It’s the portrait of absolute wilderness as far as the eye can see: A sea of emerald pine and fir trees ripples in all directions. Then a swirl of glistening blue appears — the Little Minam River zigzags through the dense forest below. Perched 6,500 feet above in a four-seat charter plane, I peer down at the white peaks of the Wallowa Mountains and see why they’re nicknamed the Swiss Alps of Oregon.
The four-seat Cessna 206 took off in the small town of Enterprise. And although it’s a short 20-minute hop to my destination, I’m bound for one of the most remote points in the sparsely populated corner of Northeastern Oregon.
I’ve made the trek from Portland looking for a rustic retreat, and this spot fits the bill. Surrounded by the sprawling Eagle Cap Wilderness, the Minam River Lodge is one of the few hike/fly-in lodges left in the country. There are only three ways to access it: by foot on an 8.5-mile hike along the Little Minam River (downhill in and uphill out), riding horseback on the same trail or flying a small charter plane.
For hikers and riders, a sense of place begins with the essence of pine, spruce and fir that fills the air on the winding trail. In late summer, meadows along the way pop with wildflowers, and lush mosses and lichen paint the rocky terrain vivid shades of green. Hikers might glimpse herds of elk or deer grazing on native bunchgrasses, or spy the spiky tail feathers of a strutting sage grouse.
The secluded location guarantees solitude, but the experience is far from primitive. Reopened in 2017 after extensive renovations, the lodge exudes alpine luxury — but in a quintessentially Oregon way.
Living Off the Land
Built in the 1950s with materials mules carted across mountain trails, the former hunting lodge originally catered to sportsmen on shooting and fishing trips. Then in 2011, Barnes Ellis, a native Oregonian who grew up backpacking and river rafting in the area, acquired the 126-acre property, spearheading a dramatic six-year restoration project.
Ellis reimagined the lodge as a “wilderness hideaway” far from civilization, major roads and cell service — but one with an upscale, boutique experience that would cater to both adventurers and solitude seekers. The revamped property now hosts up to 35 guests and includes four elegant rooms in the main lodge; the most coveted is a 600-square-foot suite with floor-to-ceiling windows, river-valley views and a copper soaking tub. Plus, there are nine freestanding cabins, four teepees (located near the wood-fired hot tub) and two wall tents for camping in the mountain air.
“It’s a study in resourcefulness and living off the land,” Ellis says, explaining that his team of 20-plus builders and designers focused on local materials and craftsmanship.
His goal was to make the lodge as environmentally sustainable as possible: In the lodge, a Scandinavian-style, central wood-burning fireplace not only heats the structure through an energy-efficient heat-recovery ventilation system, it also provides hot water. Solar power covers the remaining needs for the off-the-grid lodge, and the nearby river functions as the main cooling source for kegs of craft beer flown in from Terminal Gravity Brewing.
Ellis and his team partnered with experts from around the region, rebuilding using lumber harvested from the property, logs and other materials upcycled from existing structures, and salvaged wood helicoptered in from around the state. A good example is the striking rosy-hued fir flooring in some of the hand-built cabins, which comes from old barrels once used to make maraschino cherries at a plant in Salem.
From the dwellings to the decor, a sense of craftsmanship feeds the soul of the lodge. Most of the handcrafted furniture was designed and built by Oregon’s Liz Holoubek and husband Alan. Local noted potter Ted Olaf Juve of Enterprise, also the father of lodge services manager Kelsey Juve, made the dinnerware collections, earth-toned coffee mugs and decorative pieces; and the historic photographs framed throughout the lodge were captured by Kelsey Juve’s great-grandfather, a professional photographer in the area.
The sense of family and connections the lodge staff shares runs deep. Isaac Trout, the lodge manager, began his tenure three years before the lodge opened as part of the building and design crew. His in-laws are caretakers at the nearby Red’s Horse Ranch, a Forest Service property that’s open to the public. When they told him about the revival of the lodge, he jumped to be a part of it. “I’m an avid outdoorsman, so getting to live and work inside of a wilderness area fits my personality perfectly,” he says.
Tasting the Wilderness
On one day of my visit, Trout had just returned from elk hunting with a bow and arrow. He shared his bounty at dinner, including a vegetarian-friendly option from a foraging ramble: freshly harvested chanterelles sauteed in cultured butter whipped up by Chef Carl Krause, a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America and former head of cuisine for the Biwa group in Portland.
