The Oregon Trail enters eastern Oregon midway between the state’s southern and northern borders, where it heads northwest toward present-day Pendleton. It then turns west to meet the Columbia River east of The Dalles. In the early years, pioneers traveling through eastern Oregon often looped north to present-day Walla Walla, Washington, where a mission offered a place to rest along with access to one of the trail’s few blacksmiths. This detour ended in 1847 following an Indian uprising.
Upon reaching The Dalles, travelers found their overland journey was blocked by Mt. Hood, requiring them to utilize rafts for a water journey to their destination. Rafting the Columbia was both dangerous and expensive. Former wagon master Sam Barlow carved an alternative route in 1846 when he and a friend blazed an overland trail around the south shoulder of Mt Hood.
Our own journey across Oregon began shortly after crossing the state line from Idaho, when we stopped at Farewell Bend State Park. This was a location where pioneers rested before moving away from the Snake River that they had been following for more than 300 miles. A short distance south of the park, a gravel road leads to the excellent Birch Creek trail ruts, where we were the solitary visitors.
Then it was northwest to Baker City for most of a day at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center that stands high on a hill overlooking Baker Valley. This is the trail’s premiere interpretive center, with films, multimedia, hands-on exhibits, living history demonstrations and excellent trail ruts. A winding, paved walking path leads to a long stretch of the Oregon Trail.
Leaving Baker City, we drove northwest to visit La Grande for a stop at Birnie Park, where pioneers rested before tackling the forbidding Blue Mountains. We continued northwest to visit some of the trail’s best-preserved ruts at Blue Mountain Interpretive Park, which — to our dismay — appeared closed for the season.
Crossing into Washington, we visited Whitman Mission National Historic Site just outside Walla Walla. The Whitmans were missionaries and early trail pioneers, with Marcus Whitman leading the first large wagon train west in 1843. He and his wife, Narcissa, the first female to travel the Oregon Trail, established a mission near Walla Walla that became an important stop for early pioneers. The Whitmans were killed in 1846 by Cayuse Indians, who blamed the couple for a measles epidemic that decimated the tribe.
Driving back into Oregon to the main trail at Pendleton, we stopped to tour Pendleton Woolen Mills and watched as giant looms created the firm’s famed blankets. Then it was a short distance west to rural Echo Meadows and some of the trail’s best preserved ruts. As was often the case during the trip, we were alone at the site.
Prior to arriving at The Dalles to spend the night, we stopped on U.S. Highway 30 between Biggs and Celilo to climb a cut made by pioneer wagons descending to the Columbia River. The magnificent view of the Columbia River Valley from the crest of the hill was certainly worth the effort of the steep climb.
Leaving The Dalles the next morning, we followed the overland trail blazed by Sam Barlow. Driving along the Columbia offers great scenery, but following Barlow’s route took us by Timberline Lodge, where we planned to spend a night. This is quite an interesting lodge and we’re planning to write about it in a future column.
A portion of the old Barlow Road is accessible to high-clearance vehicles, but we didn’t want to risk a problem with a rental vehicle. We did stop a several locations for short walks when the Barlow Road was close to the highway.
After a stay at Timberline Lodge and 3,100 miles of driving (1,000 more than the pioneers, who didn’t have to deal with private property), we made it to Oregon City late the following morning. In the Portland suburb, we spent a couple of hours at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center that offers a film and exhibits related to the trail. After weeks following the trail from Independence to Oregon City, the center served as a finishing stamp on a wonderful and rewarding trip.
Retracing our 2010 journey was as interesting, educational, and fun as we had anticipated. It was the trip of a lifetime, and we got to do it twice.