THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO RIDING IN
Baker City, Oregon
Words, photos, & video by Brice Shirbach
The great thing about Baker City is that it's about as un-PNW as you can get in the PNW, and I actually (really) love me some PNW. While many of us associate the 9th largest state in America with dense evergreen forests, thick moss-covered trees, and of course the Cascade Mountains, Oregon is actually the most geographically diverse state in the Union, with over half of it being comprised of high desert and arid wilderness. Driving west from Boise on I-84, the Elkhorns and Wallowas explode from the burnt horizon line on both sides of the valley floor, with the Elkhorns occupying more and more of the western sky as you inch closer to town.
I had actually been here once before, and that trip resulted in me nearly severing my femoral artery and dealing with a hematoma that ranged from my business to my knee cap. That's the day I learned that riding switchbacks deep in the alpine backcountry of the Elkhorn Mountains is not the time to practice nose wheelies. Internal bleeding aside, the truth is that my first trip to Baker would prove to have a profound effect on how I define adventure, and it helped me understand that "scenes" and community are two very different things, and I'm a much bigger fan of the latter.
Baker City and the surrounding area isn't a place where you go to be seen. It's a place you head when you are in need of a less than purpose-built adventure. The mountains here are big and raw. The air up in the Elkhorns is a little thinner. The landscape will take your breath away, and the people who call it home aren't interested in "doing it for the boys" or "for the gram". They ride bikes up and down mountains because it's one of the most complete ways you can connect with nature and reconnect with yourself. My previous trip here might've had a bit of a dubious ending, but you can bet that I had a big smile on my face as I pulled back into town 4 years later for some more.
// Local FlavoursAge:
Wilmington, DE, USAIndustry affiliations:
Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Pearl Izumi, 9point8, Julbo, MRP, Deity Components, Shimano, Dialed Health, Stan's No Tubes, Topeak, Leatt, Cane Creek Cycling ComponentsInstagram: @bricyclesFavorite Trail in Baker City:
Summit Lake Trail (Elkhorn Mountains)Riding Style:
Risk it for the biscuit.
This might be my favorite forest in all of Oregon.
A Bit About the Region
Baker City was chartered in 1874 and named after Colonel Edward Baker, a Civil War hero who served as the state's first senator. By the start of the 20th century, Baker City was actually more populous than both Boise, ID, and Spokane, WA and was known as the "Queen City of the Inland Empire". The high desert town sits at 3,500 feet above sea level with over 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, and which makes it one of the largest historic commercial districts in the American West. This sense of heritage is something that permeates throughout the region and adds a great deal of charm to the place.
Nowadays it's the federal government and agriculture sectors that provide the area with the most jobs, as Bureau of Land Management as well as the National Forest Service keep many people busy, in addition to the hundreds of miles of farmland that cover the valley floor. Fortunately for anyone who enjoys spending time in the outdoors, Baker has finally begun to recognize that the greatest potential for prosperity lies in the mountains that surround town.
Baker is sandwiched between two impressive mountain ranges: The Elkhorns to the west, and the Wallowas to the east. These mountains are exactly what Baker and nearby Union Counties are counting on to carry the region forward, as outdoor recreation and tourism is an industry with plenty of room to grow and more than enough resources to make it happen.
Getting to Baker City
You're going to want a car here. I'll get into the various means of actually traveling to Baker City, but Northeast Oregon isn't exactly a model of public transportation proficiency. You are in a very sparsely populated part of the world, so the need for mass transit and services like Uber isn't particularly critical. Besides, with 3 National Scenic Byways crossing paths here, the drives are always scenic, plus the long, straight, and dusty roads are actually quite pleasant behind the wheel.
The nearest major airport is in Boise, about 2 1/2 hours drive time southeast of Baker County. I mention the drive time specifically because between Boise and Baker lies the timezone line between MST and PCT, so you'll actually get an hour back during the commute. Boise International Airport, or BOI, is served by 7 major airlines, and offers non-stop flights to 20 cities from the midwest to the west coast. It's a fairly small airport with plenty of major car rental agencies on site, so getting in and out is pretty quick and painless. Props to the TSA agent there who asked me how best to handle the contents in my bike bag so as not to disturb the organization of it. It's the little things, ya know?
