Switzerland in Oregon
My husband and I exchanged sleepy smiles over the steam rising from our coffee mugs as we watched the sun rise above Mount Howard just beyond the deep, blue waters of Wallowa Lake, thankful for a high ridgeline that let us catch the sun’s show without having to wake before our 4-year-old and 1-year-old, who were chowing down on their buttermilk pancakes. Everywhere we looked was suddenly brighter — the blue sky interrupted only by an occasional cloud, the white peaks pockmarked only by tall evergreens.
It felt like the Alps, but we didn’t have to spend a day (and multiple paychecks) flying our family to Switzerland. We loaded up our car in Portland and drove six hours, interrupted only by a pit stop in Pendleton, and found what I’m now convinced is Oregon’s best kept secret, nestled in its northeastern corner.
Either the secret’s not out or people just don’t want to make the drive, but the Wallowas are gloriously quiet, surprisingly affordable, often brilliantly sunny, and can even thaw out in a day thanks to the occasional Chinook warm wind. Thus, a paradox: The quiet is such a draw that our cabin, one of only a couple dozen that hug Wallowa Lake 3 miles up the road from the quaint artist’s enclave of Joseph, is already booked through next summer. So if you want to make the trek, plan well in advance, because the small number of visitors who make it this way are clearly set on plotting their return.
Where to Eat
Leaving Portland doesn’t have to mean leaving behind a killer espresso. Arrowhead
Chocolates does it right, using Stumptown beans and making their own chocolates daily. Obviously try their hot chocolate and mocha. arrowheadchocolates.com.
Silver Lake Bistro is known for its pizza, which comes out of a brick-fired oven just off the dining area, but their sandwiches are huge, and there’s plenty of room here for the little ones to run around. slbistro.com.
Think Terminal Gravity’s headquarters just 6 miles north of Joseph in Enterprise is merely a
brewpub? The quaint yellow house and large garden feel more like a family restaurant and offer a full menu to boot, and the views are epic. terminalgravitybrewing.com.
Not in the mood for beer? Joseph offers its very own distillery, Steins (with another location in
Beaverton), and it’s well worth a stop. They’ve won awards for their rye whiskey and rye vodka, but if it’s rum you’re after they’ve also got you covered. steindistillery.com.
Where to Stay
The area’s fully equipped cabins are especially family-friendly. It’s even better if you can land one with a view of the lake. We loved working with the family-run Wallowa Lake Vacation Rentals, which has a strong presence on the lake. Check out wallowalakevacationrentals.com for more info.
In Joseph, The Jennings Hotel offers a hip alternative in a landmark building that had gone derelict, but was revived thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. Designed by artists, the rooms are small but include access to a communal kitchen, library and sauna. Rooms 3a and 3b can pair together to make the perfect family suite. jenningshotel.com.
Winter temps often dip to zero at night, making for dry, sunny days ideal for snow sports. The Ferguson Ridge Ski Area, with 640 feet of vertical terrain, is just 9 miles southeast of Joseph. It’s only $20 per adult and $10 per youth 15 and under, and cash only. There’s no ski school, but locals say you can often find other parents willing to help teach little ones while you take a run or three, and the rope tow is free for all. skifergi.com.
If you’re an ice skating enthusiast, Wallowa Lake sometimes freezes solid and the locals take full advantage. Want something more dependable? The Wallowa Valley Community Ice Rink opens in mid-December in Enterprise. wallowavalleyicerink.com.
Hiking / snowshoeing
Bordering the marina, Riverside is a fee-free park with 60 acres of meadows, picnic benches and well-maintained trails.
Just up the road, the Wallowa Lake trailhead opens onto the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The hiking and camping permits are free at the trailhead. The main West Fork Trail takes you to Ice Lake, 6-Mile Meadow and the Lakes Basin area; the East Fork Trail takes you to Aneroid and Bonny Lakes; and the Chief Joseph Trail summits Chief Joseph Mountain with incredible lake views.
Josephy Center for Arts & Culture is a welcoming place filled with art, music, theater, and workshops and classes for all ages teaching the history and culture of Wallowa County. 541-432-0505, josephy.org.
The Wallowology Natural History Discovery Center will get your budding geologists ready to explore the wild side of Eastern Oregon. They’re closed Mondays and Tuesdays. wallowology.org.
The Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center in Wallowa, a bit further north of Enterprise, will let your kids discover the story of Chief Joseph leading his people from the Wallowas along the Ne-Mee-Poo trail as they tried to escape the United States Army. Ask about the 1-mile trail leading to the top of Tick Hill. wallowanezperce.org.
For something truly unique, tour the Antique Tractor Exhibit on a working farm just outside of Enterprise. It boasts the state’s largest treasure trove of historic tractors and a wide range of other pioneer collectibles. It’s free but by appointment only. sunriseironllc.com.
