Once the Oregon Trail pioneers left the Snake River they were technically in the Oregon Territory. But this was the not the part of Oregon where they wanted to be. Western Oregon is a semi-arid high plains. The pioneers wanted to get over the Cascades and into the lush Willamette Valley. To get there they had to go north to the Columbia River and cross some of the most rugged terrain in their journey.
Here in western Oregon, there was no one river valley to follow. They would have to trek through steep canyons and over large hills to get into a valley. They could follow it for several miles and then have to repeat this to get into the next valley.
This was my first visit to Oregon. The terrain in western Oregon is unique. Ridge lines of large domed treeless hills separate the river valleys. I’ve never seen hills like these. Nothing like the jagged Rockies or the ones we have back east. Just giant grass-covered domes packed together like gigantic scoops of ice cream. Once over these ridge lines, there are flat endless plains cut with deep ravines made by rivers. It’s stark and thinly populated.
Burnt River Canyon
One of the first obstacles for the trail pioneers was navigating their way up Burnt River Canyon. This is a steep narrow canyon that slices its way up to the Baker River Valley. I thought driving this canyon was tough. Can’t image doing it in a wagon.
Here’s a dashcam video I made of my trip through the canyon and along I-84.
My first major destination point in Oregon was Baker City. This was a stop along the trail that had a couple of interesting things that I wanted to see.
The first was the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. This is another trail museum like the one I visited in Casper, WY. It is well done and for me it was the best trail museum that I visited. They have great visual displays and it has a good deal of trail history content.
The other thing I wanted to see in Baker City was the Ezra Meeker monument. Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail with his wife in 1852. He settled near Portland and had several successes and failures with farming and mining.
In 1906, and well into his 70’s, he became concerned that the Oregon Trail route was being forgotten. So he set out with a team of oxen and a wagon retracing his original route back east. His purpose was to place markers and monuments to preserve where the trail went. He did fund-raising along the way and enlisted volunteers to help supply and erect the monuments. He did two of these trips – traveling the Oregon Trail in 1906-1908 and again in 1910-1912.
In Baker City, Meeker’s trip motivated 800 school children to raise $60 (about $2,600 in today’s currency) for a Oregon Trail monument in their town. It was dedicated in April 1906, and placed on the grounds of the high school. Meeker had his picture taken by the monument when he passed through the town in 1910.
During my visit to Baker City, I went looking for the monument. Today, the site of the 1906 High School is now a middle school. I looked all over the property but couldn’t find the monument. I decided to check the town park and there’s where I found it. The same 12 ft granite stone that Ezra Meeker had inspired the school children of Baker City to erect over 100 years ago.
Oregon Trail Markers Along the Highway
The current north-south highway in western Oregon, I-84, follows almost the same route as the Oregon Trail. At each rest stop on the highway, there are Oregon Trail kiosks that display some trail and native american history. I stopped at each one. These are very informative and well done.
Over the Blue Mountains
The last obstacle to overcome before they got to the Columbia River, was crossing over the Blue Mountains. These mountains are not that high but they are forested which made for rough going.
It’s an easy ascent on I-84. The road winds its way for about 5-6 miles over the mountains. It tops out at 3,600 ft at Deadman’s Pass. The pass name sounds more dramatic than it really is. For the pioneers, trying to get the wagons through the forests and up over the hills was a tough job. Especially after all they had been through to get to this point.
Once they got through, they had a long treeless descent to a broad plain that brought them to present day Pendleton. Here they encountered the friendly Cayuse and Umatilla people. These tribes lived on the plains and along the Columbia River. They gave the pioneers food and traded for horses. Their help was much appreciated.
I stopped in Pendleton and learned some new things about the trail while I was here.