The Best Trails to Ride in Baker City
Baker County is surrounded by world-class backcountry access. While they've made some progress in the implementation of purpose-built trails at Anthony Lakes, and certainly up in La Grande, the appeal here is rooted in raw and rugged trails up and down the Elkhorns. There aren't a whole lot of people around, so any ride - regardless of which region you choose to explore - will be largely devoid of trail traffic. Cell service is spotty as well, so it's recommended that you ride within a group. Northeast Oregon is a relatively arid locale, so you should expect pretty dry and loose conditions, especially if you're here in the summer. Anthony Lakes
This is the epicenter of mountain biking in Baker County. Located 20 miles northwest of Baker City in the heart of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Anthony Lakes is a small-ish ski resort with a base area at over 7,000 feet above sea level, the highest such in the state. Anthony Lakes isn't a bike park just yet, but it does offer access to several miles of singletrack and trails that range from technically challenging and high risk, to high-speed flow, to mellow lakeside cruises. The terrain and landscape here will blow you away, and it's easy to see the insane potential this place has for future trail development.Key trail - Broadway: This is as much about what the Broadway flow trail represents as much as it is about the trail itself. The trail is a wide corridor flow trail, with a surprising amount of cambers to play around on but always ready with a supportive berm to help you keep your speeds up. My favorite part of this trail is that it offers a handful of optional "expert lines" that feature steep rock rolls, ragged and dusty cambers, and pockets of ultra-dry dirt exploding beneath your tires. But more importantly than the ride quality is that this trail is a sign of things to come for Anthony Lakes. It was a 4-year process from start to finish, and its reception among riders and land managers alike gives hope for more and more progressive trail design in the near future at Anthony Lakes. Who knows, maybe someday soon we'll see them spin their lifts throughout the summer.Key trail - 2 Dragon: 2 Dragon is a blisteringly fast descent that starts on the Anthony Lakes Highway about a mile from the main parking lot, and drops riders through a pine tunnel with dry loam beds, nuclear speeds, and scores of natural features to play around on.Elkhorn Mountains
The Elkhorn trails connect to Anthony Lakes and spread south from there, eventually ending just a few miles directly west of Baker City. There are no small rides in these mountains. There is a lot of exposure. The views here will take your breath away, as will the amazing riding. Pay attention to the wilderness boundary lines, as there may be a point in which you'll need to shoulder your bike for a hundred feet or so, but it's a small price to pay for such epic riding.Key trail - Summit Lake Trail: Steep chutes and roots early on, with some loose switchbacks to keep you on your toes. High-risk maneuvers if you decide to stay on your bike for early portions of the descent. A Summit Lake stop is a must here; it's easily one of the most scenic parts of the Pacific Northwest. Halfway through the descent, the trail open goes from singletrack to double track, but the speed ramps up and the corners remain very loose.Key trail - Elkhorn Crest Trail: This is the proverbial feather in the cap for Baker City. It's a huge ride with plenty of exposure, some of the best views in all of the Pacific Northwest, and puts the mountains back in mountain biking.Phillips Lake
25 minutes west of Baker City is Phillips Lake, a beautiful reservoir in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Osprey and bald eagles frequent the lake as a popular hunting ground, and many other forms of wildlife are oft spotted throughout the trails as well. There's nothing especially technical around the lake in terms of trail difficulty, but it's a fantastic place to set up camp and take in some beautiful scenery. Note: trail signage isn't really a thing here, so navigating anything off of the shoreline can be tricky. Trailforks is up to date here, and should be used whenever venturing off lake.Key trail - South Shoreline: There's a bit more elevation on the South Shoreline trail compared to the North Shoreline, and the Elkhorn Mountains are on full display from here as well as the backdrop to the lake. This is less of an adrenaline filled ride, and more of an endorphine ride.
Key trail - Little Dean Creek: Little Dean drops riders over 1,200 feet from the ridgline above Phillips Lake to the South Shoreline trail. It's a bit of a grunt to get to, but is steep in places, offers a great line of sight throughout, and is over way too quickly.La Grande
Okay, so La Grande isn't in Baker County and this is Local Flavours: Baker City. But, it's only 40 minutes up Interstate 84, and the truth is that there's a sense of shared community between La Grande and Baker, and a trip to the region wouldn't be complete without a day or two up on Mount Emily. You can actually see Mount Emily from Anthony Lakes, as the 6,114 foot summit towers above the Grande Ronde Valley and its patchwork of farmland below. MERA, or the Mount Emily Recreation Area, is chock full of trails (about 40 miles worth) from top to bottom and is spread out across 3,670 acres with 2,600 vertical feet of relief available top to bottom. There are motorized and non-motorized trails available, and shuttling is definitely big here. Just be sure to bring a vehicle that can handle rough roads as things get bumpy towards the top of the mountain.Key trail: Caffeine Caffeine drops 1,400 feet over 3 miles and offers up a mix of dry loam forest floors, wide open views of the Wallowas and Grande Ronde Valley, and a mix of high speeds and playful terrain from start to finish.