In addition to freshly foraged ingredients, the chef sources more than 90 percent of the vegetables from a wilderness garden that’s a short walk from the lodge. “I was excited to have a gardener to work with,” says Krause. “It’s every cook’s dream.”
I stroll the rows with lead gardener Nicole Freshley, who last season grew more than 100 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit, which she harvests daily for each meal. Freshley plants the garden and hothouse with seeds from companies that offer organic, open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of rare and one-of-a-kind vegetables and lettuces. She points out a riot of colors and shapes from Scarlet Nantes carrots to Tokyo Market turnips, and Bull’s Blood beets to brown Goldring lettuce.
“Right now we are finding a balance between creating a beautiful space that intrigues people and is interesting to explore while also having it be productive and efficient,” says Freshley. Recently, she’s begun planting native plants such as elderberry and thimbleberry to create more little ecosystems.
“After living in Portland for a couple years, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to garden,” says Freshley. “It’s a different pace of life out here, but it definitely eases the mind.”
Back at the lodge, cocktail hour kicks in with Trout mixing drinks behind the bar, which he hand-built last winter from salvaged fir. It’s the centerpiece for the open kitchen and dining room. “We are always thinking of new ideas and ways to use our garden and surrounding landscape for ingredients,” Trout says. That sense of experimentation has led to crafting bitters and extracts from ponderosa pine bark. With help from taste-testing guests, they perfected an Old Fashioned called “The Ole’ Minam,” which features bourbon-ponderosa bitters as the signature ingredient. Next up? “Smoked cocktails,” he says, “because we are often smoking meats outside the lodge using alderwood.”
Soon the dinner bell chimes, and guests move in from the outdoor deck, the fireplace nook and surrounding cabins to find a seat at a long communal table. With floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of a pink sunset as his backdrop, Krause announces the menu of family-style dishes: koji-cured rib-eye steak from the nearby Carman Ranch; fresh-baked sourdough bread with cultured butter; alderwood-smoked carrots with sunflower and lemon butter; tomatoes with sea salt, parsley and lovage; green salad with watermelon radish, cucumbers and dill vinaigrette; and his longstanding favorite of potatoes with house-made creme fraiche, a little bit of garlic and green onions.
The menu is dictated by what’s in season and, in many instances, the mountain weather. “We place our orders weekly, and sometimes there’s a storm and eggs don’t show up for two days because the planes can’t fly,” says Krause. “So you need to be fluid, because the situation is always changing.” Yet Krause thrives on the creative challenge of working with an unpredictable supply of ingredients. “I enjoy looking at what we have at hand and figuring out how can we make the best possible dish from it,” he says. “I like to cook how the Beatles play music,” he says. “It’s simple but refined.”
Beyond the Cell Towers
Early the next morning, guests sporting colorful puffy coats and wool hats roll into the lodge from nearby cabins and teepees. One group clusters around the fireplace, some swap travel tales, a few read books. Others head outside with steamy cups of coffee, gazing at the fog-shrouded forest.
The moment feels pure, maybe because there’s not a cell phone in sight. “Because there’s no cell service, people are forced to take a step back in time and enjoy the view and company, the hiking and fishing, or settle in with a really good book,” says Trout.
One of the hikers who arrived late the night before shares stories of the giant bear tracks she crossed on her trek in from the Moss Springs Trailhead. Two Seattle architects talk about a new food hall they are developing in Spokane, Washington, while another group debates which hiking trails might yield the most chanterelles that day. (Northwest guidebook author Douglas Lorain created an in-house guide for the lodge that covers trails ranging from steep, scenic climbs to easy strolls by the river).
A convivial camaraderie prevails. I wonder if it’s from sharing meals and leisurely hikes, or maybe the late-night stargazing and serenading around the campfire. Maybe it’s part of the magic that comes from unfettered time to marvel in the great outdoors. As Edward Abbey once wrote: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
If You Go
The 2018 season for Minam River Lodge runs from May 26 to November 1. The best way to reach the lodge for reservations is by email, since phone service is limited. When emailing about your stay, include whether you need to reserve a charter plane or a guided horseback trip, or if you plan to hike in.