Oregon is a beautiful state, making for excellent road trips and journeys of exploration. The state offers diversity in many different examples of life, from edgy Portland and the fabulous food scene to quiet Western towns in Central Oregon. And when I ponder my favorite destinations in the state, my heart immediately swells at the thought of visiting Joseph, Oregon, in the stunning Wallowa Mountains.
The town was named after the famous Chief Joseph as a nod to the ancestral Summers spent there by the Nez Perce people for millennia. The tribe was forced off their land in 1877 after the US government unilaterally reduced the reservation to 10% of guarantees promised in an 1855 treaty because gold was found in the region. It makes sense that the people loved this beautiful area and fought hard to keep their land. Stunning mountains rise from rolling prairies while canyons reach the earth to follow the Snake River. No matter which way you look, the ancient spirit is working to connect you with Mother Nature.
For more information on the Nez Perce people, consider exploring Who We Are, a cultural resource website.
This article (updated August 2022) highlights all the things to do in Joseph, Oregon, including the beautiful Wallowa Mountains.
I spent three nights in Joseph, Oregon, on part of a 10-day road trip through the state. My story provides examples of a great long weekend away or as part of an extended itinerary exploring the Pacific Northwest. Be sure to read to the bottom of this article, where my interactive map displays favorites in the region, including places to stay.
Table of Contents — Joseph, Oregon, and the Wallowa Mountains
- The drive to Joseph
- The Jennings Hotel
- Zumwalt Prairie Preserve
- Hiking options in the Wallowas
- Wallowa Lake in the “Oregon Alps”
- Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce
- Downtown Joseph things to do
- Planning information if you go
- Interactive Map
The drive to Joseph is long but worth the effort
Joseph is tucked into the Northeastern corner of Oregon, bound by Hells Canyon to the East and the towering Wallowa Mountains to the South. No matter where you venture here, it is a long journey — 6.5 hours from Seattle or Bend, 6 hours from Portland, and 4 hours from Boise, Idaho. But the road trip challenge is rewarded by the inspiring scenery that appears from every direction and the plethora of ways to enjoy nature.
My 400-mile drive from Bend to Joseph takes place on a beautifully clear June day. For more information and photos of this journey portion, check out another article, Oregon road trip. Although the trip on Highway 26 through the Painted Hills shows to be a little faster, I opt for Highway 20 to Burns and up through the Blue Mountains.
The route continues through more mountain passes, and I reach the historic gold rush boom town of Baker City, Oregon. I gas up and keep-on trucking, this time on expedient Interstate 84 to La Grande (travelers coming from Portland would also take the La Grande freeway exit.) The winding country road meanders through several small farming towns that follow various rivers and streams along the canyon floor. Eventually, I get the awareness that the Wallowa Mountains are building up to make their grand appearance. The evening is approaching, and I’m hungry, so I stop in Enterprise, Oregon (just a few miles down the road from Joseph) and head for Terminal Gravity Brewing, which is situated a few blocks from the main downtown area along a babbling brook. The ranch house-turned-brewery serves up tasty food that is high quality and not the typical pub fare. I devour a delicious Reuben sandwich made from beets (the meat version uses Snake River Farm American Waygu) and yummy sauteed mushroom caps.
Stomach full and ready to stop driving, I make the final push five miles to downtown Joseph, which has already started turning in for the evening. The sun is struggling to stay in the sky as I walk up the broad wooden stairs to the second floor of the 1910 vintage hotel. The Jennings Hotel is equipped with a pleasing aesthetic with fresh white paint and original artwork on the walls that seems to be from local artists.
The Jennings Hotel — in the heart of Joseph, Oregon
There is no hotel front desk, only a great room with a well-equipped modern kitchen and large table surrounded by a wall-length bookcase that houses all kinds of information from guidebooks to photo essays amongst a record player and vinyl volumes. The high ceilings invite a feeling of space, and I start a conversation with Dan, a man cooking vegetables on the stove in the common-use kitchen. He’s very friendly, from White Salmon, Washington (near Hood River), just here for a quick getaway like me. We chat a bit, and he gives me the rundown on the quirky hotel.
I find my room, 3B, right off the kitchen and settle. When I pull up the blinds, I notice a striking view of the snow-covered Wallowa Mountains, veiled with rose and orange-colored sunset tinting.
