Long Weekend: Joseph, Wallowa Lake State Park, Hells Canyon, and the Oregon Trail

I am trying to get back in the saddle. I needed to give myself a break over the summer as this summer has been a hard one for me. I have had loss, I have added a job working from home. I have had to deal with way more summer and heat than ever before (darn you climate change!!!). All of our water was low. And the fires. I had to make decisions about what I could handle this summer and what I wasn’t up for.

This summer I stayed closer to home. We camped less.

And while I love being out on the road, less was ok this year. It is what I needed. My heart needed it. My head needed it. We got out and I will be talking about a couple of amazing places we stayed and things we saw and places we hiked. For us, this year, it was wonderful and enough. Sometimes that is just what we need. Enough. Lesson learned universe!

IMG_7372IMG_7377One of our first trips this year was a long weekend in Joseph, Oregon. Joseph is an amazing little town in the very tip-top of the north-eastern part of our amazing state. It is about a 5.5 hour drive from Portland and it is a destination. It isn’t really on the way to anything, so going there is completely intentional and that is part of the charm. I love it here for so many reasons. The town itself is wonderful and welcoming and the people are salt of the earth and hard workers. They are friendly and make you feel like you belong. They have lovely little restaurants and shops owned by locals. There are art galleries with amazing work. There is no fast-food joints or mini-marts. They are surrounded by mountains and sit on the edge of a lake and it is just such an amazing place to kick back and enjoy the beauty. I did a trip over there years ago with my dad and fell hopelessly in love. I have been making plans to get back there since and this was the year!

IMG_7369Joseph is a historic town and you really feel that as you travel down their main street. Wonderful 2-story buildings from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s line the road, with a few newer buildings mixed in. Things are wide open. The town is named for the great Nez Perce Chief, Joseph. You can learn all about him and the Nez Perce people in several locations throughout Joseph, but the interpretative center is said to be amazing. We didn’t get a chance to check it out on this trip, but we did visit a photo exhibit set up in town that was incredible and gave us a glimpse at their daily lives and their hardships. Their native cemetery is on the out-skirts of town, next to Wallowa Lake, where people come from all over to pay respects to Chief Joseph at his grave site and his people.

IMG_7382While we were there, the town was hosting a celebration of their emergency services and we were invited on the street to come over, have breakfast and check out the ambulances, fire trucks, snow mobiles and the rest. It was awesome! We got to ask lots of questions, the lad got to push buttons and turn on lights and sirens and sit in the firefighters seats.  We had our blood pressure checked and they gave him a ride on the gurney, which involved a hydrolic lift to get him into the ambulance and was pretty fun for him to experience. It was such a wonderful thing for the kids to be involved in and the adults enjoyed it too. We even saw a man come up to the paramedics and thank them for saving him a few weeks before. To be in such a close knit community and experience that shared web of life was really humbling.


This area is so much more than just the town (although the town is pretty great). There are amazing outdoor activities and adventures that are available for visitors. We were only here for a few days and spent much of our time at the campground and at the lake, but hiking, mountain climbing and biking are very popular.

IMG_7394I mentioned the campground and we stayed at Wallowa Lake State Park. It is one of our newest State Parks and is a lovely campground nestled at the base of two mountains (Mt. Howard and Mt. Joseph), in a little valley, with the sparking blue Wallowa Lake to the north. This very scenic
setting has amazing acoustics which can lead to a lot of noise during the busy summer season. That said, I would not avoid camping here, but if you are sensitive to noise or prefer a quieter setting either bring ear plugs or camp during spring or fall when things are less busy. Spots in the D loop, where we landed were tighter than in other loops. This campground fills up early for the summer so make sure you get reservations. I was late, and I would have picked a different spot but I got the very last site available for my dates (I will make sure to book early next time!). Our loop had nice restrooms, but the showers got very busy and we wIMG_7386aited in line for 45 minutes one night to get a shower. That was the first time we have experienced that in one of our state parks. There is a small marina for boaters and fisherman. There is a nice playground where the kids hung out and you are close to town (just about 2 miles away) so if you wanted to head in for dinner, it is super easy! Just outside of the State Park there are other campgrounds and businesses selling food and lots and lots of mini-golf. Wildlife is present at all hours, so make sure you are practicing keeping a “clean campsite” and following the rules. Some neighbors left all of their food and drinks out and the deer, birds and squirrels had quite a party. The people were not at all happy.

IMG_7387We brought our little kayak and the paddle-board and decided to head out to the water. We were told by locals the water was a little bit warmer on the north end of the lake (it is all snow melt), so we headed up there for some water fun. The pebble beach reminded us of beaches in the Mediterranean and there is a great roped off swimming area. There were lots of families enjoying themselves there. It was really lovely and the water is amazingly clear! You could see all the way to the bottom even as it got deeper and deeper. We saw fish swimming by and had a dip in the water. It was wonderful!

IMG_7396After our time in and around Joseph, we opted to head out towards the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. I had never been there and have always wanted to see it. Hells Canyon runs along the borders of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho, and is the deepest river gorge in North America – it is even deeper than the Grand Canyon! The vastness and beauty of the area may or may not have stirred a little something in me, bringing a tear to my eye. It is a pretty special place and continues to show how very different the regions of my beloved state are. This is an area a lot of people come to for various outdoor activities, from hiking to white water rafting. There are various outfits that can help you plan that sort of trip. We chose the driving variety and as we were on our way home. From here we trucked on down the road towards Baker City after taking in some amazing panoramas.


Baker City is home to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. I come from a family of Pioneers who came across the Plains into Oregon between 1848 and 1853, and passed through this very area. This part of our family history is somethingIMG_7404 I wanted to share with the Lad, so he understands how our family got here. This is a great place to help teach that. He watched videos about having to leave family behind, usually never seeing them again, and how the decision was made to head west. He learned how difficult it was to pack a covered wagon and what they needed to bring with them. He also learned how homesteading happened and what kind of work pioneers could find once they were out here. There is also an exhibit where he learned about Oregon’s first people and what the Pioneers diIMG_7405d to them as more and more people came. That is a hard, but important lesson and he needs to know this part of the history too. I feel like the museum does a good job of showing how hard the life was as they walked for 4-6 months, across varying conditions with all of their worldly possessions, fighting for a better life. Temperatures were very hot when we visited in late July. The day we were there it was 105 degrees and that is around the same time the pioneer families would have been passing  through. We stayed in the center a bit longer, enjoying some A/C and working on the Junior Ranger program before venturing outside to have a look IMG_7407at the wagon ruts that are still visible. It is amazing to stand there, where my ancestors trekked, imagining what they must have gone through. That is impossible though for me with everything we are used to in our current world. It was around this point that the travelers would have to make a decision: risk the mountain or risk the river. My family chose the mountain which lead them to the southern Willamette Valley where they homesteaded in Linn County. According to all accounts, people that came out on the Oregon Trail were forever changed. People who were here and experienced the pioneers coming in were forever changed too.

This was an amazing place to visit and will be great for anyone who is interested in Oregon history, like I am. We would recommend it. The heat started to get to us, so we loaded up the horses and hitched the wagon, and followed our own trail back to the Willamette Valley, thinking of those who came before us the whole way home.


A week later we set off for Southern Oregon and the Oregon Caves

3 thoughts on “Long Weekend: Joseph, Wallowa Lake State Park, Hells Canyon, and the Oregon Trail

Add yours

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have wanted to make that trip for a couple of years, and will keep it in the to visit list.

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