The Wallowas

wallowa lake

We spent the last week camping at Wallowa Lake State Park, which is about six miles south of the town of Joseph, in the northeastern corner of Oregon. The park is one of the small jewels of Oregon’s park system: the lake and surrounding mountains are gorgeous, unlike anything else in the state, and there are lots of hiking trails that take you deep into the Eagle Cap Wilderness area. The town of Joseph is pretty: small and arty, but it’s clear that farming and ranching remain the lifeblood of the area. The big event every year is the Chief Joseph Rodeo, which reportedly draws thousands of people to this tiny town.

The park is a delightful place to stay, although I have found it crowded and crazy in the summer. If you can get there before Memorial Day, however, you’ll find a wonderfully sleepy place to camp. During our visit, many of the campers were there for a few days of quiet fishing on the lake, and we saw the usual small stream of overnighters (it amazes me how many people camp for a night and leave in places like this) and folks like us, there for a few days to enjoy the beauty in this part of the world. We met a lovely couple from Eugene out on their own voyage through Oregon, and it was great to compare notes and find a few new places to put on our travel list. 1

wallowa camp
Our camp in the park.

Last week, park workers were busy preparing for the official opening of the season, which was midway through our visit. The camp hosts were pitching in—the park was supposedly down by three rangers—and it was kind of fun to watch the hive of activity as people tidied up the park after the winter months. When we left on Thursday, the whole park was open; one of the hosts told me that he thought the park would be half-full by the weekend, and nearly full on Memorial Day weekend.

As has been the case with all our travels, we had to contend with Weather while we were in the area. After two beautiful days in camp, the weekend brought in a big storm, with cooler temperatures and lots of rain. For a two-and-a-half days, we hunkered down in the Casita, mostly reading, with occasional forays into town, although Susan was able to get out for walks here and there during breaks in the rain.

The Casita is solid—it doesn’t leak, and the heat (we have both gas and electric) works quite well—but rain is rain, and it’s hard not to feel damp in conditions like that. Luckily, the sun came out on Monday, and we had a few decent days to dry out and clean the trailer and our gear before heading out of town.

The weather forecast for the end of our stay wasn’t good, with snow and below-freezing temperatures projected on Wednesday night and Thursday morning (when we planned to leave), so we packed up camp a day early and hunkered down for one last night in the woods. We didn’t get the cold/snow, but we did get one hell of a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, with lightning illuminating the trailer, and big thunderclaps booming across the mountain peaks. It was a blast, actually.

During our week in the park, Susan and I were able to get out for one good hike together, up the west fork of the Wallowa River. It was a beautiful, warm spring day, and the river was swollen with the runoff of the snows from the mountains above us. There were tiny wildflowers everywhere along the trail, and the air was fresh and clear, with the scent of evergreens all around us.

Hells Canyon overlook
Near Hells Canyon

Midway through the week, I took off in the truck and headed out to an overlook above Hells Canyon, a gorge that stretches 10 miles across the Snake River, marking the boundary between Oregon and Idaho (my phone thought it had changed over to Mountain time). I’ve never been out that far, and it’s long been on my list of places to go, but this was more of a scouting mission for the future than a long day in the woods. Our friends Dave and Marilyn told us about some beautiful backcountry campgrounds in the Hells Canyon area, and as I drive out that way, I checked a few of them for Casita-worthiness.

Dinner at Terminal Gravity

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Joseph, although the last night, after buttoning down the camp, we went out for dinner at Terminal Gravity’s pub in Enterprise, the next town over. I don’t drink a lot of beer, but I make an exception for Terminal Gravity, makers of my favorite IPA. The brewery started in an old farmhouse—which they’ve since expanded out of—and we had a lovely dinner on the front porch, overlooking a garden full of people enjoying the late afternoon. It was a great way to end our trip to the area. Like our time in Zion, this trip felt incomplete, despite the solid week there, and we’ve put this on our list for a possible autumn visit. (I really wanted to bring Susan out to the Zumwalt Prairie, but the weather really didn’t help.)

Yesterday, we had a nice, uneventful drive through the Blue Mountains and the Umatilla National Forest, up to Walla Walla, Washington. We’re in a clean, well-lit (in all senses of the phrase) RV park less than a mile from downtown, and we’ll be here for a few days, wine-tasting and enjoying the town before heading back out into the wilderness northeast of Walla Walla.

We walked downtown last night for dinner (good sushi at Shiki Habachi Sushi) and a glass of wine at the stately old Marcus Whitman Hotel, wandering through the neighborhoods back to our park well before dark. It was a beautiful end to a good day.

  1. We also saw our first Escape in the wild, which was quite thrilling. The owners picked it up a few weeks ago and love it. We really can’t wait until ours is complete.

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