Wallowa Lake Tramway
Joseph, Oregon access to the heavens of Eastern Oregon’s “Little Switzerland.”
The Wallowa Lake Tramway is your ticket to the alpine wonderland of Eagle Cap Wilderness. A unique opportunity awaits to experience Oregon’s highest concentration of mountain peaks (over 8,000 feet). This area of Eastern Oregon, with thrilling views of Joseph, is known as the “Little Switzerland” of Oregon.
On a clear day, witness the beauty of four states (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana). I especially like this option if time is short and you want to experience the grandeur of the Wallowa Mountains without hiking up miles of steep terrain. Everything you need to know is in this article.
Wallowa Lake Tramway — Table of Contents
Eagle Cap Wilderness and Joseph, Oregon – when time is short
Planning an epic journey around Eastern Oregon can require tradeoffs when time is not abundant. The magic of the diverse topography is best experienced slowly, over time. This said, I understand that a bucket list trip to the Pacific Northwest – or a long weekend from Seattle or Portland – might only allow for a few days to tour this hidden gem of natural goodness.
For this reason, the Wallowa Lake Tramway is an excellent option to quickly reach higher elevations with the breathtaking Eagle Cap Wilderness. The few short trails on Mount Howard offer a glimpse of what hiking is like in the “Swiss Alps” of Eastern Oregon while allowing enough space to take it all in at your own pace.
The best way to experience the Wallowa Lake Tramway
Note: The Wallowa Lake Tramway is open from mid-May through September/October.
The best way to experience Mt. Howard is to start in the morning. Try to be on the first gondola ride to the top. Here’s why:
- There are fewer people on the mountain — the crowds begin around 11 am.
- Photography lighting is better than the harsher mid-day sun (11 am – 2 pm).
- Views are crisper just as the mountain dew lets up in the morning.
- Complete your hiking just in time to enjoy a meal or beer at Summit Grill — Wallowa Mountains’ answer to a Swiss Chalet.
The Wallowa Lake Tramway ride
At the time of construction, this was the highest tramway in North America — rising 3,700 feet in just fifteen minutes. While not the highest today, it still provides a thrill. Views of the lake and Eagle Cap Wilderness are spectacular — seeming to change every few minutes.
Each gondola holds four adults — two on each side facing each other. The doors are locked, and there are different versions of fixed and open windows for airflow. Although the views are expansive and give the air of vertical height, the cables are rarely higher than 25 feet off the ground at any time.
At the time of this writing (Summer 2022), the adult fare for the roundtrip is $40. Book tickets online and more pricing information. Besides the gliders that depart from the Valley View Trail, there aren’t readily accessible trails leading down the mountain. Be sure to keep the second part of your ticket stub for the return trip — they reconcile them to be sure everyone is safely down at the end of each day.
Summit Grill dining on Mount Howard
There are several restaurants in the tiny alpine village around Wallowa Lake, but how often do you have the chance to enjoy a meal or beverage at 8,100 feet? I like to get to the top of Mt. Howard first thing in the morning, so by the time I’m finished with a few hours of going slow with the abundant nature, there is a lunch with a view waiting for me.
The food isn’t particularly memorable, but the view makes up for it (photo shown). Several great vantage points on the deck face the gondola and some indoors. You must purchase something to be able to enjoy the tables.
At the time of this writing, in the 2022 season, the grill hours are 10 am to 4 pm, which almost overlaps with the operation of the Wallowa Lake Tramway.
Hiking trails on Mt. Howard
There are five primary viewpoints on the top of Mt. Howard. They all require a bit of uphill hiking from the lift terminal. Each stop is on a loop with different perspectives, and the total distance is 2.5 miles. I suggest hiking in a counter-clockwise direction.
Remember that the elevation at the lift terminal is 8,150 feet, so be careful not to exert too much energy until you understand the new environment. Here are my three favorites:
- Royal Purple: This is the closest to the lift terminal (1/8 mile) and requires walking up a series of steps to the summit, which offers spectacular views of Purple Creek and the Wallowa River valley leading to the lake. There is a bench with a lovely view.
- Summit Overlook: I enjoy this spot the most on the mountain. The trail is an additional 1/4 mile from Royal Purple (3/8 mile from the terminal) and is a gradual path rising upward to my favorite view. If you just want to experience this viewpoint, I suggest going in a counter-clockwise direction and making a loop — 5/8 mile total.
