Last month I spent five days taking a closer look at bicycling and bike tourism in Wallowa, Baker, and Union Counties as part of a partnership with Cycle Oregon. Starting in the small town of Halfway on Monday, I rode northeast to circumnavigate the Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness. I camped, rode rocky dirt roads, did some bushwhacking, sampled singletrack on a mountain bike, rolled on an official State Scenic Bikeway, and met the people working to make this region a biking destination. Read more from this series here.
During my recent trip through Eastern Oregon I discovered something unexpected: a charming town called Baker City (pop. 9,800).
I arrived after a tough, hot, windy and smoky 60-mile ride from La Grande. The route is usually a gorgeous tour of the Grande Ronde Valley and its mountain ranges to the east and west. But due to unseasonably warm and dry weather a major fire hand broken out south of Baker City and winds funneled its smoke up into the valley. Despite that, it could have been much worse.
I was lucky. The Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway route is a figure eight that connects La Grande and Baker City. I just happened to choose the west side of that figure-eight for the second leg of my ride (which started at North Powder). Had I headed east into Medical Springs I would have faced dark and very smokey air headed into Baker City.
As it was, my side of the valley still had blue skies. The headwind was stiff and the mountain views weren’t quite as clear, but there was no denying the beauty of the area.
Once I rolled into Baker City, the sky was a strange orange-grey hue and I was worried about the fire. My first choice for dinner, the famous Paizano’s Pizza with the pizza-slice bike racks, was closed to do a family emergency related to the fire. In some ways that was a blessing in disguise, because I ended up searching for food on Main Street.
Downtown Baker City has somehow managed to remain in tact. Historic buildings still stand proud and independent businesses fill the ground floors. There was a very noticeable lack of national chains and no big box stores as far as I could see. That’s no accident according to Jared Johnson, owner of Flagstaff Sports (2101 Main St), a bike/skate/ski shop on Main Street. Johnson said locals have organized to keep chains away.
I ended up walking into Lone Pine Cafe (1825 Main St) , a place several folks recommended. I grabbed a table outside and did what I always do a new city: I watched people. Despite the semi-smokey air, Main Street buzzed with activity. People were on the sidewalks walking and talking and people were sitting outside of bars and cafes. I’ve been to many Oregon towns that have been decimated by big box malls and/or highways running through them. Baker City has resisted both, and it’s paid off.
Unlike many cities, Baker City has kept Main Street with two-way traffic. This feels much nicer for humans and speeds seemed lower than other main streets I’ve visited.
While I sat at my table, some people at the table next to me actually yelled at a friend across the street. They exchanged smiles and words. That type of interaction might seem like a small thing, but it’s a big deal from a livable-streets point of view.
It’s also a big deal if you happen to be on a bike. With Baker City being home for the Baker City Cycling Classic and on the route of both the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway and Adventure Cycle’s Trans-America route, seeing people riding on Main Street is very common.
Another good sign that Baker City is worth your attention? Lone Pine Cafe is fantastic! I recommend their Reuben sandwich and salad.
Speaking of fine local establishments, Barley Brown’s (2190 Main St) is perhaps Baker City’s most important culinary claim to fame. The beer at Barley Brown’s has won gold medals as the best in Oregon. You don’t see it on the shelves at your local market because it’s still a relatively small operation. They’ve got a pub and a taproom that both have lines out the door on most nights.
Baker City is a gem. Next time you find yourself in Eastern Oregon, or if you’re just passing by on I-84, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Note: Hope you’ve enjoyed these special reports from Eastern Oregon. You can read all five here. And wait, there’s more! I just so happen to be headed back to Baker City this Friday for the start of the 28th annual Cycle Oregon ride. Stay tuned for more photos and stories from the road.