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Painted Hills

Road Trip through the Wild Wallowas with a Scenic Tour Towards Joseph

Wallowa Lake
Written by Oregon Media

Road Trip through the Wild Wallowas with a Scenic Tour Towards Joseph

Roll into the wild and rugged Wallowas with a scenic tour through small towns loaded with beauty, arts and adventure on this road trip

Located along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, Elgin sits in Indian Valley, nestled against a backdrop of mountains—the Wallowas to the east and the Blues to the west, with the Grande Ronde River flowing through.

On the Tracks to Adventure

A roadless stretch of track between Elgin and Minam is home to the Eagle Cap Excursion Train. Hop aboard this serene ride as the train passes through a spectacular scenic landscape as it follows the Grande Ronde River downstream, then turns up the Wild and Scenic Wallowa River. Some rides are themed, including the train robberies, with bandits on horses robbing the train. Others are simply intended to enjoy the landscape.

Elgin Opera House Turn of the Century Entertainment

The Elgin Opera House, a historic theater built in 1911, features live concerts and performances all year round. The beautifully restored, acoustically perfect theater is Elgin’s pride and joy, with exhibits interpreting history, too. The living west is also on display at The Elgin Stampede, with four days of PRCA rodeo action held alongside all kinds of related community event each summer.

Lodge, Horse, River: Magical Weekend

East of Elgin, in the small town of Minam, visit the Minam Store for retail food shopping, to book a fishing or a guided rafting trip, or to visit AK’s Provisions, a food truck that offers from-scratch, made-to-order food.

Pack out of Minam and into the wilderness with Del Sol Wilderness Adventures. Horseback riders are in the company of folks who’ve spent thirty years training horses and trekking the Minam and Snake River trails. The Minam River Lodge is an escape for the wilderness lover. Fly, hike or ride in to rustic luxury in the wilderness. Old-world craftsmanship is apparent in the modern lodge, and cabins include many original materials used to build the retreat in the mid-20th century. Guests can lounge in the wood-fired hot tub, ride horses and eat delicious meals crafted from locally-sourced ingredients.

On the Trail of Chief Joseph

In the community of Wallowa, visit the renovated Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center, a 1,000-square-foot facility documenting the people and culture of Chief Joseph’s band, the Walwáama. Learn the stories of their lives prior to their tragic 1877 flight toward Canada, their imprisonment in Kansas and Oklahoma, their return to the Northwest, and their lives today. Maps and images show the path of their April to October trek from Wallowa County through Yellowstone to capture at Bear Paw Meadow in Montana. Read the names of many Nez Perce on the retreat, including women warriors

Fueled for Adventure

The Blonde Strawberry in Wallowa serves breakfast, coffee and specialty drinks, as well as made-to-order cakes and pies. Fill up on provisions before your grand wilderness adventure to come.

The Blue Banana The Wilderness Awaits

By far the state’s largest wilderness area, the Eagle Cap Wilderness covers about 534 miles of trails. These trails lead to four wild and scenic rivers, plus the legendary high lakes of Oregon. Exposed granite peaks and ridges all provide an endless opportunity for any type of outdoor recreation, whether it’s hunting, biking, water skiing, horse riding, hiking, camping, fishing, scenic drives and so much more. The biodiversity of landscape is vast, and all of it is wild and remote. Much of Wallowa County’s land is federally protected, and thus, pristine.

Grab lunch in Lostine at the M. Crow & Company General Store, where pizza, beer, and groceries are available in a historic building. Stop for one last espresso or latte at the Blue Banana before heading into the Lostine Canyon to Two Pan Trailhead, which provides access to Lakes Basin and is en route to any number of backcountry trips into the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

If you’ve brought your mountain bike along, locate the Redmont and Wagon Road Trail Network. Cyclists may choose from several loops, ranging from seven to more than 20 miles long, through heavily forested mountainous terrain. Breaks in the trees along the trail reveal views of the Wallowa and Seven Devils mountain ranges.

A Worthy Enterprise

Anchored by a photo-worthy historic courthouse, Enterprise was chosen as a Preserve America Community because of its Bowlby stone buildings and historic features. Complete with grocery stores of both the natural food and chain variety, Grain Growers agricultural supply store and a state-of-the-art hospital, Enterprise is the hub for getting things done in the county.

Wallowa County Courthouse A Victorian Gathering Place

Built in 1909 and 1910 using locally quarried stone, the Wallowa County Courthouse is a massive structure in the high Victorian style. The building is the seat of government and houses offices, but it is a community gathering place too. Every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. during the summer season, blankets and lawn chairs dot the lawn of the courthouse for the Courthouse Concert Series. Bring a picnic and relax with the entire family—this event is fun for all ages. Also in the vicinity is the O.K. Theatre, built in 1919 and now with a new life as a music venue, bringing in big acts and hosting live music and theatre performances.

Local Bites

Grab a beer and a meal at Terminal Gravity Brewing, where locals and visitors intersect over award-winning beer at an iconic Oregon craft brewery. Fuel up with a meal at local restaurants Red Rooster Cafe, Heavenly’s or La Laguna. Satisfy your sweet tooth or grab lunch from the offerings at Sugar Time Bakery.

