“The most loveable ski area in America,” wrote Ski magazine in its 1969 appraisal of Eastern Oregon’s Anthony Lakes, “doesn’t have a half-dozen restaurants and bars to warm your feet, two-mile aerial tramway, or a four-color brochure to woo you. [The] powder-rich little ski hill in Oregon ... is living proof that a ski area doesn’t have to be glamorous to win the favor of skiers.”
Forty-four years later, Ski could ink the same thing. Weighed—then and now—against old-school legends like Vermont’s Mad River Glen and Tahoe’s Homewood, Anthony Lakes still reigns as one of the most charming areas in all of Skidom, an ideal destination for skiers and boarders looking for a laid-back (and throwback) scene, and—even in an El Niño year—more powder than you can shake a pole at.
Set high in the remote Elkhorn Mountains, an area locals call “the Little Alps,” with a base elevation of 7,100 feet—the highest in the state, 1,000 feet higher than Timberline—Anthony Lakes is a powder hog’s dream. The toothy peaks here rake in 80 inches of snow per year. And with 2,500 acres of wide-open runs, glades, and forever views that drift over vast valleys and imposing peaks with names like Gunsight, you’ll feel like you’ve arrived at skiing’s last frontier.
The mountain is just as notable for what’s not there: crowds. The 2010–2011 season saw just 25,000 skiers (about the same as Mt Hood Meadows might expect in a busy week). But don’t mistake the dearth of skis for a lack of passion. In 2010, when the resort’s longtime private owners couldn’t find a buyer for the mountain, area residents banded together and formed the Baker County Development Commission in order to keep the lift running, making Anthony Lakes one of the only publicly owned ski hills in the country.
Now that’s what we call a love affair.
GEISER GRAND HOTEL
Baker City’s gold-rush nickname “the Queen City” lives on in this historic, clock tower–topped downtown landmark. Opened in 1889 as the Warshauer House, the dilapidated space was reopened in 1997 after a meticulous five-year restoration. Large, Victorian-style suites now sparkle with mountain views, while a massive stained-glass ceiling and elegant chandeliers preside over an expansive dining area and inviting sitting rooms. Don’t miss “the 1889,” a saloon-style café with original wainscoting, brass, and a shiny mahogany bar.
From $99; geisergrand.com
ELKHORN GUEST HOUSE
Nestled at the base of the Elkhorns in the no-light town of North Powder, this well-appointed two-bedroom guesthouse is about as close as you can get to overnighting at Anthony Lakes—without pitching a tent. Flip on the toasty electric fireplace and make up for lost reading time in the overstuffed furniture, or bundle up on the porch and watch owners Heidi and Doug Dalton’s horses roam the family spread, while bald eagles perch in cottonwood trees lining a trickling creek out back.
From $150; elkhornguesthouse.com
ANTHONY LAKES SKIING SNOWCAT TOUR AND NORDIC AREA
True, there’s only one chairlift at Anthony Lakes. But with old-school prices (adult lift tickets run just $35) and no lines, the mountain’s 1,100 acres feel like the best deal on skis. A skate-ski away from the main lodge, Anthony’s Nordic area circles a series of frozen lakes with up to 24 miles of expertly groomed trails, recently pegged by National Geographic magazine as some of the finest in the country. More advanced skiers and boarders can set out on excursions into a 1,400-acre backcountry permit area. The heated, 12-seat snowcat ride to get there starts with a serving of gooey cinnamon rolls and free coffee—and it just gets sweeter from there. Aside from your fellow passengers, your biggest competition for fresh tracks in the steep and deep terrain comes from resident elk and wolves. anthonylakes.com
T&T Wildlife Tours
Climb aboard a horse-drawn carriage with Haines–based T&T Horsemanship, and prepare for a wild ride. Pulled by massive Percheron draft horses, T&T’s custom-designed metal wagon explores the Elkhorn Wildlife Area. The site is used to feed Rocky Mountain elk during winter months (and keep them out of nearby farms’ haystacks), and T&T’s tours get within 10 feet of herds, which can number up to 150 strong. tnthorsemanship.com
Baker County comes to life at Betty’s Books, where volumes of hard-to-find titles dedicated to local history line the shelves inside a façade that dates back to 1888. The charming, plank-wood-floor shop in Baker City houses plenty of other snow-day reading, too, from fresh copies of J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy to used paperbacks of Edward Abbey’s seminal rumination on peace and quiet, Desert Solitaire. Appropriate reading for winter here. 541-523-7551
Arguably one of the last great ski-hill bars, the wood-hewn Starbottle, inside the lodge’s lower level, is a virtual ski museum of its own. The “Starbottle’s Hotel” sign, for example, was taken from the set of the Clint Eastwood musical western Paint Your Wagon, filmed near Anthony Lakes in 1968. Order local taps like Barley Brown’s Tumble Off, an award-winning pale ale named for the expert run out front, and fill up on platters of properly greasy nachos. For conversation starters—and great local history—ask for the bar’s copy of Anthony, a Tale of Two Skis. anthonylakes.com
Mt Emily Ale House
Opened in 2009, this upstart brewery in La Grande is housed in a historical bank building and former jewelry store. Now it’s the brews that are worth their weight in gold. Sip on house favorite “The Big,” a crisp English-style ale, or the fortifying Northwest Porter, which swirls with smoky chocolate notes, and sample the better-than-it-has-to-be pub fare, including plate-size onion rings and a changing selection of pizzas, each hand-tossed with local Pendleton Mills flour. mtemilyalehouse.com
TEN Depot Street
You’ll find some of Eastern Oregon’s best nightlife inside this red-brick building hidden along alley-like Depot Street, just off of La Grande’s main drag. Inside, a long, dimly lit bar filled with deep wooden benches and friendly bartenders hosts live music every Tuesday and Thursday night. Belly up and dig into a bevy of good bar eats, like a juicy burger with local Sexton Ranches beef and kebabs of locally raised lamb. If you’d rather skip the hubbub, the upscale dining room offers plenty of refinement while you savor an impressive wine list, tenderloin steaks, and a killer chocolate hazelnut torte any night of the week. tendepotstreet.com
Zephyr Bakery Deli
In Baker City, it doesn’t get much more hip than this: a big red-brick storefront, with floor-to-ceiling windows, wood floors, reclaimed theater seats, and local-art-adorned walls. Along with locally roasted coffee, the feel-good offerings here include house-made breads, fresh tuna sandwiches, and veggie and turkey potpies. Indulge your sweet tooth with lemon tarts and gluten-free brownies. 541-523-4601