September 14 The Wallowa Lake Tramway

Currently in Rocky Point, it is all the way up to 48 degrees F  and there is snow at Crater Lake

most perfect examples of lateral moraines anywhereBuilt in 1968, the Wallowa Lake Tramway is the steepest 4 person gondola tramway in North America. Beginning at the south end of Wallowa Lake, at 4,200 feet elevation, it rises 3,700 vertical feet to the top of Howard Mountain at 8,260 feet.  

From the top, the views are among the most magnificent in the state of Oregon.  There is a small restaurant at the summit and a few nice trails that meander around the peak for about 2.5 miles.  Most access into the breathtaking Eagle Cap Wilderness require a lot of miles of hiking and some very steep ascents to reach the high glaciated lakes.  Not so if you take the tram and access the wilderness from the top of Mt Howard.

We didn’t see any backpackers on this day, but a friend of mine used to talk about how long it took to get UP in the Eagle Cap and how great the tram was to allow high mountain hiking from the very beginning of a backpack trip.  Looked great to me, I’ll tell you! 

Wallowa Lake Tram-005 Of course, we didn’t come to backpack, just to see the views and enjoy the walk and maybe even enjoy a beer and a wild mountain berry cobbler in the restaurant.  The regular fee is $27. but for seniors it is a mere $24.  Yeah.   A bit steep, but worth every penny. It actually costs a bit more than the huge Palm Springs Aerial Tramway that we visited when we were in Desert Hot Springs a  couple of years ago.  I think that tram was a lot more vertical, but the cages were a lot bigger than these tiny little 4 person gondolas.  A different experience entirely.

It was in the low 60’s F, about 12 degrees F colder than the valley below, when we arrived at the summit, just enough that we were still ok in shorts and shirts with no jacket.  Still, it is something to be aware of if you want to spend any time at the top and have been warm and toasty down in the campground before your ascent.

Wallowa Lake Tram-024 The views really are breathtaking, and the trails to each overlook are easy enough that little kids can do it, maybe on the back of a parent some of the time, but there were plenty of families walking the trails.  I would have loved to have been prepared, and had the time and the permit to just wander off on the trail that led south into the wilderness.  Even for a day if not an overnight.  It looked so incredibly inviting.

At the north side, the Valley Overlook has views of Wallowa Lake, Joseph, and Enterprise in the valley below, and the Zumwalt Prairie to the northeast and toward Washington to the northwest.  In the somewhat smoky and cloudy skies, I could even make out the dim outline of Moscow Mountain near Moscow, Idaho.  I used to sit on that mountain and look toward the Wallowas.  I could also see where the Lewiston Hill begins it’s winding descent toward Lewiston, another place where I would look south to the magical outline of the Wallowas and the Blue Mountains.  It was nice to be here again looking north.  The last time I was in the Wallowas was in 1979, in another life completely.

Wallowa Lake Tram-021 Also at the north view was a jump-off spot for hang gliding launches.  I used to think I wanted to do that, but lately that particular item has drifted to the very bottom of my bucket list.  After looking at that drop, I sort of dumped it out of the bucket altogether.  There were lots of people taking photos, and of course, you know how it goes.  Someone walks up to a couple and says, “Do you want me to take your photo together?”  The same person taking this photo of this happy couple said it to us, but we declined.  Just how many photos of the two of us with a gorgeous view in the background can we keep anyway.  I think these shots are kind of like the shots I get of the front of my kayak on the water that my daughter always laughs at.  Water, Sky, Mountains, and oh…the pink triangle of the front of my boat.

everyone wants a photo from this spot Just a  little aside here: you know how some people have lives that are linked together through the years?  Mine doesn’t seem to do that very well, and it seems I have lived a lot of different, unrelated lives in this one.  With no real extended family, the only links that connect all these different phases of my life are with my friend Maryruth and my children, which I had when I was almost a child myself.  Maryruth and I will celebrate 50 years of friendship next month.  Maryruth and her husband Gerald, and Mo and I are all going to spend a few days together at Harris Beach.  UhOh, more Harris Beach photos will be coming up I am sure!Wallowa Lake Tram-025

While the tram ride is just a short 15 minutes, it is easy to spend a few hours wandering around, drinking in the views, and sipping a beer to celebrate once you are up there.  I am not sure I would have to do it every time I decided to visit Joseph and Wallowa Lake, but I would definitely not want to miss doing it at least once.

More photos from our day at the top of the mountain are linked here.

heading for the Valley Overlook

September 10 to 12 Baker City to Wallowa Lake State Park

Currently in Rocky Point, Oregon, partly cloudy at 55 degrees F, predicted high of 64F

Don’t forget to click on the photos if you want a bigger version

Baker to Wallowa Lake Sometimes when we are traveling, our tendency is to go fairly long distances between locations.  This time, however, we took our own sweet time getting from place to place, and then settled in to really enjoy the countryside.  After the morning in Baker City, we thought it might be fun to wander off on some back roads instead of sticking to the Interstate.  We could see the curvy road ambling northeast rising on the southern foothills of the Wallowa Mountains.