Hells Canyon Scenic Byway offer stunning views of the Hells Canyon Overlook and a side trip to Hat Point Lookout that affords a look at the deepest river gorge in the lower 48. hellscanyonbyway.com.
The End of the Road
Astoria has long been my favorite summer destination when temps in Portland rise above 100 degrees — it’s just about the only place near room temperature within a two-hour radius. But our state’s most northwestern community isn’t just mild in the summer. With daytime highs averaging a friendly 50 in the coldest months and sun that breaks through the thickest cloud coverage with surprising regularity, odds are your family will enjoy a break from winter weather while taking advantage of off-season perks — like not battling other tourists for good tables or rooms with a view.
The coast is also close enough to make for a logistically simple day trip, which can be a real cost-saver. And even if a visit happens to fall on a day when the sky feels like it’s competing with the Columbia River for which can empty more water, I like to arm my family with thick hot chocolate, hop on the trolley, enjoy the Maritime Museum, and wind down over piping hot clam chowder and a pint at Fort George or Buoy, two of my favorite breweries in the state.
Where to Stay
Bed and breakfast Clementine’s Bed and Breakfast is just on the edge of downtown. Reserve the attic room with two queen beds and slip away to the downstairs for a cocktail and games after the kids drift off. *Note that Clementine’s, and a number of other area B & Bs, are closed during January. clementines-bb.com.
The pet-friendly, luxury Cannery Pier hotel is worth the cost. It has a huge lobby with expansive views, not to mention a small pool and Jacuzzi and free ride into downtown in a beautifully restored vintage Cadillac. Plus you can step onto your private riverside balcony when the kids go down. cannerypierhotel.com.
The 90-year-old Astoria Column is free after the $5 parking fee and boasts some of the best views in town. Feeling restless? Hike the Cathedral Trail 1.5 miles up and take the 164-step spiral staircase to the observation deck. astoriacolumn.org.
Hop on part of the 6-mile Fort to Sea Trail at the Fort Clatsop visitors center. There’s a kid-friendly, half-mile loop next to the center and a 1-mile trail from the Sunset Beach parking lot down to the beach and back up. nps.gov/lewi/planyourvisit/forttosea.htm
Tapiola Park overlooks Youngs Bay near the high school and features local art.
astoriaparks.com. Right downtown, the Garden of Surging Waves is a gorgeous urban
Chinese garden and city park honoring the city’s Chinese heritage. astoriachineseheritage.org.
The Astoria Riverfront Trolley runs midday along 3 miles of the waterfront’s old railroad tracks for $1 a person or $2 for an all-day fare. If you see one coming just wave $1 to flag it down. Schedule can be limited in the winter, so call first. old300.org.
No trip to Astoria is complete without a visit to the region’s top museum, though be forewarned that there’s not much here to captivate toddlers and babies. Kids under 5 are free and 6 and older are $5, while adults are $14. crmm.org.
Just a half hour north in Washington, Long Beach is worth a side trip. Living up to its name with plenty of beachfront access (and lots of ice cream), this feels like a real old-fashioned beach town hangout. Eight miles south of Astoria, Youngs River Falls is an even closer side trip, boasting a 45-foot waterfall on the Youngs River in Clatsop County. More info at longbeachwa.gov and astoriaparks.com.
Street 14. If you long for quality beans when you’re away from home, this is your spot. The café offers Stumptown beans and quality latte art with a large space that spills into the lobby of the funky Commodore Hotel. street14cafe.com.
Bowpicker food cart (okay, technically it’s in a converted gillnet boat) has the best fish and chips in the area, and it’s conveniently located right outside the Maritime Museum. With limited winter hours typically between 11 am-3 pm, go early before they run out of the day’s fresh catch. bowpicker.com.
The Silver Salmon Grille in the historic Fisher Building boasts a 130-year-old cherry wood bar in the lounge to get you in the mood for the hefty menu, which features a salmon section unto itself. Take the kids early to avoid a wait, and save room for the $1 mini vanilla chocolate-dipped ice cream cone. silversalmongrille.com.
Fort George Brewery is my favorite stop in town. Try the upstairs for great pizza and more room for the kids to run around, not to mention serious views. fortgeorgebrewery.com. Also well worth a stop is Buoy Beer, great at lunchtime or dinner. Kids can peer through the floor on this pier-perched brewery in search of sea lions, and dogs are allowed on the patio. buoybeer.com.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is a freelance journalist and piano teacher in Portland. She has filed stories from as far away as the Artic Circle and Ground Zero in New York City. In her spare time, she loves to bike, hike and climb with her husband and their two young daughters.