The hotel is conveniently located on the Main Street of town — above a friendly wood-fired pizza place with great craft cocktails. This would be the perfect location to create a base for my time exploring the region.
If you’re more inclined to take it slowly from a historic lodge at the banks of pristine Wallowa Lake, read my article with all the details on Wallowa Lake Lodge. The Jennings Hotel and Wallowa Lake Lodge are “off the grid” and not displayed on the enormous hotel booking platforms. If you’re interested in more hidden gems like these, check out my 25 hidden Oregon and Washington Hotels article.
Zumwalt Prairie Preserve
I dedicate most of my first full day to exploring a lesser-known area in the region that consists of part of North America’s largest intact bunchgrass prairie. After breakfast at Old Street Cafe (just a few doors down from the hotel), I hop in my vehicle and begin an adventure driving mostly gravel backroads that snake through rolling hills of rich green farmland, still fresh from the Winter snowmelt.
Eventually, Google Maps navigation instructs me to turn into a field, so I have to give up on technology in favor of wanderlust intuition. Just when I figure I can’t be on the right dusty road, a small brown sign with a Nature Conservancy logo appears — ushering me down a 1.5-mile stretch of dirt to a series of old ranch buildings and a simple information center with paper maps and a beneficial sheet titled, “What’s in bloom?” — helpful to identify the June wildflowers.
The Zumwalt Prairie Preserve is a partnership between private landowners, primarily ranchers, and the Nature Conservancy. There are four specific trails available for visitors while the rest of the land is off limits, and signage is very clear about this. The vast rolling prairie seems to swallow me and my car into the surrounding terrain. I only see four other souls throughout the day — the feeling of peace and tranquility is soul-nourishing. The quiet pondering resurrects a ranching memory I write about in a blog post, Ranching reflections — guarding the gate of discovery and connection.
I visit all four trails, hiking over eight miles in 90-degree heat that saps my energy. Still, wandering amongst wildflowers with nothing but the birds singing to me is worth the sun-kissed color developing on my arms and neck.
Canyon Vista Trail (1.8 miles in and out)
This trail reminds me of my life growing up on a farm and herding cattle on various ranches. The trail follows a gravel ranch road up a hill overlooking the Hells Canyon area and the Wallowa Mountains. The end is somewhat anticlimactic, and I make a mental note that if I were to return to the Hells Canyon lookout (near Imnaha), this trail wouldn’t be essential.
Harsin Butte Trail (.8 miles up 700 vertical feet)
No time is wasted here, and the quick climb directly up the hillside while cattle graze around me is intense. Flowers bloom in the meadow before reaching a section of pine trees offering soothing shade for a few minutes. The final push-up to the summit is grueling but worth the effort.
My perch at about 5,500 feet is spectacular — I can see past Hells Canyon toward mountains in the Payette National Forest (in Idaho), portions of Washington State, and course, my new best friends, the Wallowa Mountains to the South. It’s a 360-degree view of awesome — with very few signs of human life obstructing it. This is by far my favorite trail.
Patti’s Trail (2.3-mile loop)
This trail begins at the group of old ranch buildings and loops around a large expanse of prairie. The flowers and birds are magnificent. I especially appreciate that this trail is named after Patricia Wessinger, a key advocate of protecting this space, and many others in Oregon.
Horned Lark Trail (1.9-mile loop)
This trail is in a separate Preserve section, 3 miles further down the main gravel road. The trailhead is barely a pullout off the side of the road that opens with a cattle ladder leading the route through another prairie loop.
Joseph, Oregon, and the fantastic Wallowa Mountains offer abundant hiking
I return to the Jennings Hotel, dusty, illuminated by the beating sun, and very thirsty — I could’ve used another gallon by the end of the day. The views of the Wallowas in the afternoon glow are mesmerizing, and I stop several times to take snapshots on the side of the road.
Back at the hotel, I commune with a few fellow guests who opted to explore more mountainous daily hikes. Hurricane Creek Trailhead, six miles outside of the town, comes up a lot in discussion as a beautiful area to explore, as well as the hike up the East Fork of the Wallowa River to Aneroid Lake (6 miles and 2,800’ elevation gain). The West Fork of the Wallowa River is a more accessible version of a hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
I note these options and more teeming in the various wilderness areas (for more, see the interactive map below). By the time I’m cleaned up and ready for dinner, most of the stores are closed — things seem to wind down by 4-5 PM in the town. My dinner at the Gold Room Pizza, on the hotel’s first floor, is noteworthy — the wood-fired pizza is mouth-watering and sassy cocktails pack the perfect punch to end my evening.
