Unless you live in Oregon, Washington or Idaho, the chances are pretty good that you’ve never visited Northeastern Oregon or have heard of Joseph. Located in a beautiful valley between the scenic Wallowa Mountains and the Snake River of Hells Canyon, Joseph is the terminus of OR route 82 and an old logging railroad—in other words, you got to want to get there. We had wanted to visit the area for a while and when we finally succeeded the reward was well worth the effort.
Many of the small, history-steeped little towns in Wallowa County are located along the wild winding rivers and rapidly flowing streams that crisscross the area. With the decline of timber industry, some of these places struggled and the lumber trains stopped running to Joseph a few decades ago. But some of the track is now used for excursion trains to sample the stunning scenery that would otherwise be difficult to access and pedal cars for those who want some exercise while taking in natural beauty. Many of the peaks in the range exceed 9000 feet and during our late April visit a heavy blanket of glistening snow still covered nearly all of the mountains. Despite that, a jacket or sweater was required in Joseph (elevation around 4200) for only the first couple of days of the stay with the days after being in the mid-upper 70’s.
The town’s main street is lined with an array of inviting shops and restaurants. Joseph even has its own distillery (Stein Distillery) and a visit provides not only good conversation with the owner but also tastings of the fine whiskies and bourbons they specialize in. However, it is mainly the art that has made Joseph a destination for many.
Photography of the region’s wildlife and natural beauty are present along with some hand crafts such as knitting. But the biggest contribution to the art mecca status are the outstanding, bigger than life bronze sculptures that adorn the street side in almost every block. Joseph and the nearby town county seat of Enterprise are home to some the most respected sculpture casting foundries in the United States. Valley Bronze has a wonderful gallery/showroom on the main street that includes several bronze pieces from artists who use their foundry in town.
We were very impressed the quality of the art and participated in a guided tour of the foundry. The tour really helped us appreciate all the work and talent that is needed to produce fine bronze sculpture. If you like bronze sculptures and have any curiosity about how they are made (particularly the intricate and/or large pieces) this is the tour for you. During peak tourist season, mid May through early September, accommodations in the area become a little tight and it would be wise to try to make reservations ahead of time. Being there before the rush, we were fortunate to stay at the Creekside Country Haven Bed & Breakfast. It was a wonderful facility and location complete with a friendly dog (Bentley). Also, we found very good food at Silver Lake Bistro in Joseph and Terminal Gravity Brewing and Red Rooster Cafe in Enterprise.
Not far from Joseph the abundant outdoor recreational opportunities become obvious. Wallowa Lake is at the foot of several mountains that provided the glaciers that created this pristine ribbon of water eons ago. With a state park, marina, restaurants, family entertainment, lodge, campgrounds and an aerial tram that takes riders up to the summit of Mount Howard (8200 feet), the Wallowa Lake area is a major focus for summer visitors. Outside of prime time however, the area is closed to just about everything other than appreciating Mother Nature’s craftsmanship. Backpacking, hunting, skiing and photography are among the activities that attract the more adventuresome to the higher elevations. Throughout the county hiking trails in the wilderness are plentiful and almost guarantee significant wildlife sightings.
Yes, we would like to go back to Joseph (and more of the surrounding little towns) for a more extended stay (maybe in the fall). It is a remote, naturally beautiful area that provides a pleasant contrast to living in a city. There are lots of interesting little stores and businesses and people who like life there. By the way, there are no traffic lights in Joseph—for that matter, there are no traffic lights in Wallowa County! Check out more here! Wallowa County Chamber
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