Check out the rest of our 12 Best Northwest Vacations here.
Ambling up the historic main drag in Joseph, Oregon, surrounded by the steep, snow-capped Wallowa Mountains and nursing a mean mocha from Arrowhead Chocolates, I wouldn’t have thought it odd if a passerby had greeted me in German or French. Yet snuggled against those ragged, Alp-like peaks, just over a two-hour drive east of Pendleton, the town of Joseph is squarely in American rodeo territory. All of which, on my first day there, reminded me of just how much unknown beautiful country lies within a day’s drive of Seattle. This is our backyard.
Image by Ellen Bishop
Cowboys test their skills during Chief Joseph Days
Like so many hip small towns, Joseph recently popped onto the map as a result of a confluence of faddish factors. As once extreme sports such as kayaking, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing have become mainstream, participants have discovered what locals have known for decades: that the nearby Wallowa Lake and Eagle Cap wilderness areas are undisturbed havens for outdoor enthusiasts. With 17 peaks that reach heights of more than 9,000 feet nearby and more than 60 alpine lakes to choose from, it’s hard to find a crowd once you leave town.
Image by Greg Hennes
A minimalist room at the Jennings Hotel
Joseph (named for Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce) has also blossomed with the 2015 opening of The Jennings Hotel, offering a cluster of pretty, minimalist rooms on the second floor of a painstakingly refurbished brick building in the center of town. It’s ideal for smaller parties—especially if you want to spend part of your vacation soaking in the beauty of each artist-designed room, carefully curated by owner Greg Hennes. Staying there requires a certain commitment to the hostel lifestyle (think: self-check-in; shared kitchen, sauna and bathrooms), but I would share a bathroom any night of the week for a mattress like the one in Room 2. With more amenities, the more functional Mt. Joseph Lodge, whose larger, family-friendly condo units (complete with kitchens) are conveniently located near both Red Horse Coffee Traders and Sports Corral (in case you forget a water bottle, or your spurs), works well if you come with a crowd.
Image by Josephoregon.com
You’ll know you’re in Joseph when you spy this “Attitude Adjustment” sculpture
Ultimately, Joseph feels like the Alps because, like so many European small towns that haven’t yet made travelers’ bucket lists, its inhabitants make visitors feel welcome. Fuel up before a hike at the friendly Cheyenne Cafe, a mom-and-pop diner whose woodwork is marked with cattle brands from visiting cowboys. Conversation over the head-size cinnamon rolls ($5.95) might wander from stand-up paddleboarding to how recent economic policy has affected the price of tractor tires.
After your adventure, wander back into town to browse the strip of galleries, stop at Valley Bronze to learn about Joseph’s extensive collection of bronze statues or head to M. Crow, the revitalized 100-plus-year-old general store. The business is populated with general goods, hardware and bespoke housewares designed by New York furniture guru Tyler Hays, who “wanted to create everything he needed in his daily life from scratch.” Stop for a Reuben ($11.50) on the way home at Terminal Gravity Brewing, whose crisp pilsner rewards a day’s hard work. Or, if you’ve spent the afternoon on a stool at Stein Distillery tasting award-winning whiskey and rye, stick with Embers Brew House in town—it serves what seems like every category of fried food known to humankind. We might be in an American rodeo town after all.
Joseph is in northeast Oregon, about 500 miles and a seven-hour drive from Seattle.
Drive over to nearby Summerville to visit Northwest Skillet Company, where self-taught forger Peter Clark and his wife, Sue Miller, who breeds livestock guardian dogs, are the epitome of backcountry artists. See how Clark spins and forges carbon-steel skillets by hand—and maybe pick up a new family heirloom.
If you’re a rodeo fan, visit during the last week of July, when Joseph transforms into the cowboy capital of the west for Chief Joseph Days: four days of rodeo, parades, wild cow milking and kids’ activities.
Eat and Drink
Arrowhead Chocolate arrowheadchocolates.com
Cheyenne Café Facebook, “Cheyenne- Café”
Embers Brew House embersbrewhouse.com
Red Horse Coffee Traders redhorsecoffeetraders.com
Stein Distillery steindistillery.com
Terminal Gravity Brewing, Enterprise, terminalgravitybrewing.com