volunteers that rallied in 1982 with a central mission to refurbish downtown. Barbara Sidway, co-owner and operator of the hotel, says the decision to undertake the years-long restoration project was based on her confidence in the visioning and planning work already completed by the group.

Coffee at Mad Matilda's
Coffee at Mad Matilda’s

“I saw that they had a great plan in place,” Sidway says, “and I could see where the hotel would play a role in that plan.”

The hotel has been refurbished with tremendous attention to detail – a famed stained glass ceiling was redesigned from the memory of a 90 year-old resident. New carpets were loomed in the same European mill as the originals. Light fixtures, door knobs, hinges and woodwork, where not original, were sourced at antique markets or recreated meticulously from archived photographs.

Although we didn’t experience any events that would support the hotel’s reputation for being haunted, we could have tempted fate by participating in a monthly ghost hunting tour (from 9 pm to 2 am). The hotel is also home base for a new family friendly candle-lit walking tour. At 60 to 75 minutes, Haunted Historic Baker City Tours include special pricing for children and are free for kids under 6.

At one time the hotel was considered the finest between Salt Lake City and Seattle – claiming the third elevator west of the Mississippi River. Today, with its antique furnishings and chandeliers, much of the sense of that opulence has been restored.

Architectural elements in a Baker City retail store.
Architectural elements in a Baker City retail store.

The Geiser Grand opens to Main Street, bustling with specialty boutiques, cafes and art galleries. Of particular delight to our family was the independently owned Betty’s Books, a saddle maker’s shop, and clothing stores that make use of former bank vaults for dressing rooms.

Baker City’s past is etched into its downtown storefronts. Ann Mehaffy, program director for Historic Baker City, says that the facades of than 60 downtown buildings dating back to the gold rush era have been restored to their original state after having been covered with sheet metal and plaster in earlier years.

On the sunny Saturday afternoon of our visit, foot traffic was plentiful and business was brisk, including those looking for a bite to eat. When it comes to dining with my family, I prefer food that is not passed through a window – preferably served in a locally owned restaurant. Fortunately, Baker City’s downtown includes a number of such establishments from café style to fine dining, a brew pub, or coffee shops that moonlight as art galleries like Mad Matilda’s.

Enjoying the spring skiing at nearby Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort
Enjoying the spring skiing at nearby Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort

For a town of fewer than 10,000, there are a surprising number of art exhibits in Baker City, including those in a refurbished Carnegie Library building, which now houses a community art center. On the first Friday each month, downtown galleries and other businesses stay open late with entertainment and refreshments for those who want to peruse the exhibits.

The proliferation of interesting architecture is not the town’s only claim to history. North of downtown, the Baker Heritage Museum (across the Geiser-Pollman Park from a fabulous county library) touts the “World Famous” Cavin-Warfel rock exhibit which held the attentions of our budding geologists for the better part of an hour.

The surrounding countryside provides other opportunities to explore the roots of western expansion, from the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, five miles east of Baker City, to a ghost town loop, train rides, and plentiful hiking and biking trails.

What can you fit in one covered wagon? An interactive exhibit at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
What can you fit in one covered wagon? An interactive exhibit at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

The two hours we’d budgeted to visit the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center was unfortunately not enough to accommodate a full exploration of the paved trails outside that lead to original wagon wheel ruts. The center itself, with its displays of life on the Oregon Trail, special programs, performances and videos, was educational and entertaining for both parents and kids.

The Cavin-Warfel Collection of rocks, fossils and minerals, housed at the museum, is one of the finest in the western United States, at the Baker Heritage Museum
The Cavin-Warfel Collection of rocks, fossils and minerals, housed at the museum, is one of the finest in the western United States, at the Baker Heritage Museum

Outdoor adventures and recreation opportunities are within easy reach of Baker City via the Elkhorn Scenic Byway (also with relatively few nausea inspiring curves), and the longer Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. On our way to visit the Anthony Lakes Ski Resort for some late spring skiing, we passed a number of trailhead markers and camp spots we intend to visit again this summer.

Of particular interest to my family is the lure of area ghost towns including McEwan and Sumpter, and a ride on the Sumpter Valley Railway. I’d appreciate a summer evening art gallery stroll through downtown Baker City, or a bicycle tour on one of the several bike friendly loops in the area. It will take a number of trips to fully explore and appreciate all Baker County has to offer.


www.basecampbaker.com – a great source for information on recreation and resources in the area

www.historicbakercity.com – includes a self-guided walking tour and information on historic downtown Baker City.

www.bakerheritagemuseum.com – with gold rush era exhibits and an extensive rock and minerals collection that our family particularly enjoyed.

http://www.blm.gov/or/oregontrail/ – For a schedule of exhibits and activities at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.

http://www.geisergrand.com/ – a gold Rush era hotel, restored to near original state. Hosts hotel tours and ghost hunting tours, with a restaurant, meeting facilities and beautiful nineteenth century bar.

A version of this article was originally published in the June, 2010, issue of Treasure Valley Family Magazine, and sponsored by the Baker County Chamber of Commerce and Base Camp Baker. All opinions are my own.