Joseph and Wallowa Lake

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Chief Joseph statue
A bronze statue of Chief Joseph stands tall in the middle of the town that bears his name.

It’s no wonder that the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe fought so hard to hold on to its cherished ancestral homeland. Take a glance at the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon, and you’ll understand why. It’s a stunning alpine oasis in a region generally (but wrongly) depicted as a flat expanse of nothing but dirt and sand.

Ultimately, the Nez Perce were forced to leave during the famous conflict of 1877, ending with Young Chief Joseph’s statement that “I will fight no more forever.” Joseph was never allowed to return, first banished to Kansas, then Oklahoma and finally Washington, where he died in 1904.

But the heritage of the tribe and its famous chief remain integral elements of this area today, with the town of Joseph and nearby Wallowa Lake serving as the primary draws for visitors.

Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism arm, recently designated the area one of Oregon’s Seven Wonders as part of a marketing campaign, but the ads likely drove as much awareness for Oregonians as out-of-staters. I’d guess that a majority of Oregonians (particularly those west of the Cascades) don’t know that the Wallowa region even exists, with far fewer having visited. Luckily for me, my parents took us there many summers as I was growing up. At the time, I was more interested in the $1 miniature golf than the beauty or history of the area. The trips have been fewer as years have passed, but returns are always inspiring, though the golf now starts at $3.

Spirit of Joseph
This eagle, “Spirit of Joseph” by Steve Parks, is one of many bronze sculptures that line Main Street in Joseph.

A splash in Wallowa Lake doesn’t come without setting aside time. From La Grande, plan for nearly two hours of postcard views while driving through the communities of Imbler, Elgin, Wallowa, Lostine and Enterprise (there’s a Safeway!) before reaching Joseph and its deep-blue neighbor.

The most comparable Oregon town to Joseph is Sisters — down to the single-road drag of restaurants and tourist traps for about 10 blocks in the shadow of in impressive mountain range. They each have a small creek that crosses main street, an annual rodeo, an annual quilt show and a local brewery. What sets Joseph apart is that it’s at the end, not the middle, of a major highway, so it doesn’t squeeze traffic to a grinding halt every summer weekend.

Joseph, however, is best experienced on foot, primarily because downtown itself is an art gallery, with bronze sculptures dotting many intersections along Main Street, fueled by a handful of bronze foundries in the region. Humans and animals and represented — cowboys and cougars, gardeners and eagles. An 11-foot-tall sculpture of Chief Joseph commands one central street corner, with Chief Joseph Mountain looming behind it. Parking spaces are abundant, so just park anywhere and make a loop.

Old Chief Joseph's grave
Old Chief Joseph’s grave, at the north end of Wallowa Lake, is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Unfortunately, we missed the re-enactment of the 1896 Joseph bank robbery, which was reprised this year for the first time since 2000 and is one of my vivid memories from childhood trips to the Wallowas. Joseph hosts many other festivals, including Chief Joseph Days (featuring a rodeo), the Bronze, Blues & Brews Festival (an outdoor music event), Hells Canyon Mule Days (yes, there’s a mule show) and Oregon’s Alpenfest (the area fancies itself to be “Oregon’s Little Switzerland,” and a shop owner’s thick accent lent credence to the nickname). This town of 1,000 keeps busy, at least for four months out of the year. Winter is a different story.

Driving past Joseph, there are three state park sites and a national park site in four miles, which might be the only cluster of that size in Oregon aside from along the coast. The short stretch of road between the town and Wallowa Lake hosts two small attractions: the grave of Old Chief Joseph and Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site. Both are worth a stop to absorb some historical context about this land. A large state park campground lies at the other end of the lake, with the Little Alps picnic area a mile farther.

