Exploring this area tucked into the northeastern corner of the Beaver State can leave visitors at a loss for words in terms of sheer beauty
Dubbed the “Alps of Oregon,” the Wallowa Mountains in the northeast corner of the state inspire a free flow of adjectives: idyllic, wild, majestic, challenging, comforting, gorgeous, pristine, perfect. For this Rocky Mountain child from the Continental Divide, the region also says home. I feel it the moment I arrive in the valley or step on a trail.
The range spans about 40 miles in Wallowa County, bridging the Blue Mountains and the Snake River Canyon. Visitors find comparisons to the Rockies, the Sierras and the northern Cascades. For high mountain splendor the compact range more than holds its own.
Not on the road to anywhere and far removed from anything metropolitan, a commitment is required to visit the Wallowa Mountains, but the payoff is tenfold.
Where the valley broadens, open ranchland clears the way to exquisite panoramic views of the Wallowa Mountains. The ranches themselves are scene-stealers with thick grass, milling livestock and attractive barns. The little towns of Wallowa, Lostine, Enterprise and Joseph provide services and act as mountain gateways. At the southern end of the range, Richland and Halfway pull these duties.
Surrounded by glacial moraine, the 5-mile-long shimmering blue platter of Wallowa Lake attracts with a huge state park campground, day-use areas, lake and marina access, trailheads and scenery, making it an incredible base. Expect a deer or two to wander through camp. Private RV parks broaden the offering and comforts.
U.S. Forest Service campgrounds appeal to the more adventuresome. The primitive camps sit beside clear waters in the Wallowa Mountains and along Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, an All-American Road with windshield views of the high peaks and their desert-steppe counterpart, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
Paved routes access and circumnavigate the range. For ventures up river canyons and to more remote trailheads, a dinghy vehicle suitably equipped for gravel roads is needed. But you’ll find plenty to occupy your time without leaving the pavement.
With some blurring of the lines, Wallowa and Lostine are the working towns; Enterprise, the largest (population just shy of 2,000), is the Wallowa County seat; and Joseph is the art hub.
Despite frontier roots, a dozen lifelike bronze sculptures of western wildlife, Nez Perce Indians, cowboys, horses and a barefoot girl reflect the sun from the walks of Joseph. In this strolling town, boots and Birkenstocks are equally represented. Cottage shops attract with gallery art, collectibles and western staples.
At first glance, cowboys and artists would seem two divergent populations. But they are not far apart in spirit, and not mutually exclusive. Ranchers envision a life and carve it from the land; artists cast, carve or capture their visions in mediums of choice.
Enterprise, though, received the first public bronze – a statue of Young Chief Joseph at Warde Park. The piece pays tribute to Native Americans. Another bronze occupies the courthouse grounds – the eagle at the Fountain of Honor.
Foundries in both Joseph and Enterprise offer tours. Valley Bronze in Joseph created bronze wreaths and Freedom Wall stars for the World War II Memorial in the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C.
Although removed from the disruptions of metropolitan life, the valley is not without its refinements: restaurants, pubs, coffee shops and 9-hole golf. Kart tracks, miniature golf and arcades waylay kids. Tipping the local scales, you can bite into a juicy buffalo burger, sip a local microbrew or stronger spirit, and indulge in handcrafted chocolates. Farmers markets further keep tastes local.
The area plays host to numerous music festivals and special events throughout the year. Most styles of music find a forum in this mountain amphitheater. Listen for oompah notes, alpenhorn drones and ay-ee-oooh yodels at Alpenfest (September 27-30, 2018), lively fiddle tunes during the Wallowa fiddler gathering in July (for 2018 there’s a workshop scheduled July 8-13) and the jazz, folk, bluegrass, rock and country of the free summer concerts.
The Wallowa Old Time 4th of July is hard to beat. But come early, not to secure a seat but to watch the pre-lineup, all-corners convergence of freshly scrubbed tractors and hay wagons, ruthlessly groomed ponies, and fresh-from-the-suds goats, sheep and dogs tethered to beaming youngsters walking at the lead. Flags, banners and patriotic ribbons are the dress of the day. For the animals, no neck, ear or tail is safe. A wizened regular explained “The problem with a small town parade is that everyone’s in it. There’s no one to watch.”
While in the valley, you just might witness an old-time bank holdup. Wallowa County Museum occupies the former First Bank of Joseph where the 1896 robbery took place. Amazingly, one of the robbers went on to become bank vice president.
Homeland of the Niimipu (Nez Perce), the valley marks significant events in July. The tribal homecoming Tamkaliks Celebration & Friendship Potluck – three days of drum and dance – takes place in Wallowa (July 20-22, 2018). Joseph hosts Chief Joseph Days (July 24-29, 2018), saluting the Nez Perce leader and the Old West, complete with rodeo events and native dancing.
The Hells Canyon Junior Rodeo in Halfway (July 7-8, 2018) puts on a dust-flying, heel-kicking show in miniature. Art is celebrated throughout the year.
