How to make the most out of 3 nights in Joseph, Oregon’s scenic mountain getaway

Wallowa Lake

The sun begins to set over the Wallowa Mountains and Wallowa Lake, seen from a county park on the north end of the lake near Joseph.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


It’s hard to spend any fewer than three nights in Joseph. That’s due in part to its location (the northeast Oregon tourist town is more than five hours from Portland) and in part to the sheer number of things to do once you’re there.

Nestled into the base of the Wallowa Mountains, sometimes known as the “Swiss Alps of Oregon,” the town has earned a reputation as a haven for hikers, backpackers, kayakers, boaters, horseback riders, rail riders, photographers and adventurers of all stripes.

And while the Wallowas may be the main attraction, there are several other landscapes to explore, including beautiful Wallowa Lake, the phenomenal Hells Canyon and the wildflower-strewn Zumwalt Prairie. It’s a lot to try to see on one trip.

For travelers with only a long weekend to work with, or those just looking for a taste of northeast Oregon, three nights might be just long enough to make your trip feel worthwhile – though, admittedly, not nearly long enough to see it all.

At the start of this summer, The Oregonian/OregonLive videographer and Peak Northwest co-host Vickie Connor and I took a three-night trip to Joseph to see how much we could pack in. The idea was to cover as much ground as possible without driving ourselves into the ground. Balance between doing and enjoying on the road is essential. Go too hard and you’ll burn yourself out; relax too much and you might be missing out on all a place has to offer. Regardless, you’ll probably want to come back for more.

Here’s our three-night, four-day experience in northeast Oregon’s beautiful mountain getaway.

Jennings Hotel

A room with mountain views at The Jennings Hotel in downtown Joseph. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Wallowa Lake

The sun begins to set over the Wallowa Mountains and Wallowa Lake, seen from a county park on the north end of the lake near Joseph.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


With such a long drive ahead, we set aside most of day one for the long drive from Portland to Joseph. We left around 10 a.m., stopped for lunch in Pendleton and arrived in downtown Joseph about 4:30 p.m. The summer sun was still shining brightly, but most shops in town were already closing for the day.

We checked into the Jennings Hotel, a boutique hotel in the heart of Joseph that offers small, affordable rooms and perks like a sauna, beautiful deck and communal kitchen. The hotel’s rates change based on type of accommodation, time of year and day of the week – each of our rooms cost about $250 per night.

As the sun edged closer to the horizon we got back in the car and drove three minutes south to Wallowa Lake County Park (not to be confused with the state park by the same name) on the north end of Wallowa Lake. There, we snapped some incredible photos in the evening light and watched boaters come and go from the boat launch.

Food options are few in Joseph, but we found one reliable spot in La Laguna, a Mexican restaurant on the north end of town. The menu offered few surprises, though the hot sauce being hawked by the affable server was a revelation. Bellies full, we retired early to rest up for a busy day two.

Downtown Joseph

Breakfast The Blythe Cricket, a popular restaurant and morning hangout in Joseph. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Wallowa Lake Tramway

The Wallowa Lake Tramway takes visitors up to the summit of Mount Howard in the Wallowa Mountains, where there are hiking trails, viewpoints and a full restaurant. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

A baseball uniform is on display at the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, a small museum in Joseph that tells the story of a Black logging community in the Wallowa Mountains. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site

Wildflowers sway in the breeze at Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site beneath the Wallowa Mountains in Joseph. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


If good dining is hard to come by in Joseph, breakfast is even more difficult. With one old-school breakfast joint closed for good and a second hampered by short staffing, that left The Blythe Cricket as one of our only options. Thankfully, it also proved to be one of the best restaurants in town. Between corn cakes, breakfast sandwiches, baked oatmeal, waffles, pastries and hashbrowns, the menu offered plenty to love. Cups of Portland-based Nossa Familia Coffee were a welcome surprise.

For our first full day in Joseph, we decided to stay around town. Just down the street from breakfast, we popped into Valley Bronze, a local bronze foundry that offers tours and has a low-key gift shop filled with small, decorative bronze objects. Farther into town we stumbled upon The Dog Spot, a small storefront jam-packed with accessories for dogs and dog owners, with a small restaurant that serves simple lunch and dinner. One block away we visited the Maxville Heritage Center, an appointment-only museum that tells the history of a local black logging community. We sat down with museum founder Gwendolyn Trice who told us the museum is both a deeply personal search for her own family’s roots in Maxville as well as an attempt to shine light on an aspect of Oregon history that has long been neglected.