Foundry Tour

Two mainstay bronze foundries are in Enterprise: Parks Bronze and TW Bronze. Call for information about visiting both foundries for tours and gallery gazing. Learn about the dozen-step fabrication process and marvel at the magnificent detail that emerges when a cast is turned into a finished sculpture. Statues from both foundries are on display throughout the country and the world.

Shop ‘til You Drop

Favorite Finds on Main Antiques is a treasure trove. At Red Rose Boutique you will find a variety of apparel, gifts, and more. Shop for botanical beauty products at Wild Carrot Herbals, where items are very place-based and inspired by the beauty and the plant communities of the region. At the Bookloft and Skylight Gallery, the hand-carved screen door is a portal to literary bliss and art admiration. This pint-sized bookstore, coffee shop and gallery of local artists’ works is a worthy stop.

The Wallowa Valley Barn Tour Farm Antiques

Off Highway 82 on Sunrise Road west of Enterprise, history-minded travelers will be enchanted by Sunrise Iron, which has the largest collection of pioneer relics anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Dozens of antique tractors are just part of the collection here. Farm implements dating back to 1835 are on hand as well. Visit by appointment only; admission is free.

Farm Stays and Rooms with a View

The working farm setting at Barking Mad Farm Bed and Breakfast couldn’t be more idyllic; grazing buffalo, uninterrupted mountain views, adorable farm animals, a gourmet breakfast and a wraparound porch with an uninterrupted view of the Wallowa Mountains await you here.

Barking Mad Farm Bed and Breakfast Eagle’s View Inn & Suites is located atop the hill above Enterprise with a spectacular view of the Wallowa Mountains. Well-appointed rooms and a pool and spa will welcome you.    

Set on two acres just north of Joseph is The Depot, a unique farm stay with lodging options ranging from a vintage train caboose, camper trailer or yurt. Enjoy a morning brew from the onsite coffeeshop with a view of the mountains.

Swing, Crank or paddle

Wildlife roam the course at Alpine Meadows Golf Course, a 9-hole public course offering a challenge with views of the Wallowas. At the Joseph Branch Railriders, one-of-a-kind pedal-powered vehicles allow riders to journey the Historic Joseph Branch Railroad between Enterprise and Joseph or Minam and Wallowa. You can also rent a clear-bottom kayak from JO Paddle to paddle around Wallowa Lake.

Wallowa Valley Barn Tour

In the early 2000s, the Wallowa Valley Photo Club published two barn books to celebrate the iconic structures. The excursion has been revived, with a brochure detailing thirty-plus barns and historic sites on a self-guided tour. The Wallowa Valley Barn Tour includes a bike route and an early pioneer account of the county’s north end settlements, Flora and Troy. However you approach the tour, it’s guaranteed to be rugged, nostalgic and full of beautiful views.

Oregon’s Artsiest Town

Joseph turned its economic focus from logging and ranching to the arts in the 1980s. A community-wide effort to nurture the arts and bring the iconic western downtown up a notch utterly transformed this small community into a worthy destination for art lovers, shoppers and western culture seekers.

On the Arts Trail

Learn more about Joseph’s art-centric approach to life at the Josephy Center, and its Library of Western History and Culture, a gathering place for arts. The Center hosts regular art exhibits, artist lectures, musical performances, films, art classes and workshops. In September, don’t miss the Annual Wallowa Valley Festival of the Arts.

The Northeast Oregon Arts Trail is a collective of arts centers, galleries, theaters and public art spotlighting a vibrant range of artistic mediums and cultural events region wide. Travelers can cover the entire 225-mile scenic route in less than five hours, but advocates recommend that folks slow down and take it section-by-section.

Bronze Sculpture in Joseph A History Cast in Bronze

One of the nation’s leading sculpture communities has evolved here. Joseph is named Oregon’s first designated Art & Culture town. The beginning of this venture was quite an accident. Glen Anderson, a retired businessman, got a great deal on an empty building. A few local sculptors suggested that a bronze foundry would be to their great convenience. Persuaded by the possibilities, Valley Bronze of Oregon was born, initiating a world-class collective for artistic bronze casting.

The namesake gallery accompanies several other top-notch galleries in town, including Aspen Grove, the Josephy Center, Kelly’s Gallery & Barn Boutique, David Brunkow Photography, Lamb Trading Company and the Phinney Gallery of Fine Art. Within short walking distance art lovers will enjoy a wide range of art, including bronze sculpture, original oils, watercolors, pastels, fine art photography and exquisite jewelry.

The Flavors of Joseph

Cap a day in this charming town by relaxing at the Outlaw Restaurant and Saloon. This family-friendly establishment is done up in western decor, with outdoor seating that reveals an outstanding view of Chief Joseph, the mountain peak in the Wallowa Range, from the deck. The Dog Spot features a globe-trotting rotating menu. Feel free to have your furry companion join you at an outside table. The Blythe Cricket is a bistro featuring omelettes, breakfast and lunch sandwiches, and Old Town Café offers hearty homestyle breakfast and lunch. Visit long-time local favorite, the Cheyenne Cafe, for an old-fashioned breakfast or lunch. Embers Brewhouse offers 17 rotating micro-brews on tap along with pizza and wings. Your meal at Embers can be enjoyed outside with a view of the mountains and occasional live music in the summer.

