Here is an amazing effort to make the Blue Mountains area accessible to some organized and supported hiking. We have ridden several epic multi-day bike rides in this area. Its clean, quiet, open and beautiful and easy to fall in love with.
BAKER CITY — It took almost half a century, but Loren Hughes, 83, is about to see his dream of an 870-mile hiking and horse trail circling the Blue Mountains come true.
Enthusiastic supporters in Baker County already envision the Blue Mountain Heritage Trail, with segments set to open next year, as an economic engine for eastern Oregon. They plan to introduce European-style “bed-to-bed” hiking, with shuttles taking hikers to inns.
“We are hoping that 50 percent or more of the potential users of the trail will be Europeans,” said Donald Chance, Baker City planning director and a veteran hiker.
Hughes, a retired La Grande jeweler and wilderness advocate, got the idea for the trail in 1960 while riding horseback in the Blues. He shared the idea with fellow outdoorsman Dick Hentze, 63, of Baker City.
“Loren and I talked about it a lot” over the decades, said Hentze, a bowhunter, backpacking enthusiast and retired teacher. “At one point, I thought we needed to get this on paper.”
To that end, Hentze spent much of the past three years in front of a computer braiding Hughes’ dream and a maze of backcountry pathways into a coherent map.
The resulting trail extends from the north end of the Blues near Walla Walla, south to the rugged granite peaks of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness near John Day.
The trail encompasses the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, Eagle Cap Wilderness, North Fork John Day Wilderness, North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, Strawberry Mountains, Elkhorn Mountains and Hells Canyon Recreation Area. And it encloses roughly 2,000 miles of existing trails that plunge deep into the mountains.
The trail is designed to be hiked or ridden horseback in segments. Routes still must be finalized with the U.S. Forest Service and services must be organized, but if all goes according to plan, hikers will be able to traverse 10 to 12 miles a day and then ride a shuttle from a trailhead to the nearest town and back.
Instead of lugging heavy backpacks and sleeping under the stars, hikers could carry light day packs and spend the night in a bed-and-breakfast or motel. More remote trailheads could be served by wilderness outfitters, Hentze said.
Chance, who has hiked extensively in North America and Europe, says the trail could become a sensation among Europeans and possibly Japanese, drawn by the opportunity to see real cowboys, loggers, gold miners and cattle-ranching culture.
For Europeans, he said, “we would be an exotic destination.”
A partial opening of the trail is planned for spring 2010, with segments linking Baker City to three sites: Prairie City, Halfway and the Anthony Lakes Mountain Ski Area in the Elkhorn Mountains, said Andrew Bryan, a Baker City councilman and marketing director for the Baker County Development Corp.
The corporation, the trail’s most active promoter, already refers to Baker City as “Basecamp Baker,” Bryan said, casting the town of fewer than 10,000 as the hub of a new recreation economy.
Ultimately, mountain-bike routes and white-water rafting on the Grande Ronde and Snake rivers could be added to the mix, Hentze said. Organizers hope to bring Native Americans from the Umatilla, Warm Springs and Burns Paiute reservations to discuss their cultures with European visitors.
Hentze and Hughes would like to see the Blue Mountain Heritage Trail become part of the national scenic trails system, joining such trails as the Pacific Crest and Appalachian.
“The Blue Mountains are really very primitive,” Hughes said. “They are just fascinating mountains, and they are different than any other.”
Promoters could do worse than imitate the system in Britain, Chance said, where hikers spend an average of $100 to $150 a day for meals, accommodations and other amenities. The system generates $12.5 billion a year and employs 245,000, he said.
Bryan agreed. “If we did one one-thousandth of what the English do in a year, it would be a huge boost to the local economy,” he said.
Chance said the biggest challenge will be lining up bed-and-breakfast operators and wilderness outfitters. But, he added: “The people that have been introduced to it are really excited about it.”
–by Richard Cockle, The Oregonian ~ Saturday January 17, 2009, 6:24 PM