Oregon is a fantastically beautiful state, making for excellent road trips and journeys of all kinds of exploration. From edgy Portland and the fabulous food scene to quiet Western towns in Central Oregon, the state offers diversity in many different examples of life. 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 up from rolling prairies while canyons reach into 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 highlights all the things to do in Joseph, Oregon including time spent in 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 all the way 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 very Northeastern corner of Oregon bound by Hells Canyon to the East and the towering Wallowa Mountains to the South. No matter which way 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 portion of the journey 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 take the La Grande freeway exit as well.) The winding country road meanders through a number of 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. 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 Wagyu) 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 wide 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 volumes of vinyl. The high ceilings invite a feeling of space and I strike up 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, which is right off the kitchen, and get settled. 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 great wood-fired pizza place with great craft cocktails. This would be the perfect location to create a base for my time exploring the region.
Zumwalt Prairie Preserve
I dedicate most of my first full day exploring a lesser-known area in the region that consists of part of the largest intact bunchgrass prairie in North America. After breakfast at Old Street Cafe (just a few doors down from the hotel), I hop in my car and begin an adventure driving mostly gravel backroads that snake through rolling hills of vibrant 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 very helpful sheet titled, “What’s in bloom?” — very helpful to identify the June wildflowers.
The Zumwalt Prairie Preserve is a partnership between private landowners, mostly 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 rolling prairie is vast and seems to swallow both me and my car into the surrounding terrain. Throughout the course of the day I only see four other souls — the feeling of peace and tranquility soul-nourishing. The quiet pondering resurrects a ranching memory that 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 a variety of ranches. The trail follows a gravel ranch road up a hill with views overlooking 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 immediate climb directly up the hillside while cattle graze around me is intense. There are flowers blooming in the meadow before reaching a section of pine trees that offer soothing shade for a few minutes. The final push up to the summit is grueling but definitely 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 of course my new best friends, the Wallowa Mountains to the South. It’s a 360-degree view of awesome — with very little signs of human life obstructing the view. 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 along with many others in Oregon.
Horned Lark Trail (1.9 mile loop)
This trail is in a separate section of the Preserve, 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 amazing Wallowa Mountains offer abundant hike options
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 hikes during the day. 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 Ameroid Lake (6 miles and 2,800’ elevation gain). The West Fork of the Wallowa River is an easier version of a hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I make note of 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 4-5PM in the town. My dinner at the Gold Room Pizza, on the first floor of the hotel, 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 9,000 feet), eighteen of them are located in the Wallowa Mountains. From the view at the Summit Pub, where I enjoy a delicious alpine-like lunch, it makes complete sense. The tramway costs $38 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 all of them) that are easily hikable from the tram exit of Mount Howard, but since there is still an abundant snow pack only three of them are navigable. Still, the Royal Purple, Summit, and Highlands Overlooks are each spectacular in their own 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 (10AM in June/Sept and 9AM in July/August) to beat the crowd that materialized by noon.
Back at the bottom of the mountain, I explore the Wallowa Lake Lodge, which is steeped in old-world charm of a bygone era of Oregon recreation. I 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 Creek is overflowing with excess runoff from the melting snow, which probably means the lake is freezing!
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 in the area 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 instead started a long journey to seek asylum in Canada. After five months of fighting and slogging out the journey, 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 simple trails cover beautiful meadows and a scenic lake right 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 11:00AM. 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 the Main Street and the towering Wallowa Mountains, now with the blueish tint of dusk draped over the rocky peaks.
The next morning the sunrise wakes me up early, 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 with me on 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 easier 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 very warm 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 is the main festival in town that is always the last full week in July. Rodeo and other celebrations are on schedule to take place this Summer 2021, as the festival celebrates 75 years.
Joseph, Oregon hotels — where to stay
I think the best experience is in the middle of town, which is why I booked the Jennings Hotel, which offers affordable prices with a historic hip vibe. This way, you can spend full 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 charming 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 also a scenic little town with some great choices too.
Where to eat
There isn’t a huge selection of great eateries in the area, but the following really landed well in my belly. I brought a cooler with me to help facilitate picnics in beautiful locations — every small town has a mercantile that sells anything needed to create a fantastic spread.
- 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.
- Old Town Cafe, in the same area, is a fun little breakfast nook, but get there fast — I read on the website they’ll be closing later in the Fall.
- Arrowhead Chocolates provides great confections and tasty coffee.
- Terminal Gravity Brewing in nearby Enterprise, Oregon, is top-notch and clearly popular with visitors and locals alike.
- Hurricane Coffee (it’s a drive-through kiosk) in Enterprise is awesome.
Other things to do in Joseph, Oregon
- The Valley Bronze of Oregon offers tours ($15) most days at 11:00AM 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 Thursday to Monday at a variety of times and usually range around $30/per person.
- Wallowa Lake Marina is located on the South end of the lake in the State Park and handles the boat slip as well as 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 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 very small town but a really interesting 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 is deeper than the Grand Canyon (when measured a certain way) and very impressive to view.