written by Anna Bird | photos by Talia Galvin
Growing up in Joseph, I didn’t think it was a cool place. We had the lakes, the mountains and the canyons. I wandered the woodsy trails, explored back roads that led to haunted houses and played in the river to catch crawdads. As I’ve grown up, though, so has my hometown. A brewery and distillery, a new boutique hotel, an artisan chocolatier, Thai food, an arts and culture center and (an answer to my prayers) a local coffee roaster, now designate Joseph as a cool place.
The tiny mountain town has weathered tough times and growing pains. A tight-knit community decided to stay, and visitors kept trekking to the very northeastern corner of Oregon to help this scenic wonder stay afloat. Note: The locals are protective. They have worked hard to maintain their way of life here—no stoplights, no frills, no rush—so as a visitor, go ahead and drink the beer, learn the history, trek the trails and peruse the shops, but appreciate the simple charm.
The sunny months are the busiest in Joseph, but September is the quietest month of the tourist season. at said, there are few breakfast joints in Joseph, so you’ll want to start the day early to avoid potential crowds.
As a big fan of breakfast, I adore Old Town Café. You’ll recognize the café by the cups and saucers adorning its storefront (made by local woodcarver Steve Arment) and the smells of French toast and bacon wafting through the screen door. My partner and I ordered crepes and the veggie scramble before a walk through town.
Joseph’s Main Street has much to offer in the way of shops and art galleries. You can find jewelry and fair trade clothing at ToZion, handmade soaps and lotions at Beecrowbee and cowgirl bling at Tempting Teal Boutique. Fine art from the Northwest is on display at Phinney Gallery of Fine Art, Stewart Jones Designs and Valley Bronze Gallery. Every day at 11 a.m., Valley Bronze hosts tours at the foundry, where you can get a behind- the-scenes look at the industry that turned Joseph from a logging town into an arts enclave in the 1980s.
I have a hard time staying away from Wallowa Lake for too long, so about midmorning, we went to the north beach (locally known as the “Foot” of the lake) to go standup paddleboarding. There is usually a rental operation in the parking lot, but if not, you can head to the Wallowa Lake Marina at the opposite end of the lake (or the “Head”), where you can rent standup paddleboards, kayaks, canoes and more. This late in the summer, the lake is pretty low, but it has absorbed the warmth of summer, so it’s not as take- your-breath-away cold.
A long-held tradition in my family is a trip to R&R Drive-In after a day at the lake. The famed 25-cent soft-serve ice cream cones are the perfect treat to go with a basket of fries. It’s no lightly spritzed kale salad, but it’s tradition.
That evening, we sat beneath the aspens and enjoyed live music outside at Terminal Gravity Brewing in Enterprise, the next town over. Coming off a gluttonous day, I opted for the Caesar salad, while my partner chose the 6 Ranch Burger (it is beef country after all), which we then we washed down with Eagle Cap IPA and ESG. The sun set over the Wallowa Mountains, the porch lights switched on and the band played to the small crowd of locals and fresh faces.
Jennings Hotel, a boutique hotel, is Joseph’s newest must-see or must-stay. Regional artists designed each room (there are four completed) as well as a communal kitchen and a sauna. It’s like a speck of Portland in the middle of nowhere.
Speaking of Portland, you can go downstairs from the Jennings Hotel and jump in line at Arrowhead Chocolates for a mocha made with Stumptown espresso and Arrowhead chocolate. The barista will even deliver a spoon dipped in decadent chocolate as a precursor to the mocha. An assortment of savory biscuits, pastries and gluten-free quiches will help with the coffee-chocolate buzz.
It’s best to explore the Wallowas and the surrounding Eagle Cap Wilderness on a multi-day backpacking excursion. If you only have part of morning or day, then head to the Hurricane Creek Trailhead. It’s a short drive from Joseph, and the hike to Slick Rock Creek is an easy 5.7-mile round-trip hike.
After a hike, food is vital. With more activities on the docket, afternoon coffee is advisable. At Red Horse Coffee Traders, you can get both. We split the quinoa bowl and the Thai chicken wrap, while chatting with family friends at the next table. In a town this small, everyone is a family friend. I got an iced coffee to go and a bag of beans to brew back in Bend.
We spent part of the afternoon at the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center learning about the history of a 1930s logging community outside of Wallowa County. After, we migrated to Stein Distillery to try the craft whisky and tour the facilities.
To wrap up a busy day, we indulged in a couple woodfired pizzas at Silver Lake Bistro, still considered the new kid on Main Street. My favorite is the bacon spinach pizza, but we ordered the barbeque chicken and apples, too, for good measure. Full and happy, we walked down the street to Embers Brewhouse for live music outside and a microbrew nightcap. I thought about how lucky I am to be from such a cool town.