- Valley Overlook: Since this trail is a mile out and back — or the full two-mile loop I recommend — many people seem to skip this opportunity to walk through a fresh fir forest and view the sweeping meadow with wildflowers. I love Lake Wallowa’s view (photo shown) and the rolling farmland around Joseph, Oregon. It’s also the ‘jumping-off’ place for gliders, so look for them here.
Wallowa Lake Tramway is a quick trip to the summit — but let nature happen slowly.
It isn’t about the hiking distance as much as soaking up all the goodness Mother Earth provides in a relatively concise area. You can rush the trails in over an hour, which is way too fast.
I prefer to spend 2-3 hours at a slower pace that allows me to take in all of the medicine of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I encourage you to use the time you save in the 15-minute gondola to submerge into the more profound realm of this magical alpine experience.
Where are Eagle Cap Wilderness and Joseph, Oregon, located?
Wallowa Lake is situated at 4,400 feet elevation, carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago. Above is the stunning Eagle Cap Wilderness, which is part of the Wallowa Mountains — also known as the “Alps of Oregon.” All this magic is just on the outskirts of Joseph, Oregon.
The location is approximately 5 1/2 hours driving time from Portland and an hour longer (6 1/2 hours) from the Seattle area (under standard conditions). It is well-positioned for an overnight stop along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway or a more extended tour of Eastern Oregon.
The northeast corner of Oregon has fewer visitors than busier areas in the state, providing a feeling of open space. Bask in the beauty of nature and explore all that the Joseph, Oregon, area has to offer.
There are many different camping and lodging options, but you might consider the historical flavor of the Wallowa Lake Lodge (photo shown), which is a few steps away from the tramway.
Driving times from Wallowa Lake Tramway:
- Downtown Joseph, Oregon: 10 minutes
- La Grande, Oregon (Interstate 84): 1:30 hours
- Hells Canyon Overlook (Forest Service road): 1:45+ hours
- Walla Walla, Washington: 2:30
- Boise, Idaho: 4:00
- Portland, Oregon: 5:30 (traffic varies greatly)
- Seattle: 6:30 (traffic varies greatly)
What to bring & wear for Wallowa Lake Tramway
Like the rest of Eastern Oregon, the weather varies by season and time of day. These are items for any hike in the Wallowa Mountains.
- Layered clothing. The temperature changes along the way.
- Head covering. The elements are more intense at altitude.
- Sturdy footwear. The worn paths are well-marked but watch for loose rocks and a few steeper areas. There can still be snow on the trails well into June.
- A waterproof coat or outer shell. This is a mountain range, after all. Even if the weather appears mild at the base of the tramway, have some kind of shell readily available.
- Walking poles. Optional but helpful.
- Camera, water, sunscreen, bug spray.
Eastern Oregon — weather and planning
Note: The Wallowa Lake Tramway is only open from mid-May through September/October.
The Wallowa Mountains and ~4,000 feet valley elevation keep this northeastern region of Oregon more temperate than some of the toastier parts of Eastern Oregon. Summers are warm and dry with freezing, snowy winters. Any time of year, bring sunscreen and a good head covering. Having plenty of water on hand is essential in the warmer summer months.
The climate around Wallowa Lake is similar to other lakeside areas — dry, warm daytime temperatures that can drop quickly when the sun goes down. Take layers, and be sure to have them on hand when hiking. A hoodie is helpful in summer, while a heavier sweater makes sense during the shoulder season — in May and September. Like everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, layers are essential when packing.
The roads in this area are in excellent condition, but be careful with grazing animals and deer — especially around dusk.
Ranging cattle will sit on the warm pavement of the road during the first few weeks of snow, so be especially careful in the October/November timeframe. In winter, check on road conditions before venturing to this area of Oregon, as there are many mountain passes — some of which require chains or traction devices.
Best time of year to visit: I like the first part of June for the clear roads and moderate weather. It is picturesque, with snow still on the mountain peaks and lush green pastures filling up the valley. Chief Joseph Days are the last week in July, providing many fun activities. September is beautiful with the autumn glow of harvest time — after Labor Day weekend, the visitors dwindle while the weather is still lovely.