A Northwest Edu-Vacation
It was spring break, and my kids were still in grade school. Pragmatic parents that we were, my partner and I decided that we needed to keep them in "learning mode" during such short school holidays. What they needed, we decided, was an edu-vacation: an educational experience disguised as a vacation.
So, we decided to riff on my daughter's classroom focus of the old West by taking a tour of the region's ghost towns. The best kept of these, we learned from The Old West, Fodor's travel guide, were in eastern Oregon.
If you make the trip, you will be rewarded with weathered, wooden mercantiles, windswept streets, clapboard buildings and swinging doors – the stuff of old Western movies. Even better, the tour is a hands-on history lesson, a see-and-touch experience, that brings the pioneering spirit that built the country to life.
With 18 officially designated sites still on the map, Oregon boasts more ghost towns than any other state (most victims of the Gold Rush). Each town has a unique story, accessible through plaques, museums, original buildings, interactive attractions and, in some cases, simply by viewing the grass-choked remains of cemetery markers and using your imagination.
The Asphalt Trail to Oregon
The six- to seven-hour trip to Baker City, Ore. (the best place to headquarters your tour) includes a drive southeast along Interstates 90, 82 and 84, passing through Ellensburg, Yakima, and Pendleton. Our stretch (and pie) stop is at Perkins Family Restaurant at the truck stop where I-90 and Highway 97 meet in Ellensburg.
Pit stop number two is Antojitos Mexicanos, at 3512 Summitview Ave. in Yakima. The menu (and salsa) options are endless, and most dishes cost $5 or less.
Next potty pause, Pendleton. Take the fun and informative underground tour here and let the ghost hunting begin.
From there, it's two hours to Baker City. Located within an hour's drive from many popular ghost towns, Baker City is your logical lodging and launching spot. (See resource box for lodging recommendations.)
Keep in mind that the oldest ghosts of this region did not wear gun belts. They were the plants and animals that lived thousands, if not millions, of years ago. Save one day of your trip to make the two hour trek from Baker City to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. There you'll find one of the nation's largest fossil collections with records spanning millions of years.
But Back to Ghost Towns
Along Route 7 heading east from Baker City, you'll find the site marker for the abandoned town of Auburn. At first glance, it seems that the marker is all that's left of the town, established in 1862 and believed to be the first gold rush site in the state. But get out of the car and walk around: You can still see the grave of town founder Henry Griffin and of the two murder victims of the notorious prospector "Spanish Tom."
There is plenty to see and do in the town of Sumpter, established the same year – museums, rail depot, old buildings, a saloon. Take a ride on the Sumpter Valley Railroad for a taste of what it was like to travel in the early 1900s. Don't miss Sumpter Dredge State Heritage Park for an up-close look at a huge gold mining machine.
Just northeast of Sumpter is Bourne (originally named Cracker, a fact that cracked my kids up). The town is just one long main street, since the cliffs on either side of it made it impossible for settlers to expand to the sides. Many original buildings, including the post office, are still standing.
Heading south, you'll find the town of Shaniko, which caters to ghost town tourists with many its original buildings and artifacts, as well as several added tourist attractions. Take a sheep pasture tour, get behind the bars at the jail and don't miss the antique car barn (my car-obsessed son loved this attraction). Shaniko hosts its annual Pioneer Days with live demonstrations and hands-on activities in late June.
To hold up the "edu" part of our edu-vacation, we brought a blank journal for each child and asked them draw or write about each site they visited. We did a little Internet pre-reading about each town and had our kids identify two or three landmarks (a post office, hotel, or other artifact). Where that didn't work, we gave them two or three questions to answer and write about in their journals.
Back in her bed at home, my daughter summed up her edu-vacation thus: "I don't think I'd want to be a settler. It seems like too much work and there was no TV."
I have to admit, I kind of wish we were settlers sometimes.
To learn about more Oregon ghost towns, go to www.visiteasternoregon.com.
IF YOU GO
Here are some ideas for family-friendly streets, sheets and eats in Baker City:
Where to Go
Start your stay and your educational tour of old West towns and ghost towns with a stroll through downtown Baker City, Oregon’s longest continually designated historic district. Mostly, this is an architectural tour, but what a tour – there are more than 100 buildings in the downtown area on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. From there, head over to The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretation Center. It’s an absolute must for getting the historic overview of the region. The center features 150-year-old wagons from Oregon’s first pioneers and an exhaustively researched exhibit about the lives and hardships of the folks who traveled the Oregon Trail.
Where to Sleep
Baker City has several family friendly lodging options. Our favorite is the old Bridge Street Inn. It’s a little worn around the edges, but it’s inexpensive, clean and includes breakfast. If bed and breakfasts are more your family’s style, check out A Beaten Path Bed & Breakfast. Great food, great company and the building itself, built in 1888, is an historic relic. A Beaten Path welcomes kids and, with prior approval, pets, and can provide boxed lunches.
Where to Eat
A lot of the history of the West rode in on a train, so what better place to fuel up than Sumpter Junction Restaurant, 2 Sunridge Lane. The décor alone is worth the trip with model trains, photos of trains, and trains galore. The staff is kind, the food is all-American, and it’s sure to make any kids happy.
Another favorite: El Erradero Mexican restaurant, 2100 Broadway St. Great food, great service, moderate price. They know kids at this place: The chips and salsa never run out – they just keep coming.
Cheryl Murfin is an editor for Seattle’s Child magazine. She lives and works in Seattle and Los Angeles, and is the mother of two terrific teens.