Not quite ready for another meal, we tempted our tastebuds at Arrowhead Chocolates instead. The local chocolatier specializes in small, handmade truffles that come in flavors like huckleberry, hot chili, peanut butter, tiramisu and whisky.

As the afternoon rolled around, we got back into the car and drove to the south end of Wallowa Lake, home of a state park campground, resorts and family-oriented activities. We were there for the Wallowa Lake Tramway, one of the best attractions in Joseph. At $40 per person it’s one of the most expensive tickets in town, but those who can afford the price should pony up – the views from the top of Mount Howard are phenomenal. We grabbed lunch at the Summit Grill to soak in the views a little longer.

On the way back to town, the afternoon sun still high, we stopped at a pair of neighboring sites: Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site, which is a small hiking area with wildflowers and mountain views, and the Old Chief Joseph Gravesite, home of a memorial to the former leader of the Nimiipuu people who are today part of the Nez Perce Tribe.

After a quick rest back at the hotel, we got back in the car to squeeze one more activity into our day: a rare performance of In a Landscape, a touring outdoor concert series by Oregon pianist Hunter Noack, which had arrived at Wallowa Lake State Park on the south end of Wallowa Lake. The performance offered a beautiful soundtrack to the lakeside sunset, and was a perfect way to end the day.

Wallowa Lake Tramway

Incredible views of the Wallowa Mountains from Mount Howard, accessed by the Wallowa Lake Tramway in Joseph. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Old Chief Joseph Gravesite

Items are left at Old Chief Joseph’s Gravesite, a cemetery and historical site near the north shore of Wallowa Lake in Joseph. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Eagle Cap Wilderness

A bridge crosses the West Fork Wallowa River on the Ice Lake Trail, found in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


Itching to get into the mountains, we dedicated our second full day to the Eagle Cap Wilderness, home of a massive network of long-distance trails maintained for hikers, backpackers and horseback riders. Trails lead to marble mountain peaks and alpine lakes, where you can roll out a tent and sleep under the stars, though day hikers can find just as much to enjoy on the long summer days, limited only by how far your legs will take you.

Our hike began at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead, found at the end of Power House Road on the south side of Wallowa Lake. After filling out a free wilderness permit, we strapped on our daypacks and hit the West Fork Wallowa River Trail, which runs through a dense forest on its way up into the mountains. Views in the Eagle Cap are as frequent as they are magnificent, and we got an eyeful.

After three miles we branched off briefly onto the Ice Lake Trail, where we stopped at a beautiful river crossing on a single-rail log bridge. Standing over the river on the bridge gave an incredible look into the mountain wilderness that truly felt immersive. We sat on the rugged riverbanks in the shade and bathed in the natural beauty all around.

After a casual hike back, and an extended break back at the hotel, we were ready to try one of Joseph’s newest and best restaurants, The Gold Room, which is conveniently located downstairs from the Jennings Hotel. The restaurant serves up a diverse menu of mouth-watering pizza, alongside delicious cocktails and creative veggie appetizers. After sampling a little bit of everything, we were stuffed and satiated, ready for a good night of sleep.

Eagle Cap Wilderness

A morel mushroom found alongside the West Fork Wallowa River Trail in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Eagle Cap Wilderness

The West Fork Wallowa River runs through the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowa Mountains south of Joseph in northeast Oregon. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

The Gold Room

A summer night at The Gold Room, a pizza restaurant in downtown Joseph opened by two Portland cooks in 2019. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

The Gold Room

A morel mushroom pizza at The Gold Room, a pizza restaurant in downtown Joseph opened by two Portland cooks in 2019. Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


With a long drive back to Portland ahead, we dedicated much of our fourth and final day to the road, but there were a couple stops to make before leaving town. We had to have one more breakfast at The Blythe Cricket (complete with pastries for the road) and had to make another stop at Arrowhead Chocolates – there are few gifts more welcome than chocolate truffles.

With coffee in hand and the mountains behind us, we sped west down the highway. Reflecting back on our three nights in Joseph, we felt both exhausted and unfulfilled. Even as we reminisced about everything we had done, it was impossible not to think of the sights we didn’t see, the things we didn’t do. Things like the pedal-powered adventures of the Joseph Branch Railriders, glass-bottom kayak trips on Wallowa Lake, a drive to the viewpoints of Hells Canyon, a wildflower tour at the Zumwalt Prairie and the many other trails through the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Shaking free the temptation of regret, we agreed that these other sights were simply good excuses to come back to town the next time. Because as we drove back into Portland, one thing was clear: there would absolutely be a next time.

--Jamie Hale;; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB