Escape to the Wallowa Mountains
Joseph has wild mountain beauty and a thriving arts scene.
It’s not every day that I see a four-point buck wandering down the sidewalk of a town’s main street. But then again, it’s only my first evening in Joseph, Oregon.
My husband and I have come to this small town nestled at the base of the Wallowa Mountains to escape — at least for two nights — the bustle and pull of our everyday lives. Joseph combines the creativity of a thriving arts community with the hospitality and wild beauty of Eastern Oregon, seemingly the perfect combination for our escape.
As the deer searches for its own meal, we’re perched at an outdoor table at Mutiny Brewing, munching on chili-lime fish tacos and the tasty rice bowl layered with black beans, avocado and chicken. Mutiny’s brewer-owner, Kari Gjerdingen, has three beers on tap tonight. Ssswheat, a light-bodied wheat beer with hints of coriander, orange peel and chamomile, is the ideal choice on this warm Eastern Oregon evening.
After dinner we settle in at the Bronze Antler Bed & Breakfast two blocks south of downtown. Owners Heather Tyreman and Bill Finney ensure we have everything we need to enjoy our time in Joseph, from luxurious beds and linens to bubble bath and a bocce court. Their 1925 Craftsman provides American-style comfort with a European influence, including a choice between three rooms and a suite, each with a private bath.
In the morning, we exchange plans for the day with the other guests over French toast, sausage and fresh fruit with Tuaca-spiked cream. I slip the trail guide Heather has provided into my pack and help myself to a pair of walking sticks by the front door.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the Hurricane Creek Trailhead. The popular trail leads to the entrance of the Eagle Cap Wilderness — more than 350,000 acres in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains. Our destination is Slick Rock Creek Falls, three miles ahead.
We walk through subalpine meadows, where avalanches have downed the trees, and Indian paintbrush, asters and yarrow flourish. The gradual climb reveals granite and limestone peaks and waterfalls. We pass through a timbered area with views of Hurricane Creek rushing through the bottom of a deep slot canyon. At Slick Rock Creek Falls, we cool off in the pools of the small waterfall. A side trail to the left leads to a great view of the canyon, with a spot to relax and refuel before heading back.
Our return to Joseph coincides with a visit to the Stein Distillery. The family-operated business creates rye vodka, bourbon, rye whiskey, rum and four types of cordials. After sampling the goods, we are treated to a tour with master distiller Dan Stein, who grows and grinds the rye, wheat and barley used to create the spirits on his farm nearby.
For dinner our innkeepers have secured us a must-have reservation at Vali’s Alpine Restaurant. Vali’s has been a tradition in Wallowa County since Maggie and Miklos Vali opened their old-world treasure nearly four decades ago. These days Michael and Dionne — professionally trained chefs and Maggie’s son and daughter-in-law — run the kitchen.
While I don’t let just anyone call me Sweetie Pie, Maggie wins me over the moment she says hello. The heart of Vali’s Alpine Restaurant, she single-handedly runs the dining room with her you-betcha attitude. Vali’s offers a rotating menu of traditional and classic entrees — one per night — made from family recipes. Even after a generous portion of chicken paprikas with spaetzle and fresh hot rolls, we can’t resist sharing the three-berry crostata for dessert. (Note: Vali’s does not accept credit cards.)
The next morning, we drive to the Wallowa Lake Tramway, a gondola that whisks 30,000 visitors a year to the summit of nearby Mount Howard. At 8,150 feet in elevation, the summit is a jumping-off point for day hikes and backpacking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. We choose instead to meet up with a wildlife biologist for an interpretive tour. The 2.5 miles of trails lead to several overlooks with views of three states, Wallowa Lake and several mountain peaks. Afternoon visitors can enjoy live music at the Summit Grill and Alpine Patio during happy hour.
After taking in the view of the 1,500-acre glacial Wallowa Lake on our tram descent, we drive to the marina for a closer look. We rent kayaks and explore the clear lake waters under the backdrop of big mountains and even bigger skies. Stand-up paddleboards, canoes, pontoons and motorboats are also available.
Hungry from our excursion, we dine on a spinach salad and burger in the charming backyard garden at Calderas cafe. It would be easy to linger under the pine tree all afternoon, but we have yet to explore downtown.
The larger-than-life bronze statues, pocket gardens and benches that line the six-block business area remind us that a slow pace is the right speed in Joseph. We peek into galleries that display bronze sculptures cast in the area. Valley Bronze of Oregon, we note, offers free tours of its foundry.
At Stewart Jones Designs, we find plenty to ogle from beadwork and jewelry to creations in wood, glass and bronze. During our visit, Jones — a fabricator of gold, platinum and silver jewelry — demonstrates his Swiss rose engine lathe. He uses the rare circa-1860 machine to produce intricately detailed designs that he turns into pendants and earrings.
Arrowhead Chocolates has been a popular topic among our fellow B&B guests. I arrive with a list of suggested favorites — lavender honey, hot chili, chai — and leave with a box of those and several others.
Our last stop before leaving town is beecrowbee, makers of handmade, all-natural bath and body products. I select a bar of essEnce olive oil soap with hints of lemon, lavender and mint to wash off the dust and remind me of our time in Joseph.
We leave with places still to explore, trails to be hiked. We will be back.
Editor’s note: Did you know that the Wallowa Mountains are one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon? Find information about exploring them here.
about author Lori Russell
Lori Russell is always on the lookout for her next great adventure-whether in the world or on the page. As a freelance journalist, she writes on topics ranging from travel, food, writing and health to people and their passions. She is the editor at large for Oregon Home and her work has appeared in Travel Oregon, Ski Oregon, The Gorge Magazine and Oregon Unforgettable (Far Country Press).
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