At Arrowhead Chocolates, see chocolatiers work their magic where the air smells of Stumptown coffee and sweets. Stein Distillery opened its doors in 2009, pioneering handcrafted micro-distilled spirits in Eastern Oregon. Every step is done by hand, from grain growth to harvest to fermenting, distilling, filtering and bottling. Visit their tasting room on Main Street in Joseph to try award-winning rum, vodka, cordials, whiskey and bourbon. Cocktails and flights are on hand, as well, from the spirited rhubarb lemonade to the whiskey mule.

Chief Joseph Days Chief Joseph Days

Launched in 1946, Chief Joseph Days has grown to become one of the largest community rodeos in the Northwest. The event more than doubles the population of Wallowa County for the week. The festivities include a Nez Perce encampment and pow wow, parades for children and adults, dances, a golf tournament and a cowboy church service. Six days of Western entertainment are kicked off each year by a bucking horse stampede, which runs right down Main Street in Joseph.

Don’t miss the cowboy breakfast, a fundraiser at the rodeo grounds which starts on Saturday night at 11 p.m. after the dances and continues through the night. Pancakes and bacon in the wee hours will carry you on through Sunday’s festivities.

Wallowa Lake for beauty, history and lodging

A mile south of Joseph is Wallowa Lake, known for natural beauty, rich history as a sacred Native American homeland and present-day site for recreation and adventure. Carved by glaciers, the glassy, five-mile-long sliver of water is cradled by steep, grassy moraines. In the mountains beyond, jagged peaks—largely made of basalt and granite—rise out of forest as the largest concentration of 9,000-foot peaks in the state.

Wallowa Lake Lodge At the south end of Wallowa Lake, the historic Wallowa Lake Lodge, built in 1922, is a nostalgia-inducing building located at the head of the lake on eight forested acres adjacent to Wallowa Lake State Park. At the Wallowa Lake Marina, enjoy your time on the water by renting a boat, kayak, paddleboard or canoe. Local investors worked with the Nez Perce Tribe, which now holds a conservation easement, to leave the site as visitors have enjoyed it for decades. The large, rustic lodge, fine dining restaurant and cabins are located within walking distance to attractions in the family-friendly village, which offers lodging, eateries, gift shops, dining, a horseback outfitter, kayak tours, SUP rentals and go-carts. Eagle Cap Chalets are another terrific lodging option, with more family-friendly amenities to enjoy, from mini-golf to mountain berry milkshakes. Want to stay in your very own home-away-from home right on the water? See the beautiful homes on offer from Wallowa Lake Vacation Rentals or book your cozy cabin with Wallowa Lake Resort. At Mt. Pines Adventure Golf in the Matterhorn Village, enjoy a premier 18-hole miniature golf course among the pine trees.

The Bavarian influence culminates at the lake annually in September with Oregon’s Alpenfest. Make a reservation at Vali’s, a second-generation establishment serving Hungarian dishes. Ascend, gondola style, on the Wallowa Lake Tramway—the steepest gondola in the country (cabin cars glide nearly 4,000 vertical feet up the flank of Mt. Howard). Explore two-and-a-half miles of easy trails from the 8,150-foot summit, where you can see all the way to Idaho’s Seven Devils on a clear day. Take a breather at Summit Grill, which offers table service dining with drop dead views.

Wallowa Lake Wilderness Opportunities

Wallowa Lake Tramway The Wallowa Lake Pack Station supports adventure seekers in a variety of ways. The station offers horseback rides in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, gear drop services for backpackers, deluxe pack and wilderness trip options. Winding Waters River Expeditions delivers white water rafting and fly fishing trips on the Snake River through Hells Canyon and Grande Ronde.

The Chief Joseph Trail, the Aneroid Lake (East Fork) Trail, and the West Fork Trail are the three main paths into wilderness from the Wallowa Lake area. Three other popular trails, Chief Joseph,  BC Falls and Ice Lake branch from the West Fork Trail. Each provides the opportunity to day hike, trail run, horseback or backpack to one’s own ability. Easily reached vistas, wildflowers, and stunning mountain views are readily available for the casual hiker from this busy trailhead. The East Moraine Hike is your chance for the best views of Wallowa Lake and the Wallowa Mountains in a day hike. North of the lake, visit the burial site of Old Chief Joseph, father of the leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Tribe.

And Some Culture Too

Circle back to Joseph and take in these three cultural gems. The Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center collects, preserves, and interprets the history of the logging community of Maxville. At the Wallowa County Museum, view items of historical significance from Wallowa County’s past. At Wallowology Natural History Discover Center, participants are invited to discover Eastern Oregon’s lands and waters through exhibits, workshops and presentations by scientists, artists and others. Wallowa County Muesum