Key trail: Sasquatch Sasquatch is a local favorite in these parts. The trail profile has as much climbing as descending, but if you're cool with a quick 10-minute jog up the trail, you'll be rewarded with a really fun and lively descent on the other side of it.
Baker's high desert climate makes for warm and dusty summers, with average daytime highs in the mid-80's in July and August, although temps can and do on occasion reach triple digits. Forest fires are common as well, so be sure to check reports prior to your visit. Spring and Autumn are pretty comfortable, with Autumn bringing a surprising amount of color to the region despite the lack of deciduous forests in much of the region.
Baker isn't chock full of super steep, fall line descents, so you can leave the big bikes back home. I came out armed with my Pivot Switchblade, and it was all I could want or need to ride here. You're going to want something with an efficient pedaling platform to get you up some decidedly large mountains, and something that will allow you to twist the throttle over some high-speed rough sections. Most short to mid travel trail bikes offer this very combination, which makes choosing a bike for a trip here super simple.
Accommodations and Food:
I spent the majority of my week at an awesome hostel, The Churchill School Baker City
. It was spacious, clean, had great wifi, and the couple that run it - Brian and Corrine Vegter - are incredible people, and founders of the Baker City Cycling Classic. If the hostel life ain't for you, they also have a beautifully appointed Airbnb rental property on site that makes for an affordable option if you're looking to split costs with your pals.
I managed to sneak up to La Grande for a night and stayed at the The Landing Hotel
, a beautifully renovated boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. It's bike friendly, has an awesome staff, and ridiculously comfy beds.
There are plenty of other options in both towns, with several affordable hotels and motels right off of the interstate in Baker City. An Airbnb search will yield dozens of options as well, from cottages, to cabins, to modern apartments, and everything in between. Of course, you can (and should) consider camping as well, as the area boasts an absurd amount of campsites in and around Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Phillips Lake in particular is a great spot to pitch a tent or park your RV or van.Breakfast
: Coffee Corral
is my kinda place for breakfast. I typically prefer coffee and smoothies for breakfast, and as it turns out you can get them both here and they're really good at it!The Sweet Wife Bakery
might only be open Wednesday through Sunday, but their espresso and baked goods should be a priority for you while in town.Lunch
:The Lone Pine Cafe
is right across the street from The Trailhead bike shop, which makes it the perfect spot to drop your gear off and grab a bite. It's quick, clean, and tasty food.Dinner
:Barley Brown's Brew Pub
is a staple here. Even if you don't fancy alcohol, the food is awesome as is the atmosphere, and these guys are big supporters of mountain biking in the region.The Landing Hotel and Restaurant
in La Grande offers international wines and ciders from the Pacific Northwest and the food is fresh, local and organic whenever possible. Side A Brewery
in La Grande is run by a couple of mountain bikers who happen to make delicious beer and serve really good food. It's affordable, mostly healthy, and you can catch live music regularly.
Local Bike Shops:The Trailhead
is a full-service bike and ski shop right in the heart of downtown. The Anthony Lakes run shop has an amazing staff full of friendly people, with rentals, a consignment section, and delicious beer and kombucha on tap.
1. Hit the Open Road
I spend a crazy amount of time driving by myself, which makes me a bit of an expert (100% self-proclaimed) in quality roadways, and the roads in these here parts are stellar. There's not much in the way of traffic once you get away from Boise, and the landscape is stunning. Drives such as the Elkhorn Scenic Byway and Hell's Canyon Scenic Byway are a motorist's dream, and worthy of a detour if you're so inclined.
2. That Pioneer Life
The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center sits atop Flagstaff hill with stunning views of the Elkhorns and Wallowas that surround it. It's a 500-acre historic site with loads of exhibits, living history demonstrations, and plenty of interpretive experiences both inside and outside. The American West has a history drenched in turmoil and grit, and the Oregon Trail epitomizes that.
3. Summer Sendoff
Autumn in Baker County is a sight to behold, with many of their conifers including bald cypress, dawn redwood, larch, and tamarack all having needles that change color in fall and then drop from the branches, much like the deciduous trees that do so famously in Vermont. Pair that with say, Oregon's best music festival, Pine Fest, and you've got yourself a winner. Pine Fest annually in the town of Halfway, about 20 minutes north of downtown Baker City, and is just another great excuse to come check this place out firsthand.Elkhorn Mountains mountain biking trailsMount Emily Recreation Area mountain biking trailsPhillips Lake mountain biking trailsAnthony Lakes Recreation Area mountain biking trails