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The Alps of Oregon

The Wallowa Mountains in the far northeastern corner of Oregon are frequently described as the Alps of Oregon and justifiably so as they do resemble the mountainous terrain of Switzerland. The town of Joseph is at the heart of alpine country. It's a small town lying at the base of Chief Joseph Mountain next to beautiful Wallowa Lake. For indeed this is the ancestral and current home of the Nez Perce tribe and their legendary chief Joseph who fought one of the last of the Indian wars. This 1,170 mile running battle with the cavalry has become the stuff of history and legend. A large bronze statue of Joseph stands in front of the visitor's center in Joseph.

Chief Joseph BronzeJoseph, Oregon

His is not the only bronze statues in town as one of the unique features of this town is the large number of open air bronze statues some depicting western scenes and some whimsical. All have been forged at Valley Bronze of Oregon in Joseph.

Bald Eagle in FlightJoseph, Oregon

This gives a hint of the uniqueness of this small town. It is loaded with galleries, restaurants and a Nez Perce museum all in a picture perfect setting.

In addition, the countryside is populated with picturesque barns of varying ages and states of repair. The dominant colors are red and white. Frequently you will see the ranch brand on one end of the barn. The barns are somewhat unique as they all seem to have a mansard style roof and an old fashioned projection on the front of the barn that in years past contained a hay rake and a pully to move loose hay into the hay loft.

Wallowa Valley Red BarnWallowa valley near Joseph, Oregon
Quilt Barn Wallowa ValleyWallowa valley near Enterprise, Oregon

So many that the local photo club puts out an annual barns calendar. If you plan to visit, this is a great resource as it gives the history of the barns as well as their location. The calendars are available at multiple locations around the valley including The Bookloft just off the square in Enterprise and the Sportsmans Corral on Highway 82 in Joseph.

All of this at the foot of the gorgeous Wallowa Mountains. The mountains were formed both by tectonic movement and volcanic activity making them rather distinct from most other Oregon volcanic mountains. They were then scoured by glaciers resulting in the present day alpine appearance.

Chief Joseph MountainWallowa valley near Joseph, Oregon

My wife and I spent a week there in early June exploring the town and the countryside. It has been a favorite of ours since living in Pendleton, OR twenty some years ago. We took our travel trailer and stayed at the lovely state campground at the far end of Wallowa Lake. The Wallowa's in addition to their beauty are somewhat unique from a photographic standpoint as the sky above them is typically clear at sunrise, but thirty minutes or so later, they are capped by white fluffy clouds making for a more interesting scene. The Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site, a 60 acre park that sits between Joseph and Wallowa Lake, is a great place to explore and a wonderful place to photograph from with a small pond to reflect the mountains and a small stream running through it.

I should also discuss the area around Enterprise, the county seat. There is a stately courthouse and square right off of Highway 82 in the center of town. Importantly, there is a great bookstore, The Bookloft, on the west side of the square. It's a local bookstore like the one that every town had before the big box stores nearly drove them out of business. It's small and quaint with a very knowledgeable staff and a very nice selection of books and maps of the local area. Well worth a visit. If you take the back way from Enterprise to Joseph following Hurricane Creek Rd., you'll have a chance to see many beautiful barns near and far at the base of the mountains.

Heading east out of Joseph on Highway 350 towards Imnaha will provide you with many side roads to explore and many more barns to entice you. If you continue north to Imnaha, you will find your way to the road leading to the Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area. As you pass the general store on the right and the U. S. Post Office on the left, continue straight up what looks like a side street and do not continue left on the asphalt. This is a decent but curvy gravel road with only a few rough spots and a couple of wonderful lookouts over the Imnaha River Canyon and at the end a look into the Snake River canyon better known as Hell's Canyon. Plan to stop at Granny's Lookout for the view, the wildflowers and toilet facilities. Then drive on to Hat Point Lookout watching for vistas into Hells Canyon on the right as you near the top. Hat Point is a nice spot for a picnic and a stretch of your legs before you head back down the mountain. Allow at least two hours to drive from Imnaha to the top of the mountain. Take a picnic lunch and plenty of water as there are no food facilities in the recreation area. Your last chance for food is at the Imnaha General Store and Bar.

Hells CanyonHells Canyon National Recreation Area

There are campgrounds in the recreation area, but RV's are not recommended on the road to them although a truck camper or very small trailer would probably be ok. Do be aware that this is rattlesnake country so use care where you're stepping.

On our last day in the area, we went on a tour with the local Nature Conservancy to their 33,000 acre Zumwalt Prairie Preserve. It is a remnant of the bunch grass prairie that covered much of the West prior to the arrival of soil tilling agriculture. Their property straddles a rather rough road that extends from Zumwalt Road to the Imnaha Hwy, Hwy 350. If you drive past the Nature Conservancy barn and kiosk about three quarters of a mile, you'll be rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view of the Wallowa Mountains to the south and the Seven Devils to the north on the far side of Hell's Canyon. A high clearance vehicle with good tires, but not necessarily 4-wheel drive, is recommended on this road.

A week was not nearly enough to explore the whole area. I really wanted to explore the Imnaha River canyon out of Imnaha, but there just wasn't time. (By the way, this too is well known rattlesnake country, so walk with care.) The area around Lostine on the way to Enterprise also beckoned, but again not enough time.

Hwy 3 out of Enterprise takes you to the Columbia River and the Palouse country of southeastern Washington.

If You Go:

Places to stay: Trip Advisor rates Eagles View Inn #1 in Enterprise. It also lists multiple B&B's in the area. We stayed at Wallowa Lake State Park, so can't personally recommend anywhere else. Advance reservations strongly recommended for this very popular state park.

Restaurants: Joseph: The Outlaw Enterprise. Red Rooster. Terminal Gravity Brew Pub (Recommended by a friend, but I haven't been there personally).

Resources: The Bookloft in Enterprise, OR. Wallowa County Barn Calendar. Benchmark Oregon Road & Recreation Atlas