The eastern Oregon town of Joseph has become an important arts destination. While the stunning bronzes that line their main street draw visitors, the Wallowa mountain vistas of “America’s Little Switzerland,” add a majestic backdrop.
Joseph, named 137 years ago for Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce people, was a quiet, agricultural town for years. Outdoor recreation was the draw for visitors with hiking and skiing on the mountains and Wallowa Lake summer activities. These were the reasons people have come to the area for years. But today’s Joseph is very different. Wandering Joseph, Oregon is ideal for exploring arts, taking in beautiful mountain vistas, and finding some tasty bites.
Exploring the Joseph, Oregon Arts Scene
The art scene in Joseph took hold when the bronze foundry business started in 1982. According to the Joseph website, Glen Anderson, a retired businessman, got a great deal on an empty building. Upon the purchase, he wondered what he could do with it. A few area sculptors suggested that a local bronze foundry would a viable business—and convenient for them. Swayed by the possibilities, the warehouse-turned-foundry began the first of what would become a world-class mecca for artistic bronze casting.
In 1996, the town decided to enhance the focus on art and beautify their main street. Now the Art Walk takes you by galleries, restaurants, and seven monumental bronze sculptures donated by local artists.
Wandering Main Street in Joseph, Oregon
You might want to start your day in Joseph with breakfast at Old Town Café where they’ve been serving up hearty and home-style breakfasts and lunches to travelers and locals alike for more than 30 years.
I enjoyed the thick and fluffy French toast on house-made bread. Seasonally, they have a great little side garden where you can enjoy your coffee and meal.
Stop in and explore the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture. They offer classes and support the arts community in Joseph. There is an excellent gift shop filled with the work of local artisans.
Alvin Josephy Jr.’s library is on the second floor. Josephy was an American historian who specialized in Native American topics. Josephy had a stellar career with positions ranging from WWII correspondent in the Pacific to editor at Time Magazine and American Heritage Magazine. In his later career, he focused on the American Indian and wrote a dozen books and hundreds of articles about Indian and Western history.
Of course, you’ll want to stop and look at the monumental bronzes.
The bronzes feature depictions of the West… local Native Americans, Cowboys, and Nature.
This town is a must-do for collectors of western art.
Be sure to locate the bronze sculpture of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, for whom the town was originally named.
There are fun shops and bistros along Main Street. Arrowhead Chocolates features hand made chocolates, hot chocolate drinks, and coffee. Their signature drink is fabulous mocha made with Stumptown espresso shots and warm chocolate straight from the melter. However, the dark chocolate truffles won my heart.
Explore Wallowa Lake and Mountains near Joseph, Oregon
You’ll want to check out nearby Wallowa Lake and the majestic mountains. A short, scenic drive will take you to the lake, the largest of several glacial cirque lakes in the area.
If you want to scale a mountain but aren’t quite ready for a climb, the Wallowa Lake Tramway will take you up 3,700 feet to the summit of Mt. Howard, at 8,150 feet. After the quick ride to the top, check out the 2-mile hiking loop atop Mt. Howard, where you can see the high desert country roll out in front of you in one direction, and then turn around and see past Hells Canyon into the next state.
The tramway is open for skiing and then reopens for the summer months in mid-May. I went when it opened in May and was stunned by the snowy mountain views at the top, but the trails were still covered with snow. It may be 80 degrees in Joseph, but on the top of the mountain, you'll need a jacket.
If you want to spend more time at the lake, consider relaxing at a historic Lake Lodge. The restored Wallowa Lake Lodge was built in the 1920s and I imagine the atmosphere is much the same today as it was then. Stay in one of the lodge’s 22 rooms, some with balconies and all with private bath, or in one of eight rustic cabins, many with lake and wetland views.
The décor is vintage and the set-up is typical of resort lodges of yesteryear. There is a large social room with rustic wooden furniture surrounding a stone fireplace. The Camas Dining Room serves breakfast and dinner seasonally. When I was there, WiFi was limited to the lobby but, then, we were there for the vintage experience.
My favorite part of staying at the lodge was the expansive grassy area with Adirondack chairs looking out over the lake. Each evening, deer would come to graze as the sun set.
The lodge shares its lakefront setting with Wallowa Lake State Park, which offers trails, ranger talks, fishing, and boating. You can rent stand-up paddleboards, rowboats, kayaks, motorboats, and pontoon boats at the Wallowa Lake Marina.
When You Go to Joseph, Oregon
The trip to Joseph, Oregon is about 5.5 hours east of Portland. Driving through eastern Oregon will provide you with natural beauty to explore, rural charm, and Oregon Trail history. We have more great suggestions on Wander for what to see and do while you're in Oregon.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.