To the usually peaceful Nez Perce Indians this homeland was Tamkaliks, “A place that makes you stand up and notice.” But the year 1877 changed all that. Trouble accompanying the increase in white settlement raised the call for the tribe’s eviction.
In response, Young Chief Joseph led his men, women, children and elders on a 1,700-mile freedom quest to Canada, crossing the Snake River at flood stage and traversing rugged terrain. He nearly succeeded, captured short of the Canadian border at Bear Paw, Montana. Although tribal descendants are now dispersed, the Wallowas hold their cultural heart.
The story of Young Chief Joseph and his military pursuer, General Howard, live on. The town of Joseph, established 1887, wears the name of the young chief. Two of the high peaks are Chief Joseph Mountain and Mount Howard.
The father, Old Chief Joseph, rests at the foot of Wallowa Lake. His remains were relocated here in 1926, after his original grave along the Wallowa River had been raided. At the new site, spiritual trinkets and mementos – feathers, beads, grass bundles, carvings, tobacco and dreamcatchers – honor him.
Trails at next door Iwetemlaykin (which means “at the edge of the lake”) State Heritage Site explore rolling grassland of the ancient homeland and visit the unexpected Knight’s Pond, good for wildlife viewing and tranquil thought. Small tribal museums in Joseph and Wallowa preserve the Indian perspective.
Wallowa Lake, in its beautiful mountain surroundings, offers a premier playground for boating, watersport, fishing and swimming. Rentals and licenses are available at Wallowa Lake Marina. The bounty of the region’s fishery attracted the Nez Perce and now modern fishers. Wallowa Lake entices with Kokanee and lake trout. High lakes and the sterling Wallowa, Lostine and Minam Rivers likewise call to casters. The Minam is also a rafting water.
More than 500 miles of trail web the Wallowas, visiting summits, high lakes, hanging valleys, ice fields, alpine meadows and rushing crystalline rivers. Eagle Cap Wilderness covers a big chunk of the mountain complex, with more than 30 named peaks over 8,000 feet. The Matterhorn (9,826 feet) and Sacajawea Peak (9,838 feet) loom large.
The wilderness namesake is a popular summit hike, most easily accessed via southern trailheads. Deer, elk, mountain goat, marmot and pika lend surprise.
From Wallowa Lake State Park, the Chief Joseph Trail, and the East and West Fork Wallowa River Trails are within convenient reach. You need not hike far to find beauty.
Booking a horseback ride or buying a ticket for the Wallowa Lake Tram fast-forwards the adventure. The four-passenger gondola lift ascends 3,700 vertical feet to the summit of Mount Howard (8,256 feet). A short summit trail system builds a 360-degree view stretching to Idaho’s Seven Devils and Hells Canyon; a summit deli offers refreshments.
For trail information and passes, U.S. Forest Service offices in La Grande, Joseph and Halfway serve the Wallowas.
Photographers find nonstop subject from the wildflowers at their feet to the mountaintops and building clouds. Relaxing at camp has its own rewards.
Hells Canyon National Scenic Byway
Officially, this byway begins as you exit Interstate 84 for Joseph. From Joseph, it follows Oregon Route 350, Forest Road 39 (Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, a narrow road open in fair weather only), and Oregon Route 86, before returning to I-84 at exit 302, just north of Baker City.
From start to finish, it travels the ranchland of the Grande Ronde and Wallowa River Valleys, passes around and through the Wallowa high-mountain grandeur, overlooks the harsh wild of Hells Canyon and traverses Pine Creek Valley to meet up with the Oregon Trail at Flagstaff Hill.
Departing Joseph (have the fuel tank full), Wallowa Mountain Loop Road twists out of the Little Sheep Creek drainage for an ear-popping ascent to Salt Creek Summit. Snag forests left by the Canal Fire of 1989 patch the mountains in hoary stubble.
The route passes from Wallowa-Whitman National Forest into Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Among the Imnaha River recreation sites serving campers is Ollokot Campground.
Where the route again climbs, a sign marks the left turn for the 3-mile paved drive to Hells Canyon Overlook, with its walkway, interpretive panels, wildflowers and inspiring views from the canyon brink. At approximately 1.5 miles deep and an average 10 miles wide, Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in North America. Across the canyon rise Idaho’s Seven Devils.
Where Forest Road 39 meets Oregon Route 86, an official spur east leads to the Snake River at Copperfield, where camping and river recreation are available. The primary tour follows the Pine Creek drainage west out of the mountains and across the valley through Halfway and Richland. Richland provides access to Brownlee Reservoir on the Powder River, with camping at Hewitt/Holcomb County Park.
At Flagstaff Hill, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center has a fine museum, trails, the Meeker Monument, wagon encampment interpretive program and views of original trail ruts. Summer walks on the sun-baked trails give visitors a tiny taste of the pioneer experience.
Ready to go? Bring the thesaurus for descriptive words while writing postcards.
For More Information
Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce
541-426-4622 | www.wallowacountychamber.com