The thinking used to be that Jackson Hole would never become too crowded because it was so hard to reach. Tucked into the far northwest corner of the country’s least populated state, two of the three roads into the valley required negotiating mountain passes. The third road followed a tortuous, avalanche-prone river canyon. You could fly to Jackson Hole, but only from Denver or Salt Lake City.
That was then. Today it’s #vanlife and non-stop flights to and from a dozen domestic destinations, including the country’s five largest metropolitan areas.
The Wallowa Valley, at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon, is an idyllic mountain valley that really is hard to reach. Jackson Hole is ringed by mountain ranges, but have you heard of Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in the U.S. (yes, deeper than the Grand Canyon)? That geologic wonder, formed over 6 million years ago by the Snake River, sits to the valley’s east. If you’re up for a driving adventure the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is an All-American Road that drops 5,000 feet into the gorge and then climbs back up. Otherwise you must drive north and west to go around the canyon before exiting I-84 at La Grande, Oregon and heading back east on Oregon 82.
Want to fly to Joseph? Boise International Airport is a four-hour drive, if you stick to the interstate. (The scenic byway is fewer miles, but takes twice as long.)
A couple of weeks ago, after two long days of driving (I took the byway), descending Salt Creek Summit on Forest Service Road 39 and arriving in the Wallowa Valley, it felt like an accomplishment. On the 7 miles from the base of the pass to the town of Joseph, the most southern in the valley, I passed one car and four pieces of farm equipment.
Since I first discovered Joseph —population about 1,000 — four years ago, a boutique hotel, The Jennings, has opened there. In a building dating from 1910 the crowd-funded hotel (it launched with a Kickstarter campaign) is highly Instagrammable, and each of its 12 rooms is done by a different designer. In 2017 the New York Times wrote that Joseph was “The Remote Oregon Town to Try Next.”
So Joseph is not undiscovered. But other businesses on Main Street include Joseph Hardware —“ Voted Oregon’s Best Hardware Store!” — several homewares stores, a small grocery, and Arrowhead Chocolate, which isn’t quite at the level of Atelier Ortega but is cheaper and has much more space for hanging out.
If Joseph wasn’t way, way out of the way, I have no doubt Joseph Hardware’s days on Main Street would be numbered.
I didn’t stop in Joseph, though. Instead I continued south 6 miles to the mouth of Wallowa Lake, a glacier-formed lake about 3.5 miles long and 4,372 feet in elevation. I had a lakefront cabin at Wallowa Lake Lodge reserved for a week. I was there for a weeklong writing workshop but figured that, while there, I’d enjoy the lake, the nearby national forest and wilderness area, and the local roads, before or after each day’s workshops.
I brought my road bike, stand up paddle board (SUP), and hiking shoes.
One mile up the road from my cabin is the Wallowa Lake trailhead, from which trails head into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. This is part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. I had visited this trailhead once, at the start of an epic five-day backpacking trip. This time I realized the trailhead is not epic for day hikes; the shortest day hike is 10 miles.
Still, one morning I awoke at 4:30 to do the 10-mile hike: The Chief Joseph Trail climbs 1,800 vertical feet over 5 miles to the base of the crumbling northern face of 9,616-foot-tall Chief Joseph Mountain.
One evening I set out with the intention of run-hiking up to Aneroid Lake. This lake, set in a tree-rimmed cirque at 7,520 feet in elevation, is 7 miles from the trailhead in a different direction than Chief Joseph Mountain. I wasn’t back at my cabin until 9:15 p.m., and I did need to use a headlamp for the last 40 minutes, but I didn’t see anyone else on the trail, which gently climbed 3,000 feet as it switchbacked up through hillsides covered with wildflowers.
At 20 miles in distance (round-trip) with 5,300 vertical feet of ascent (and descent), the Matterhorn and Ice Lake aren’t usually considered a day hike, but, if that’s the time you have, do it. (If you have more time, spend the night at Ice Lake.) From the Matterhorn’s 9,826-foot summit, the 360,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness stretches in all directions. Neighboring Sacajawea Peak — the tallest in the Wallowa Mountains — is the Matterhorn’s direct neighbor to the north. Ice Lake shimmers 1,800 feet below.
I don’t know if it is just this summer’s heat, but Wallowa Lake is as swimmable as it is SUPable. Usually a goal when lake SUPing is to not get wet. Every SUP on Wallowa Lake ended with a dive off my board into refreshing water that wasn’t so refreshing it took my breath away, though. There are put-ins at the lake’s north and south ends. I put in at the south and enjoyed paddling along the western shore, where steep, often rickety stairs come down to the lake from weekend cabins.
And the biking
A Wallowa County tourist organization publishes a cycling map of the valley. Farm roads are everywhere, and you can ride them between towns. But I kept returning to the 10-mile, 1,800-foot climb up to Salt Creek Summit. Forest Service Road 39, the same road I descended to get to the valley at the start of the week, is little trafficked and has a kinder grade than Teton Pass. Had I brought wheels appropriate for gravel roads, I would have ridden Forest Service Road 3965, a loop that winds along the rim above Hells Canyon and through the eastern Wallowas.