How bad could it be anyway?!  Sure, the road was narrow, there were curves, but no real spooky drop-offs like the ones back in John Day Country, and we were rewarded with beautiful vistas of the Wallowas and the Eagle Cap Wilderness shining in the late summer sunlight. 

long route through Union and Cove It is amazing to me how many tiny little towns are scattered across this part of Oregon.  Of course I knew of Baker City, La Grande, Pendleton, Joseph, and Enterprise.  I do actually live in this state.  But I had never heard of Cove, or Union, or Medical Springs, and as we continued our travels for the rest of the trip, many little towns appeared that were just blips on the map, and a blink of the eye. 

long route through Union and Cove People lived in these little towns, there were city halls, and fire departments, police stations, antique stores advertising “used antiques”.  Hmmm.  There were old barns, and beautiful ranches, and miles and miles of open space.  It was lovely to wander through the countryside and imagine what it must be like to be born and raised in places like these, or to live there now.  Did these people grow up here or did they somehow choose to come to a tiny town in the far reaches of Northeastern Oregon.  Lots of fodder for the imagination as I rode along, for sure.

As you can see from the map, there is really no way to get to Joseph without skirting the amazing Wallowa Mountains.  Home to the Eagle Cap Wilderness, these mountains are sometimes called the “Little Alps of Oregon” with good reason.  Formed dominantly from granite from the Wallowa Batholith, the peaks are glaciated and dotted more than 50 apline glacial lakes.  They reminded me a bit of the Sierras, only a bit more open like the Big Horns.  The Wallowas are one of the premier backpacking destinations in Oregon, not nearly so well known as the Cascades with their volcanoes, but much more enticing to me.

Lostine Creek Scenic Byway The meandering route gave us just a taste of what was to come in the far corner of our home state.  Somehow I was reminded a lot more of the Idaho I lived in for more than 30 years than the Oregon that is now my home.  Everything felt so familiar, the forests even smelled different, familiar somehow.  I recognized the plants, the geology, all of it was like coming home somehow. 

Just like a lot of other folks, I thought, “I could easily live in this place”.  The winters are long, the population of Wallowa County is a mere 7,500 or so, and shopping is far away in La Grande or Pendleton.  But the towns are lovely, well cared for, the vistas are magnificent, the land open and spacious.  Beautiful. 

Wallowa Lake State Park When we arrived at the Wallowa lake State Park in early afternoon, we were a day early for our reservation, but in spite of the crowded park, there was a site open for us until our space was ready the next day.  We originally planned to stay longer in Baker City, but continuing to the lake and taking our chances for a spot was a good plan.  When we first planned this trip, I didn’t think we would need reservations, but checking the State Park website was a good hunch, since we just barely snagged a spot for the four nights we wanted to stay.

Wallowa Lake is home to one of the best examples of glacial topography in the West, and images of the huge lateral moraines are used often in textbooks on geology and geomorphology.  The lake is deep and blue and incredibly clear.  Often the mountains still have a bit of snow in late summer, but none was left this year, a low snow year for the entire area.  The lake was really quite low as well, surprising since it is a natural lake and not a reservoir, but I guess drought is drought, and lake levels will go down.

Lostine Creek Scenic Byway After settling into our one night spot, we took the Tracker for a visit to the Forest Service Information Center on the edge of the little town of Joseph.  The woman at the desk was incredibly helpful, and there were a ton of brochures about the area.  She suggested we try the Lostine Creek Scenic Route, maybe hike up Hurricane Creek, or go check out the Zumwalt Prairie to look for wildlife.  All good ideas, but we settled on Lostine Creek, a deep glacially cut valley that climbed back into the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

We hoped for some close-up views of the mountains, but the creek is so deep in the canyon that it is hard to see much without actually doing some of the 12 mile hikes into the back country that boast elevation rises of 3 to 5 thousand feet.  Maybe not today.  Let’s go back to the campground and check out the local nature trail and let Abby swim in the lake. 

Wallowa Lake State Park It was good to be settled in and to know that we had at least one day of doing not much of anything.  Mo had surprised me with the idea of a special birthday treat, and in a couple of days we were going to drive the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway to Hells Canyon Dam and a big adventure on the Snake River in the wild and scenic part of Hells Canyon. 

After a great sleep, we took our time enjoying the campground, went to town to do some laundry and actually check in on the internet for a bit, and were back in camp in time to move to our more permanent site for the next few days.  This is a very popular park, even in late September, and on this Wednesday morning as we tucked into a rather short space, I was again really glad I had made reservations the previous month before everything was completely gone.

Wallowa Lake State Park As I picked up the new tag for the new site number, I overheard a very sad RV driver complaining to the park ranger in the kiosk, “I NEVER make reservations this time of year! What do you mean there is NOTHING?!” Blue lake, big mountains, cute town….a very popular place.

Finally in late afternoon we wet out on the lake in the kayaks to enjoy that gorgeous clear water.  The mountains are so high that the sun disappears fairly quickly on the tucked away part of the lake, but it was still beautiful.  There are lakeside homes all along the western shore, most of them very big and spendy looking, and only a few of them with folks hanging around on the decks and porches.  Even so, the lake was reasonably quiet, and the kayak time was nice. 

We never did see a lot of birds around.  I suppose the shoreline is too rocky, the lake is too low, and the water too clear for bird food in any quantity.  As lovely as the lake was, and even with that gorgeous clear water, I think I would rather meander around in an estuary somewhere that has a bit more complexity.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful kayak and it felt great to finally get our boats out on the water.  We originally planned to try doing some kayaking on the John Day River, but the drought wasn’t about to let that happen.  I hate it when we haul the boats for miles and miles and never get them on the water!  evening kayak on Wallowa Lake

Mo had packed up a good amount of wood for the trip, so we had another huge campfire after supper and enjoyed all the activity of a very busy campground with kids on bikes, lots of dogs (well behave and leashed) and giving Jeremy a chance to play around outside unhindered.  We even put up the chili pepper lights on the MoHo awning, something we haven’t done in a very long time. There are some more photos of the state park linked here

Northeastern Ore_068