A Wander in the Wallowa Mountains with Roamerica
Photography and words by Ryan Flood
Let the Road Trip Begin
There is a magic pocket of Oregon known to some, and loved by many. Tucked into the Northeast corner of the state, Wallowa County is home to some of the most ruggedly beautiful country Oregon has to offer. From the snow-covered granite peaks of the Wallowa Mountains to the numerous small rivers and trout streams flowing to the Snake river in the depths of Hell’s Canyon, it’s an area full of Mother Nature’s in-your-face glory and relatively few people.
After spending a fair amount of time in the area during college and the dirtbag-ish years that followed, I was long overdue to introduce my family to some of these stunning landscapes that will forever be a part of me. Despite the incredible winter recreation opportunities in the area, early Summer might just be the best time to visit the Wallowas. There is still plenty of snow on the high peaks, and the valleys are lush with the new grass that supports the region’s sprawling ranchlands. The rivers, while freezing, run swift & clear. In short, it’s simply an amazing time to be in such an amazing place.
It was also the perfect place to take Roamerica’s four-wheel drive, adventure-ready camper van. The off-road capability gave us the option to mix in our preference for more remote, off-grid camping with a few typical tourist activities and developed campsites. As far as family-travel goes, it was the best of both worlds (especially considering our lack of camping reservations and loose itinerary).
After the long drive over from the west side of the state, and a brief stop to stock-up at an honor-system firewood stand, we rolled into Wallowa County just as the golden light of evening hit the landscape. Our first night’s destination was the valley of the wild-and-scenic Lostine River which hosts a number of non-reservable developed campsites, one of which we hoped was available. We found a great site on a small loop of half a dozen sites next to the rushing water, and relaxed by the fire while the kids quickly got ready for bed, stoked on their first night in the van.
Time to Fuel Up
This put us in a perfect position to visit the county’s commercial center of the towns of Joseph & Enterprise to stock up on a few last minute supplies and visit one of my favorite breweries to celebrate Father’s Day in style. Terminal Gravity Brewing has been an institution in these parts for over two decades and sits on the outskirts of town in an old farmhouse with a newer warehouse and brewing facility next-door. It is both a local community gathering place, and a popular spot for tourists. Plus, their slogan “Middle of Nowhere, Center of the Universe” is a perfect description for Wallowa County itself. I’ve always loved their beer, but was absolutely thrilled to see their menu special for the day. If you think Bison Meatloaf sounds like the perfect Father’s Day meal, it is.
The afternoon of day two found us arriving at Wallowa Lake State park, right at check-in time, hoping to snag an available spot for the night. Luckily, there were a few available and we promptly headed to the lake for a swim after setting up camp. Wallowa Lake Campground is a highly developed site with somewhat of an amusement-park like atmosphere during the busy Summer season. However, being situated between most of the primary trailheads accessing the high-mountain scenery of the backcountry and the shore of one of Oregon’s largest alpine lakes makes it a worthy destination for a number of adventures. If you don’t have the time or desire to hike into the high-mountain divides of the Wallowas, you can still access their epic vistas via the historic Wallowa Lake Tramway. Since 1970, their gondola has been hauling visitors up to the 8,000 foot summit of Mt. Howard where it’s easy to feel like you might be looking at the Alps or Rocky Mountains instead of a tiny corner of Oregon. This was a first for our family, and we were not disappointed. Once on top, there are a few trails to help you feel like you’re working for the view. The tram-ride itself is worth the sweeping views back down toward Wallowa Lake and the valley below.
Having experienced our more tourist-centric activities for the trip, we headed toward Hell’s Canyon with a vague idea of our final destination for the day. Thirty miles east of Wallowa Lake, you’ll find Imnaha, an end-of-the-road outpost which locals affectionately refer to as “the living end”. The quirky Imnaha Tavern & Store is certainly worth a stop for a bite or a drink, but don’t make our mistake and assume you can top off you gas tank before leaving the pavement–be sure to do that in Joseph before you head out.
After conferring with the friendly folks at the bar, we had our final destination in mind. Twenty-four miles of white-knuckle washboard driving out of Imnaha takes you to Hat Point Lookout, perched on the western rim of Hell’s Canyon. The road to the lookout is as committing as they come, with steep dropoffs and a few turnouts which you will hope you won’t need to use. The payoffs are solitude and more epic views back toward the Wallowas and into the Imnaha River drainage, the ancestral winter home of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce. About halfway in, we opted to set up camp on the ridge looking down toward the Imnaha. Watching the sun sink behind the mountains, and the shadows grow long in the valley below, it was easy to understand why Chief Joseph and his people fought so hard and traveled so far to protect their right to live on this land.
Imnaha is also the starting point for the road to Dug Bar, which follows the Lower Imnaha all the way to the Snake River and the bottom of Hell’s Canyon. By some accounts, this is an even rougher road, albeit with less exposure. Without the time for this overland adventure, we put it on the list for our next visit and headed back toward the mountains.
Our route took us South along the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, a state scenic byway following the eastern edge of the mountains. Still driving along the Imnaha River, we headed toward its upper reaches and the Indian Crossing Campground. All along the way we found many dispersed camping options, and chose a spot on the riverbank that appeared to be in an old established campground which was no longer cared for or found on the map. The self-sufficiency of Romerica’s vans are perfect for that last-minute change of plans to take advantage of a little extra solitude, which worked perfectly for us. However, after exploring further down the road, we discovered plenty of available spots in actively-managed campgrounds if that’s more to your liking.
The next morning found us breaking camp after some very quick ice-cold river bathing, and we headed back to the last section of the Wallowa Loop Road to enjoy the views of Hells Canyon to the East. Looking out at the barren desert landscape down in the canyon, we enjoyed a picnic among the early-summer wildflowers high on the rim. From there, the road loops south of the range toward the community of Halfway, cruising through large swaths of ranchland before meeting up with the Interstate that would lead us home.
The Wallowa Mountain region and neighboring Hell’s Canyon is a perfect destination for those who prefer to wander and avoid the crowds while experiencing some of Oregon’s most breathtaking landscapes. Roamerica’s vans are our favorite way to go a little further and stay out a little longer, keeping it comfortable the whole way.Contact Us Today About Your Oregon Road Trip!