Editor’s Note: This post is courtesy of Travel Oregon.
While refueling my RV at a gas station off I-84 in Baker City, Oregon, I looked across the valley at the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. Baker City is on the south end of these peaks, and I was headed to Joseph, a small community on the north side of the range. There are two primary routes to Joseph from Baker City, the 110-mile run around the northwest side of the Wallowas via the highway, or 90 miles via the southeast route, which is about half forest service road.
I’d have preferred the southeast route, which includes a short detour to the Hells Canyon Overlook above the Snake River. But a portion of the road was closed until mid June, so that would have to wait for another trip.
Leading up to this two-week Oregon adventure, Joseph was one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting. Most people have never heard of this small town where everyone greets you with a smile, which isn’t a surprise considering it’s in the furthest northeast corner of Oregon, 320 miles from Portland.
Indeed, it’s a long trek off the beaten path, but it’s well worth the effort. As I passed through the town of Wallowa on Highway 82, the northern peaks of the Wallowa Mountains revealed their full majesty. But it’s not just these scenic peaks that make this area so remarkable; it’s the juxtaposition of endlessly verdant and rolling ranchland planted at their feet. It’s as though Pennsylvania Dutch Country has been placed at the base of the Canadian Rockies.
I rolled up Main Street in Joseph and headed for Wallowa Lake. The roar of the Wallowa River could be heard from miles away, emptying snowmelt from the nearby peaks into this sparkling lake. I was having a hard time believing I was in Oregon. This scene of raw, powerful nature felt more like Alaska.
The namesake of this captivating town is Chief Joseph, who’s famous for his peaceful means of leadership. Despite his tribe eventually being displaced across the Snake River into Idaho, Chief Joseph’s bravery and skill as a humanitarian are legend. His grave sits on a bluff overlooking Wallowa Lake.
Because rain was in the forecast, I started the 40-mile out-and-back road ride to Salt Creek Summit early the next morning. The day started with an easterly run from Joseph on Route 350, a gorgeous, lightly traveled rural road. The combination of endless green fields, dozens of red barns, and the white-capped Wallowas was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
After a short descent to Little Sheep Creek, I made a right on Forest Road 39, which climbs gradually to Salt Creek Summit. Over about 10 miles, the road rises roughly 1,800 feet, getting steeper the higher you go. The sounds of rushing water from Little Sheep Creek was the perfect soundtrack. After refueling at the summit, the lengthy descent was a welcome respite, as was the smooth, clean road, an unexpected surprise considering the remote locale and recent rain.
The ride back on Route 350 availed more views of the Wallowas with hardly a car in sight. In fact, over the course of nearly 50 miles, I counted 15 vehicles. Twelve were pickup trucks. Six of those trucks were towing horse trailers. And every single driver gave me a generous berth when passing.
For those seeking a super-sized day in the saddle, instead of turning around at Salt Creek Summit, continue another 27 miles to the Hells Canyon Overlook, making the out-and-back a near century. Just be sure to carry plenty of food and water. This is remote country and services are sparse.
For those who prefer mountain biking, Salt Creek Summit is the perfect start point to sample the singletrack on the Redmont and Wagon Road trail networks. The far northern section of Redmont is extremely fun, barely ridden trail that has a distinctly old school mountain biking feel. For even bigger adventures, a local told me about a backcountry ride from the town of Imnaha down to Hells Canyon and back. It was too big an adventure to bite off this trip, but it’s just one of many reasons why I want to get back to Joseph soon.
The Wallowas experience was so much more encompassing than just riding a bike, though. The town of Joseph has undeniable charm, and a thriving art community, featuring two foundries, both of which helped create the collection of copper statues that line Main Street.
Whether driving or riding, a trip to the Snake River Overlook is a must. Same goes for a ride up the Wallowa Lake Tramway. Also be sure to hit Arrowhead Chocolates, known for award-winning espresso and huckleberry chocolate truffles. In the evening, choose from 18 microbrews on tap at Embers Brewhouse.
For those seeking more backcountry adventure, Winding Waters River Expeditions in Joseph offers multi-day rafting trips to Hells Canyon. Eagle Cap Wilderness offers more than 350,000 acres unspoiled nature. Add in the world-class fly fishing, hunting and big snowpack winters perfect for cross-country and backcountry skiing, and the Wallowas is a paradise of outdoor adventure towering above an endearing mountain town perfectly preserved in time. I miss Joseph already.
Check out this summer’s 7 Bikes for 7 Wonders scavenger hunt. We’re hiding seven custom-made bikes around Oregon for someone to find and ride. For full details and rules, please visit traveloregon.com/7bikes7wonders. To learn more about the state and all it has to offer, check out TravelOregon.com.