Before getting there, though, take a moment (or many moments) to appreciate Wallowa Lake, a three-mile-long blue gem carved by glacial retreat around 17,000 years ago. Along the east shore, a incredibly preserved moraine shows the path of the glacier clear as day. A more forested moraine lines the west shore, with Chief Joseph Mountain rising thousands of feet above. Fishing, swimming and water skiing are the most popular activities. In the summer, you can rent row boats, motor boats, paddle boats and kayaks from the marina, and decks are anchored throughout the lake if you want to linger on the water.

Chief Joseph Mountain and Wallowa Lake
Chief Joseph Mountain towers over the west shore of Wallowa Lake.

There’s a tourist-centric outpost at the south end of Wallowa Lake. It’s the type of pandering I typically despise, with trinket shops, go-karts and overpriced cabins, but I make an exception for Wallowa Lake. I mean, the food costs more because it’s the middle of nowhere, right? The $1 miniature golf course I played dozens of times as a kid does not hold up well, likely because of the shiny new $6 course across the street, complete with water feature and furry bear statues. Just don’t get stuck behind a group of six that’s more interested in taking family portraits than sinking putts. The old course also sells mountain berry milkshakes, though, so it has that going for it. There are even two more miniature golf courses if you really want to test your game.

Like the golf courses, the rental cabins are a mix of old and new, so it’s worth doing some research if you’re not going to camp.

Wallowa Lake tramway
The Wallowa Lake tramway rises 3,700 feet to the top of Mount Howard.

If short on time, the Wallowa Lake tramway makes for a memorable day. The gondola rises 3,700 feet (one of the steepest vertical lifts in North America) to the top of Mount Howard, named after the general who chased the Nez Perce from this land. At the top, you can look over the glacier-carved valley where Joseph sits (from a ledge where hang-gliders set sail), take in sweeping views of the peaks (almost 20 are taller than 9,000 feet) in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, hike a saddle to East Peak or simply have a snack at the Summit Grill. It’s probably the easiest and fastest route to the top of a 8,100-foot mountain. They let you ride down, too.

At the end of the road is the beginning of adventure, with access to the network of stunning trails that crisscross through the lakes, rivers and mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Most of the destinations require a taxing climb, but even kids can enjoy a 2-mile trek (each way) to BC Falls. The waterfall isn’t particularly impressive (though don’t go in the water and risk a fatal plunge down a second drop), but the walk to it offers impressive views of the west fork of the Wallowa River, including at a bridge crossing, as it squeezes toward Wallowa Lake.

Even with some tacky tourist additions, it’s easy to see why the Nez Perce considered this land so special.

Wallowa River
The west fork of the Wallowa RIver squeezes through a canyon above the lake.

McKenzie River

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McKenzie River
The McKenzie River cascades between Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls.
Sahalie Falls
Sahalie Falls is a short walk from a parking lot.

No matter which side of the Cascades you live on, the McKenzie River offers a refreshing escape from a hot summer day. Accessed a few miles south of the junction of highways 20 and 126, there are numerous parking lots that make a perfect meeting spot between the southern Willamette Valley and Central Oregon.

The easiest, most popular and most impressive section of the 26.5-mile McKenzie River Trail is near its origin, where Sahalie Falls roars and Koosah Falls fans over basalt cliffs. Because of the volume of water, both falls can appear much taller than they actually are, though that doesn’t make them any less impressive. In between, the river rumbles over rocks and funnels through deep channels, where whitewater shares the spotlight with brilliant aqua and deep green.

A half-mile separates the waterfalls, and it can be traversed by trail or road. Although the footpath through old-growth forest is a little bumpy and has stairs in some areas, I can attest that even an 80-something grandmother can make the trek from one viewpoint to another. The west bank has more undulations and is frequented by mountain bikers, but it’s generally less crowded and offers of different perspective of each the falls. Numerous spurs off the main trail lead to the shore of the river, so children should be watched carefully.

McKenzie River
The McKenzie River has an aqua color unless turned green by underwater moss.

