Wallowa Mountains offer luxury, wilderness beauty
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Eastern Oregon's Wallowa Mountains.

Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains are a vacation destination that offers something for everyone. The town of Joseph provides comfort, Wallowa Lake State Park features outdoor entertainment and the Eagle Cap Wilderness is home to the state’s best alpine backpacking. Here’s a photo gallery and a video

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

On the opposite side of Oregon, in a landscape that couldn’t seem more different from the Rogue Valley, a titanic range of mountains rise from the dry, dusty earth.

They’re called the Wallowas — a word that to the Nez Perce means “the land of running waters” — and they stand above sun-baked towns and farmland on the Columbia Plateau, home to the state’s largest wilderness and 31 summits that eclipse 8,000 feet.

It’s a land beautiful enough to inspire heartbreak and warfare. For years the Nez Perce refused to surrender Wallowa Valley to white settlers, eventually sparking one of the most famous battles between the U.S. Army and Native Americans and ending with Chief Joseph’s famous pledge that “from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

More than history lures people to this area rich in outdoor beauty these days. Cozy towns cater to the bed-and-breakfast crowd, while the state park features fishing, mini golf and a tramway that zips people to a restaurant perched atop 8,241-foot Mount Howard.

The real gem of the Wallowas, though, is the 359,991 acre Eagle Cap Wilderness — Oregon’s largest preserve.

Sixty alpine lakes are blue footprints between bare granite peaks here, and U-shaped wildflower valleys drip orange, purple and yellow into mountains otherwise as brown as deeply tanned skin.

The Wallowa Mountains are a whopping 574 miles from the Rogue Valley. But those who make the trip are rewarded with a destination rich in mountains, rivers, restaurants and history.

A DRIVE ACROSS OREGON

I merged onto Interstate 5 around midnight, and with the Outdoors Gal snoozing in the passenger seat, began a 10-hour drive from Grants Pass to the opposite corner of Oregon.

I’d worked the late shift at the Daily Courier, and because you don’t get the chance to visit the Wallowa Mountains often, I decided not to waste time with something as trivial as sleep.

In a rig stocked with coffee and Mountain Dew, we hit Portland around 4 a.m., twisted east and followed the Columbia River toward the rising sun.

The Outdoors Gal drove while I grabbed a quick snooze, and by the time I awoke, Eastern Oregon’s dry, rolling landscape spread out like a tan blanket in the morning sun.

We hit La Grande and followed Highway 82, the scenery becoming more dramatic with each passing mile. Glassy rivers cut through canyons of orangish-brown one mile, while the next brought a sweeping expanse of farmland.

Finally the big, snow-capped Wallowas made themselves known atop the farmland and we rolled through Joseph — a cozy town famous for art festivals and brew pubs.

At 10:30 a.m. we arrived at Wallowa Lake, a deep blue slice of water surrounded by 9,000-foot mountains. We were bleary-eyed and jittery from caffeine, but we managed to find a campsite at the state park and drop into a deep sleep for a two hours.

THE OUTDOORS IN STYLE

The Wallow Mountain area is best described as three different sections — the town, state park and backcountry.

The town of Joseph (population 967) constitutes the most comfortable, cultured side of the Wallowa experience. That first afternoon we ate chicken sandwiches on the sidewalk porch of a restaurant named Old Town Cafe, with views of the mountains almost directly overhead.

The Outdoors Gal explored numerous antique stores after lunch, while I checked out the bronze statues of Native Americans and cowboys that dot downtown, peeking into a few of the art galleries I passed along the way.

Joseph is a phenomenally beautiful town that teeters on the brink of becoming overly-touristy, yet features enough local spice to maintain its character.

The closest areas with a population larger than 100,000 — the Tri-Cities of eastern Washington and Boise, Idaho, — are four hours away by car. Although it’s a popular place, the crowds never become oppressive.

Wallowa Lake State Park is located just six miles up the road from Joseph. It specializes in what I’ll call the “comfortable outdoor experience.”

People rent boats for afternoons on Wallowa Lake — where you can fish for some of the United States’ largest kokanee — and families play mini-golf and go horseback riding.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of the state park is the tramway that zips people up 8,241-foot Mount Howard.

It’s a bit pricey at $26 per person, but the network of hiking trails at the top are outstanding.

The kicker? Mount Howard’s summit has a full-service restaurant. I enjoyed a pulled-pork sandwich and cold brew surrounded by a panorama of jagged mountains, while the Outdoors Gal scarfed a cheeseburger topped with fresh bacon and Swiss cheese for dinner.

Not bad for thin air.

THE EAGLE CAP WILDERNESS

If you give Wallowa Valley locals the chance, they’ll tell you the Eagle Cap Wilderness offers the best backpacking in Oregon.

As a Southern Oregonian, I took issue with that boast, but after just a day’s worth of hiking, I’ll concede they at least have a case.

The alpine valleys cradle blue lakes in abundance, as 534 miles of trails weave between mountains that eclipse 9,000 feet on a regular basis.

Four of Oregon’s 10 highest mountains — Matterhorn Mountain (9,845), Sacajawea Peak (9,833), Hurwal Divide (9,775) and Aneroid Mountain (9,702) — are found within a few miles of each other.

My favorite aspect of the Eagle Cap Wilderness is how easy the backcountry can be reached. The major trailhead is located at the south end of Wallowa Lake State Park.

Two mountain lakes worth exploring on any trip are Ice and Glacier lakes. True to their chilly names, both are usually covered with snow until well into summer, and both require serious hiking that begins on West Fork Wallowa River Trail.

Ice Lake requires a 7.7-mile hike (15.4 round trip) that climbs more than 3,200 feet, while Glacier Lake requires 13 miles (26 round trip) and a gain of 3,500 feet.

Whew.

My trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness ended up being slightly frustrating. The way-above-average snowpack from this spring meant the best lakes were covered by snow even during mid-July.

Instead, I used my only day of backcountry exploration to climb 9,616-foot Chief Joseph Mountain.

The climb was highlighted by sheer cliff faces and wildflowers along the trail. At the top was a panorama of brownish, spiked and snowy mountains to the south and a dry, farmland valley to the north.

It would have been nice to spend more time in this immaculate wilderness, but when you have a 10-hour drive and the start of the work week looming, such luxuries don’t exist.

So I climbed down from the mountain, took a quick dip in Wallow Lake and met the Outdoors Gal for a late meal in Joseph.

We left town later that night, sorry to see the titanic range of mountains in the rear-view mirror. We followed the setting sun west along the Columbia River this time, though it was the Wallowa Mountains that stayed fresh on our minds.


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