The Blue Mountain Heritage Trail and Base Camp Baker
An ambitious new 870-mile trail system might be the key to putting northeast Oregon on the map.
The next great American trail system is taking shape and hardly anyone knows it. In northeast Oregon’s Blue Mountains a few locals have put together their heads, maps, and decades of backpacking, horse-packing, hunting, fishing, and rafting experience to devise an 870-mile loop trail set to open in spring 2010. The Blue Mountain Heritage Trail (BMHT) will connect Main Streets, wilderness areas, mountain tops, rivers, ghost towns, and historic sites in a loop as much about the people and cultural legacy of this remote corner of the American West as it is about the physical enjoyment of the area’s pristine environment.
Unlike building a new highway or a library in downtown, a trail lives out in the wilderness, an escape from people and limelight. That’s why we love them so much. That’s what brought Loren Hughes and Dick Hentze into the Blue Mountains for decades. But before being put onto a map, the BMHT idea lived in these two men’s heads.
“Loren and I started talking about it a long time ago,” says Hentze. “At one point, I realized someone has to get this vision on paper. I had a computer mapping program. So we did a little here, a little there, and started forming this circle. At first, it was just a matter of getting something on paper and then it grew on its own.”
“So now we have what we call the ‘green line’ – the traditional backcountry trail of 870 miles. Then we have the ‘red line,’ close to 800 miles of alternate routes, that connects the green line to the communities and services. It brings the economic exponent into this.”
This northeast corner of Oregon has not seen the heavy development of the west side of the state (Portland is a four-hour drive west) or the Boise corridor two hours east. But a 2008 Travel Oregon report on travel and tourism shows that the sparsely populated, scenically abundant eastern portion of Oregon ranked fourth in the state, at over $100 million dollars in travel-related revenue. Clearly, outdoor-related tourism, equipment usage, and local recreation are a huge economic engine and the BMHT hopes to capitalize on that, building on a strong hunting and fishing base to draw in other recreationalists like hikers, backpackers, horse-packers, bikers, and river enthusiasts.
Mountain lovers have been sidetracked for years by the Cascade Range to the west and the solitary Idaho and Montana wildernesses to the east. But Interstate 84 cuts right through Baker City and its valley flanked by the Wallowa Mountains and Blue Mountains. Views of both ranges can be had from the second-floor windows of Baker City’s Main Street.
Downtown Baker resembles a sort of Western-American Havana. Blocks of century-old stone buildings house retail on the sidewalk level and apartments above. Twelve-foot ceilings trimmed in ornate woodwork and illuminated by enormous windows speak to the city’s former days as a booming gold town.
Now, through those same windows, Andrew Bryan sees Main Street and the Blues and Wallowas as potential for another boom, a tourism and arts boom. Already, many spaces have been remodeled into cafes, pizzerias, food markets, a book store, chocolate shop and restaurant, wine bar and gallery, and a historic hotel. The former Carnegie Library has joined many other restored Carnegies around the country as a community arts center where a potting studio, theater, dance studio, and gallery allow for classes, workshops, and working spaces for local artists.
The Blue Mountain Heritage Trail and Base Camp Baker - continued
Bryan works with the Baker County in an effort to rebrand the city as Base Camp Baker.
“We’re creating the Base Camp Baker as a marketing umbrella to promote everything Baker County has to offer tourists, outdoor recreationists, history buffs and people who love America’s Western heritage,” says Bryan.
Successful completion of the BMHT will play a large role in Base Camp Baker’s goals. Don Chance, City Planner for Baker, sees the trail as not only a great escape for locals and visitors, but also as an economic engine for Baker and the numerous surrounding towns linked by the trail.
“We’re creating this system as an economic development strategy for the region,” says Chance. “We hope to create a lot of small business opportunities for the hamlets and ranches along or near the route. An economic development objective also helps the trail user’s experience; you’re still hiking and mostly solitary, it’s just a lot more convenient and comfortable for you.”
Chance and his wife have spent many vacations in Europe, especially Great Britain. They have logged hundreds of miles on the well-developed trails there.
“The English have about 140,000 miles of trails,” he says. “You could drop me anywhere in England and say that I have to get to lands-end at the southern tip or the north end and I could do it by foot. The English see the trail systems as a mechanism to use, support, and preserve the rural and agrarian landscapes.”
But it’s not just a feel-good nature experience. The system also generates $12 billion a year and supports 245,000 full-time jobs. And it’s inclusive. Because of its varied lengths and segments and the proximity to towns and services, anyone from ultra-fit long-distance ramblers to casual day hikers can enjoy the outdoors.
“In addition to introducing this style to the American people,” says Chance, “we’re hoping to appeal to that European market of hikers accustomed to the rambling, hut-to-hut experience. And there’s also the cultural appeal of the American West. Ranching life and rugged mountains and small hamlets capture the imagination of many foreigners.”
Imagination is at the root of the Blue Mountain Heritage Trail. The forest service roads, old primitive trails, and horse-pack routes have long existed in the Strawberry Mountains or Eagle Caps or Blues. But it takes the vision and native knowledge of people like Hughes, Hentze, Chance, and others to connect the dots. The next great American trail, like most well-built legacies, relies on the past to inform a bright, adventurous future.