I’ve been to this area before and enjoyed Wallowa Lake State Park and lake activities, so this time I’ll try the Wallowa Lake Tramway, which ascends 3,700 vertical feet to the top of Mount Howard. The summit is over 8,000 feet, and on this day, the blue sky adds a contrasting “POP” to the snow-covered peaks of the Wallowa Mountain range. I learned that of Oregon’s 31 highest peaks (over 8,000 feet), eighteen of them are located in the Wallowa Mountains. It makes complete sense from the view at the Summit Pub, where I enjoy a delicious alpine-like lunch. The tramway costs $40 for adults and takes about 15 minutes in each direction.
Wallowa Lake and the “Oregon Alps”
There are five main viewpoints (about three miles between them) that are easily explored from the tram exit of Mount Howard, but since there is still an extensive snow pack, only three of them are navigable. Still, the Royal Purple, Summit, and Highlands Overlooks are each spectacular in their way — reminding me of the Austrian Alps. The journey is well worth the cost and effort, and I’m glad I arrived right when they opened (10 AM in June/Sept and 9 AM in July/August) to beat the crowd that materialized by noon.
Back at the bottom of the mountain, I explore the Wallowa Lake Lodge, steeped in the old-world charm of a bygone era of Oregon recreation. I will make a mental note to stay here next time. The grounds are relaxed in a rustic Oregon version of lovely.
There is a campground in the adjacent Wallowa Lake State Park and abundant options for water activities surrounding the lake. The churning Wallowa River is overflowing with glacial runoff from the melting snow, pumping the lake full of alpine goodness.
Chief Joseph and the legacy of the Nez Perce people
On the return to town from Wallowa Lake, I stop to pay respects to the resting place of the older Chief Joseph. His remains are buried at the top of a hill overlooking the beautiful lake and stunning snow-capped mountains. The older Chief Joseph played a role in signing the famous 1855 treaty that allocated a vast amount of land, including the area around Joseph, to the several different bands of Nez Perce people. By 1863, the US government worked to retract the expanse of land because gold was found around the Wallowa Mountains.
By then, young Chief Joseph was a pivotal leader and refused to give into the demands of the US government. The tribe held on in the Joseph area until 1877, when increasing white settlement fostered more assertion by the US cavalry to move Chief Joseph and his band of the Nez Perce to the remaining part of the reservation in Idaho. They refused to relocate and started a long journey to seek asylum in Canada. After five months of fighting and slogging the trip, in October 1877, Chief Joseph famously and eloquently surrendered.
Chief Joseph was never allowed to return to the Wallowas or the Nez Perce reservation, despite promises by the US government. Even though the Nez Perce were sent all over, I still feel their spirit in this valley.
Up the road from the burial site, I stop to explore the trails at Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site, which is sacred ground to the Nez Perce people. The easy trails cover beautiful meadows and a scenic lake beneath the towering mountain peaks.
I’m inspired to learn even more by visiting the Wallowa County Museum — on Main Street in Joseph. There are all kinds of interesting artifacts, but I’m particularly drawn to the entire room dedicated to the Nez Perce people — including a long wall with artist drawings and written accounts of the Nez Perce war of 1877 (mentioned above) from the Indian point of view.
The museum costs $5 (cash only) and is well worth several hours of my afternoon wandering through town.
Beeswax, bronze, and brews — downtown Joseph, Oregon, delivers
The few remaining business hours are spent on the Main Street of Joseph, learning about the extensive bronze craft in the town, including the well-known Valley Bronze Foundry that offers tours every day at 11:00 AM. Several galleries in town feature local artists, and I notice the sculptures gracing every block of the quaint Main Street. From Chief Joseph to a bucking bronco horse, the intricate flows of bronze adorn the town.
There are tiny boutiques selling beeswax candles and other locally sourced goods, as well as the more typical joints serving up promotional materials that, overall, feel tasteful compared to other tourist traps. The shopkeepers are very friendly, and I explore the streets, even popping into Stein Distillery for a sample of the local whiskey. The owner of the distillery grows the grain on his ranch nearby.