The great thing about the McKenzie River Trail is that it gives you options. Hike or bike. A drive-by, an easy loop hike long enough to require a shuttle. Make it a pit stop or an entire weekend. A 2.5-mile loop from Sahalie Falls to Carmen Reservoir and back delivers the most postcards for minimal effort. There’s plenty to see no matter how much time you have, with several campgrounds along the trail for those who want to linger.

You can picnic along the river and watch dip their heads into the current for food, or head upstream about a half-mile to Clear Lake, the river’s origin. (Connect either via the trail or by driving.) A few miles south of the reservoir is Tamolitch Pool, also known as Blue Pool for its topaz hue. It sits below a dry fall that the McKenzie used to drop over. The river now flows underground, some through a lava bed and some diverted to a power plant, and reappears at this pool. Crazy people jump in, which, as you might expect, is dangerous.

For most, the powerful cascades and colorful river will be thrilling enough.

Columnar basalt
Columnar basalt at the base of Koosah Falls.
McKenzie River
Huge trees grow on the banks of the McKenzie River.
McKenzie River
There’s plenty of green both in the McKenzie River and along its banks.


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Piazza San Marco
A man takes in the morning at Piazza San Marco.
Venice T-shirt
Never been to Venice? Someone put a map on a T-shirt.

Here’s one I’m sure you’ve never heard before: Word has it that Venice is a-maze-ing. I can attest to the “maze” aspect of the city. We ran into a few dead ends trying to find our hotel from the Rialto Bridge, which wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the heat, humidity and luggage. Fortunately, a woman at a gelateria pointed us to the right street, which led to a sign, then a cramped corridor, through a plaza, around a corner and then, finally, our hotel. But this is how you navigate through Venice: Follow the signs, some handmade, that point you toward the nearest landmarks. Stray at your own risk.

I have less perspective on the “amazing” aspect of Venice. It’s definitely unique. But we were so tired from the rest of our trip (and the thick air) that we took it easy here. Only one church, no museums. Just getting lost along the streets and sampling plenty of gelato (we averaged more than one gelato stop per day over the two weeks). Our room in Venice was by far the smallest of our trip, but we ended up spending the most time at that one, taking in an Italian cooking show and plenty of dubbed American programs.

When we did go out, we did so in bursts. We didn’t have the energy for any more day-long outings. One evening at dusk, we went for a walk, hoping it would be quieter and cooler, but they city was even more alive than during the day, and the heat had stuck around. The train of gondolas streaming through the canals, so close it was as if they were tied together, did not give off a romantic vibe. Every outdoor seat along the water was claimed. Heck, waiters weren’t even trying to persuade us to take a seat and look at the menu.

Pizza cubes
The best way to eat pizza?

Venice did appear to have more restaurants that were open all day. It seems that 7 is the beginning of dinner time in Italy, and most restaurants don’t even reopen until 6. We generally eat earlier than that, so we often were the first or second customers for dinner. I was surprised by the lack of diversity of the menus (outside of the meat options in Bolzano). Granted, we frequented tourist-heavy areas, but most places seemed to serve the exact same selection of pastas and pizzas, and they were fairly straightforward. I learned that I do not like cutting my own pizza. Or paying for water.

For a peaceful Venice, morning is the prime time. Before 7:30, most workers and tourists have not arrived, so you can have Piazza San Marco almost to yourself instead of being offered a rose every 10 steps. Even the pigeons aren’t as prevalent. Mostly, you’ll have to dodge the folks delivering that day’s goods or sweeping the streets.

Venice is absolutely a city worth seeing. After all, who knows how much longer it’ll still be around. But if you’re not visiting any museums, there isn’t all that much to do. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s unique, and just walking through it is an adventure.

The water taxi to the airport capped off the trip’s variety of public modes of transportation, which included airplane, shuttle bus, city train, high-speed train, city bus, cable car, narrow-gauge train and vaporetto. We passed on the gondola, moped and horse-drawn carriage.

Venice, the grand canal and gondolas under the moon.
San Giorgio dei Greci campanile
We didn’t see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but we did see this leaning tower of Venice. (San Giorgio dei Greci campanile)
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