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Wagon Wheel Wonders: The Emigrant Trail - Pendleton to La Grande

Enjoying the fruits of the past

Ancient wagon trails. There are many in the Pacific Northwest. Often rugged, with passage only available by a dual sport and adventure bike. Or perhaps they were graded into nice gravel roads. And sometimes they even get paved.

Photo: Rising up from the Pendleton side of the trail looking across the grasslands to the west.

Such is the case of the Emigrant Trail between Pendelton and La Grande. 'Well, of course, that's Interstate 84' some will cry. No, not really. The original route used by more than 50,000 Americans to 'head out west' in the mid-19th century is still intact. I-84 is simply a dumbed-down version to simplify the journey by car, motorcycle, or 18-wheeler. Yes, if you know the route, you can still trace the old path, and it's worth the trip.

Unlike most travelers from the 19th century, we'll kick this party off traveling west to east, rather than east to west as most did. We would suggest you take your time, stop at the various kiosks along the route and get into the groove of the pioneers as you ride. Here we go.

Depart Pendleton riding east on Emigrant Street, keeping right as the road becomes Mission and passes you through the Tamástslikt Reservation. After a long ride through the neighborhood, eventually you begin your climb up Old Emigrant Hill Road and soon you see a sea of wheat and grasslands below you, much like the emigrants saw when they passed over the Blue Mountains.

Pavement along the route will vary based on the maintenance evolution each section is in. During our 2018 excursion, the west side was in fair shape, while the middle and east ends were pretty nice. Your results are sure to vary.

Following your ascent up the hill, the first stop is the Deadman Pass rest area. There is no question as to how this place got its name. Disease followed travelers coming from Missouri and the east, and the final trek here took its toll on those who could not recover.

As for the healthy ones, they got to walk the entire route. That's right, all 2,200 miles. Walk. Walking was better than attempting to sit in a covered wagon as it crawled over rocks, broken branches and other debris or became unstable on hills. Man or woman, walking was the preferred method of following the cart, pulled by oxen, that carried all your possessions and provisions.

But you're on your motorcycle. Happy day! You have a lot of path clearers, guides, and later road builders to thank for your simple passage here today.

As you look around, you also note straight stretches of Interstate shadowing your route. Be glad you're not there, enjoying instead the bliss along the old road.

As is the case with many rest areas, there is one on each side of the freeway. You needn't pass through the one lane underpass to get to the other side to explore the kiosk there, as the interpretive panels are identical.

Photo: One of several interpretive kiosks along the route.

From the rest area continue east to the scenic overlook for Isqluilktpe Canyon. Say that ten times fast. It's a short ride on dirt up to the overlook - any street bike can make the trek. The overlook is scenic enough, worthy of a photo, but we were unable to locate any interpretive signage, other than a benchmark near the parking area. Looks like another place for the legendary Chief Joseph to hide, as was customary for him in the nearby Hells Canyon.

Continue east, cross over I-84 and follow the signs to Emigrant Springs State Park, where you will find another interpretive kiosk.

The next stop is in Meacham where there is a small store and an Oregon Trail Heritage Marker. Follow the road east, across the highway again and this time you're on the path to Kamela, a track switching town for the railroad here. Down the road you go as you descend toward La Grande. And you might feel that sensation - "this could be a pretty fun road in the opposite direction." More on that in a moment.

Ignore the sign for the Oregon Trail Interpretive Site, a State Park pay location that bears little fruit, unless you're a hiker.

You'll need to join onto the Interstate at this point and follow it down where the Grande Ronde river connects and pull off at Hilgard Junction State Park for the final informational kiosk.

Photo: Benchmark's Oregon Road and Recreation Atlas provides the most detail about where the trail is. Available in the Sound RIDER! store.

Return Flight

You've got options here. What to do next.

a) Ride the whole thing backward back to Pendleton. The stretch of road to Kamela and up to Meacham is a lot of fun in reverse.

b) Grab State Route 244 at the Hilgard park and ride it west to Ukiah, then take US 395 north back to Pendleton.

c) Grab a bite to eat in La Grande, two exits south, then SR 82 north to Elgin, SR 204 west through Tollgate to Weston and touchdown in Pendleton via SR 11.

d) Grab I-84 west and ride back to Pendleton, making your best performance in the descent zone that is a 6-degree grade for 6 miles on the west end.

SR!/May 2019

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