Peak Conditions

The Wallowas satisfy one’s deepest craving for unspoiled solitude.

By Megan McMorris May 19, 2009 Published in the October 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

IF YOU HIKE ALONE, as I often do, then you know the feeling. One minute you’re trekking along, reveling in the solitude. The next, you’re as still as a post and your heart’s racing, because you’ve just heard a loud rustle—like the one now coming from behind a Douglas fir a few feet in front of me on the East Fork Wallowa River Trail.

I’d heard a similar sound on a trail in the Wallowa Mountains in 2003, when I was researching my book Oregon Hiking. That noise turned out to be a juvenile black bear breaking through the brush, not far from where I was standing. (Thankfully, by banging some sticks together and shouting at the top of my lungs, I managed to scare the beast back into the pine woods.)

The memory explains why I’m now holding my breath, waiting for another ursine encounter … until I see a gray squirrel scamper out of the tree and cross the path, leaving me and my yellow Lab, Luey, alone once again.

Although I had my choice of 600 miles of trails that crisscross through the Eagle Cap Wilderness (which makes up the heart of the Wallowas), today I decided to make the steep climb to Aneroid Lake, a spectacular alpine pool that sits at 7,500 feet. Getting there requires navigating a seemingly endless series of switchbacks up a mountain, but after a couple of hours, Luey and I are forced to turn back. The snowpack, which hit 15 feet in some areas this year, is still too deep, even in early summer.

Nonetheless, from my stopping point, I can peer down on Wallowa Lake, a morainal (or glacier-formed) lake that looks like a five-mile-long oval sapphire shimmering beneath one of the Wallowas’ highest peaks, 9,616-foot-tall Chief Joseph Mountain.

As on most of the hikes I’ve made here, I’ve encountered only a couple of other people on the trail—a reason the 1,200-square-mile Wallowa Mountains are among my favorite destinations. Every time I start to make the six-hour drive from Portland, I wonder whether the trip will be worth it. But as soon as I head into this vast and empty wilderness, I know that it is.

Extending for roughly 40 miles between the rolling Blue Mountains to the southwest and the Snake River to the east, the Wallowas are home to 30 peaks that tower at 8,000 feet or higher. If you’re lucky enough to see them dusted in white (which they can be from mid-October until mid-June), you’ll understand why the range earned the nickname the “Alps of Oregon.”

Before colonists gave the Wallowas this moniker, however, the area was home to the Nez Perce Indians. In fact, the town of Joseph, a hamlet of some 1,100 souls located in the foothills of the Wallowas, is named for the Nez Perce chief who eluded the U.S. army for 1,700 miles while attempting to reach safety in Canada. (He finally surrendered in 1877 and was forcibly sent to an Oklahoma reservation.)

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On the second day of my trip, I stroll down Main Street in Joseph, which has such an Old West feel that you almost want to look both ways for tumbleweeds before crossing. On one corner, I spot two guys wearing cowboy hats standing with their arms draped over the back of a pickup truck, and then I pass a horse tied up in one of the store parking lots. But on the same block, a slew of boutiques and art shops, like Kelly’s Gallery on Main, are practically overflowing with tourists, some willing to spend a mint on the bronze art for which Joseph has become known.

The shop’s 44-year-old owner, Kelly Wick, says the Wallowas “have always drawn artists,” and that she’s noticing they have the same effect on tourists. “They say, ‘I want to live here when I retire,’” she says, before showing me a four-and-a-half-foot-wide bronze sculpture depicting a herd of galloping horses (price: $12,500).

“East Coast artists are even sending their pieces to us to cast,” says Malcolm Phinney, the gallery director of Valley Bronze of Oregon, a foundry on W Alder Street in Joseph. No wonder: So well regarded is Phinney’s foundry that it cast the bronze frame surrounding the Declaration of Independence in Washington, D.C.

But Joseph’s art scene would never have come to be if the town were located in a less spectacular setting. It’s this landscape that inspired local hiking guru Fred Barstad to write Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. I met him in Joseph one day, where he told me about some noted Wallowa denizens: the bighorn sheep, the mountain goats. But he also bragged about the “scruffy little white-bark pines” that grow at 9,700 feet on Aneroid Peak—which doesn’t sound remarkable until you learn that those are the state’s highest-elevation trees.

Talking with Barstad reminds me of a chat I had at the Terminal Gravity brewpub in the nearby town of Enterprise. Just after I’d ordered a pint of IPA, a sixtysomething man sat down next to me and asked what I was reading. I revealed the title: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

“Well, I think they should,” he said, laughing. “They always make places sound so interesting, and then you get there and you’re like ‘That’s it?’” I decided to blow my cover. “Actually, I’m a travel writer and I’m here to write about the Wallowas!”

In that case, he said, you’ll need to know about the thriving art scene. And have I hiked the amazing trails yet? Do I need a map? Because, you know, the bartender used to be a guide.

I thanked him, but I didn’t need any more convincing. I was more than ready to indulge in that bad travel-writer habit of making a place sound too good to be true.

Which will be especially easy in this case, since I won’t have to stretch the truth even a little bit.

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