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Where in the world are the Wallowas?


Because of geographical barriers, there are certain regions that I just don't get to visit that often. They are close as the crow flies, but not that close when you put rubber to pavement. The Wallowa Mountain Range is one of those regions.

About 140 miles from Boise, it takes about four hours to get to the heart of the Wallowas in Joseph, Oregon, north of La Grande. These snow-capped mountains are just across the Snake River in northeast Oregon. Close enough to see if you're traveling north through Weiser to New Meadows or hiking in the Seven Devils. But Hells Canyon forms a natural moat, discouraging many Idaho visitors from seeing the area on a regular basis.

Last weekend, I floated the Grande Ronde, one of the region's recreational centerpieces. The Grande Ronde is a three-day float. The river is class-mellow, perfect for people who are just getting into multi-day rafting or river running. The put-in is just north of Enterprise, Oregon, and the take-out is near a sleepy little town called Troy. One of the nice things about the Grande Ronde is the fishing. While it really hadn't picked up yet when I was there, it gets going in late June as the water comes down and continues through fall with the steelhead run. A lot of anglers use fish cats, or mini-catamarans, to float the river.

Aside from river running, one should take advantage of the incredible hiking and backpacking the Wallowas offer. In the fall of 1995 I did a three-day hiking trip to the Aneroid Basin via the Wallowa Lake trailhead. The Aneroid Basin was part of a mining operation in the late 1800s and the cabins used for the operation are still standing. Today backcountry skiing enthusiasts and summer hikers who want to rough it in luxury take advantage of the archaic structures. It's about a six-mile hike to the cabins and a newer, circular shaped hut with huge windows is the first manmade building that one sees when the buildings come into view. The caretaker for the establishments lives in this newer structure.

When I was there nearly 10 years ago, there was a tall, white-bearded man living in the caretaker's cabin. He had lived there for quite some time, spending the long winters tucked away in his cozy piece of heaven. His view was hard to beat as his window framed the Wallowas.

On my last morning in the Aneroid Basin, the friendly old hermit cooked me a big mountain breakfast of bacon, eggs and potatoes. Sitting there at breakfast he told me that, despite what the Forest Service and the Fish and Game thought, there were wolves living in the Aneroid Basin. This was before the reintroduction program really got started. He said that one of the animals visited him about once a week during the summer, standing in the meadow in front of the cabins, staring at him and his dog.

If you're not into six miles of hiking, there are other ways to see the Wallowas. In 1970, the Wallowa Lake Tramway was built outside of Joseph as part of a ski resort that never happened. The 3,700-foot tram leaves civilization on the south end of Wallowa Lake and runs up 8,241-foot Mount Howard. For around $20, visitors can see the mountains up close. Cyclists can have their mountain bikes carried to the top and enjoy the trail systems that the tram accesses. In the winter, backcountry skiers use the tram to get to some of the more remote skiing in the area. Skiing magazine compared the Wallowa Lake Tramway to La Grave, France, because it accesses some hefty terrain that isn't controlled by a ski patrol.

One of the best times to visit the area, especially with the family, is the weekend of August 14, during Joseph's Bronze, Brews and Blues Festival. Joseph is an artistic village with three bronze sculpting studios. During the festival, local artists put their sculptures on display and the Northwest's finest micro brews will be on tap. Not to mention some excellent blues music that includes Kenny Neal and Otis Taylor among others. A good excuse to access a region that isn't always that accessible.

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