Plan your trip for Oregon’s Shangri-la
written by Lynne Sampson Curry
There’s a good reason it’s known as the Wallowa Country. An hour east of La Grande, you drop into a canyon along the Wallowa River, pinball around the bends and drive into a valley of small towns with a high-alpine backdrop worthy of a red-eye to the Alps. This is a vertical world that sits on the precipice of the Hell’s Canyon gorge and is home to more than thirty 9,000-plus-foot peaks, the most in the Pacific Northwest.
As you roll past livestock and ranches, the place looks frozen in time. But Wallowa County is as multilayered as the sedimentary rock in its mountains. Overlaying histories of the Native Americans, pioneers, miners and loggers who passed through this valley are on display from the battered barns to the Wallowa County Museum—and there’s not a single stoplight to get in your way.
State Highway 82 dead-ends at Wallowa Lake State Park, a Shangri-La for families with its trail rides, go-carts and miniature golf. Or escape into the Eagle Cap Wilderness for hiking, trail running and camping in the largest wilderness area in the state. It’s so remote that wolves have returned.
Summer is the safest bet to avoid snowfall at these elevations and to partake in the 250 sunny days each year. Throw a dart at the calendar and you’ll hit one, if not two, annual events that include the Nez Perce pow-wow, Fishtrap writers’ conference, Chief Joseph Days Rodeo and the Bronze, Blues & Brews Festival.
Trip Planner: Day 1
A Big Lift
Hoist your daypack and ride the Wallowa Lake Tram 3,700 feet straight up Mount Howard to a high-elevation trailhead. From the summit, you can follow an easy 2.5-mile selfguided trail traverse or go cross-country toward 9,700-foot Aneroid Mountain for more strenuous but nontechnical peak bagging. Both routes offer views that reinforce the area’s moniker, America’s Little Switzerland. In that Alpen spirit, you can have lunch and a locally crafted Terminal Gravity brew at the Summit Grill’s Alpine Patio.
A Lake Break
Wallowa Lake is the aquamarine gem of the Wallowas, and the best place to experience it is from the middle. Rent a kayak, rowboat or pontoon boat for an hour to drift over depths of 50 fathoms. From this vantage, contemplate horseshoe-shaped moraines carved by glaciers and note the pristine ridgeline, virtually free of trophy houses. The snow-melt water is barely 60 degrees, but plunge in anyway; the kiln-dry summer air warms quickly upon resurfacing.
A Deep Paddle
A day spent rafting on the Grande Ronde River will sweep you through steep canyons on family-friendly class II rapids. All-inclusive trips run daily, depending on flows, until late July from Joseph. Go solo in an inflatable kayak or join the guided rafts. After paddling below the rimrock—home to big horn sheep, bears and bald eagles—you’ll be back by supper. Anglers can sport-fish for summer’s rainbow trout and small-mouth bass. Beginning October on the Grande Ronde, steelhead come up from the Columbia River, making for an angling experience in one of the most beautiful settings.
A Pedal to a Sacred Place
Travel by bike to Nez Perce ancestral lands at the state’s new park and Heritage Site just beyond Joseph. Saved from a housing development in 2009, Iwetemlaykin (ee-weh-TEMM-lyekinn) has foot trails crisscrossing the terminal moraine that adjoins Old Chief Joseph’s grave site and a beach at the foot of Wallowa Lake, where the young Chief Joseph’s band began its forced exodus from the Wallowas in 1877. It’s the starting point for the 1,170-mile Nez Perce National Historic Trail roadway tracing the band’s fighting retreat to the Bear Paw Battleground in Montana. Along with his father, Young Chief Joseph rejected a treaty with the U.S. government, which reduced tribal lands by 6 million acres and excluded all of the Wallowas. Until his death in 1904, Young Chief Joseph advocated for a Wallowa homeland for his people, including meeting to lobby President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879. More than one hundred years later, his ancestors achieved the vision with the creation of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Homeland Project site in Wallowa.
Art spills into Joseph’s Main Street from galleries more plentiful than real estate offices. Larger-than- life bronze cougars and cowboys—by artists working with the area’s four bronze foundries—parade the cobbled street. Valley Bronze, which has exported sculptures around the world, hosts foundry tours daily.
Hightail it to the resort area of Wallowa Lake for homemade donuts at Vali’s Alpine Restaurant (weekends only from 9-11 a.m.). Then, make dinner reservations for its menu of goulash, paprika chicken and other Hungarian delicacies ($11-$15).
At Mad Mary & Company on Main Street Joseph, 1950s nostalgia takes the form of a diner and soda shop where milkshakes are served by the quart (request two straws). Homemade cakes and pies with fillings from cherry and berry to Snickers beckon from the pastry case.
Beer enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to Terminal Gravity Public House in Enterprise just to taste the IPA at the source. Take an afternoon to sip at a communal picnic table in the aspen stand outside. One-year-old Mutiny Brewing is getting notice for its porter and wheat beers that complement an enticing menu of locally sourced steaks, salads and vegetarian entrees.
Dogs and horses can find comfort at Barking Mad Farm, a bed and breakfast outside of Enterprise. Try a farm stay at the historic Arrowhead Ranch Cabins or rent a private house on the shores of Wallowa Lake and pretend you never have to leave.
Before you go, pause in the historic farming town of Lostine. Stock up on road trip sundries at M. Crow & Company General Store, a mercantile run by the family since 1907. Across the street, which is wide enough to U-turn a horse-drawn wagon, is June’s Local Market. Pastries made with June’s own ground flour, pastured eggs and homespun crafts are apt souvenirs. Then, take one last glance west to the mountains before heading out of Wallowa Country.