I opt for a delicious dinner at The Dog Spot. The pet-inspired retail shop offers an eclectic menu of delicious food with brews of both the hop and coffee varieties. Since morel mushrooms are in season, I try the shrimp and morel tacos, which are delicately presented and delightful to eat. Returning to the hotel, I find a few guests playing guitar and hanging out on the wide veranda that overlooks Main Street and the towering Wallowa Mountains, now with the blueish tint of dusk draped over the rocky peaks.
The sunrise wakes me early the following day, shining on the mountains. I take in the inspiring view (without even getting out of bed) for about an hour before gathering my things and heading out of town for my next destination.
I stop at Hurricane Coffee in nearby Enterprise, Oregon, which is fantastic, and drop by M. Crow, a stylish general store, operated since 1906, in Lostine, Oregon, before my foot gets heavy on the pedal for the long journey ahead. To continue my road trip, check out the article about The Dalles, Oregon.
Joseph, Oregon, and the striking Wallowa Mountains will remain in my heart forever!
Joseph, Oregon and the Wallowa Mountains — planning information if you go
When to go
The scenery is stunning year-round, but getting to and from Joseph is more manageable without the inclement Winter weather. Also, many stores, services, and attractions close for the Winter (October through April.)
May through September is ideal — May and June are the greenest times of year (with the most wildflowers in bloom), while August and September are hot and dry.
Be sure to check the operating days and hours of any “must see” attractions — some operate only for weekend visitors, usually Thursday to Sunday. Luckily nature is open 24 hours a day, so hiking won’t be a problem.
Chief Joseph Days are the main festival in town that is always the last week in July.
Joseph, Oregon hotels — where to stay
I think the best experience is in the middle of town, so I booked the Jennings Hotel, which offers affordable prices with a historic hip vibe. This way, you can spend entire days with activities while absorbing the town vibe in the evenings and early mornings — when it doesn’t feel as touristy.
The super cozy Wallowa Lake Lodge would also be a soulful option — it’s located a few miles out of town by the lake.
The interactive map below offers a few other suggestions for hotels and lodges. Enterprise, Oregon is nearby and a scenic little town with some great choices.
Where to eat
There isn’t a massive selection of great eateries in the area, but the following landed well in my belly. I brought a cooler with me to help facilitate tasty bites in beautiful natural locations — every small town has a mercantile that sells anything needed to create a fantastic spread.
- The Blythe Cricket serves healthy breakfast and lunch cuisine from a quirky coffee shop that meets a country store vibe.
- Gold Room Pizza is a place I’d frequent often if I lived here, with excellent food, drinks, and genuine service.
- The Dog Spot, across the street and down, is eclectic but friendly and tasty too.
- Arrowhead Chocolates provides extraordinary confections and tasty coffee.
- Glacier Ridge Grill & General Store, near Wallowa Lake Lodge, has a full bar and great food.
- Terminal Gravity Brewing in nearby Enterprise, Oregon, is top-notch and popular with visitors and locals alike.
- Hurricane Coffee (it’s a drive-through kiosk) in Enterprise is excellent.
Other things to do in Joseph, Oregon
- The Valley Bronze of Oregon offers tours ($15) of their foundry in Joseph.
- Explore Wallowology! Natural History Discovery Center. Learn about local geology and how the Wallowa Mountains and the Wallowa Lake moraines developed. Located right in downtown Joseph. Open Thursday-Sunday, end of May through September.
- Joseph Branch Railriders railroad adventures await — complete with unique four-wheeled rail bikes that ride along historic railroad tracks from the Joseph Depot. They’re electrically assisted so people of all fitness levels can enjoy the Valley Sights tour or one of two evening events gazing at the stars. Tours operate from Thursday to Monday at various times.
- Wallowa Lake Marina is located on the South end of the lake in the State Park and handles the boat slip and just about any kind of rental for water activities, including popular paddle boards. There is plenty of parking, but a $ 5-day pass must be purchased from the Oregon State Parks. Open daily from mid-May to September 15th.
- Imnaha, at the literal end-of-the-road, an hour away from Joseph on highway 350, makes for a great gateway to Hells Canyon (viewing from above.) It is a tiny town but a fascinating place to explore. The Imnaha Store & Tavern is quite a fun experience. There is also another Hells Canyon viewpoint area along a very windy road (seasonal.) Hells Canyon dives deeper than the Grand Canyon (in absolute vertical drop) and is very impressive to view.