Rediscovering Eastern Oregon

Copper Belt Wines:

On our way from Bruneau Dunes to Wallowa, OR we made a pit stop at another Harvest Host: Copper Belt Wines.  Our host Travis owns and runs the winery, including a tasting room in Baker City, where he shares space with his sister’s business, The Cheese Fairy.  

We, however, stayed out at his base of operations, which is about 20 miles north of Interstate 84 up a Hells Canyon scenic byway and then down about four and a half miles of dirt roads.  We had nice views of the neighboring cattle grazing land and after settling in, Travis offered us a wine tasting.

Travis spent time in the Willamette Valley studying viticulture at OSU, and moved his family back to the Baker City area to his family’s original homestead to make hot climate-friendly wines.  I must say, all of the wines were very delicious and we were impressed with his passion, knowledge, and yet approachable manner with which he presented himself and his wine.  

He also gave us a tour of his facility, where we saw fermentation of Tempranillo in action, his barrel room, and we had the pleasure of meeting one of his adorable daughters, who was about to turn five years old in a few days. 😍 We would have bought all of the wines we tasted, but that didn’t seem prudent, so we limited ourselves to four different bottles and hope to share some of it with friends and family as we travel south later on. 🍷 This spot is definitely off the beaten path, but well worth it if you enjoy wine and a little piece and quiet…cows are sometimes loud, but not usually. 😉

Wallowa River RV Park:

Our stay in eastern Oregon was at the Wallowa River RV Park, which is indeed right next to the Wallowa River and an easy walk to stores in Wallowa, OR.  We were pleasantly surprised upon our arrival at how incredibly friendly Dave and Dana were who greeted us, sharing all of their favorites sites to see, escorting us to our spot in the park and helping us get situated.  They and other campsite hosts are frequently cleaning and maintaining the park.  There are beautiful gardens in the park as well, and next door are the Nez Perce Indian Grounds and access to a trailhead that takes you up Tick Hill for beautiful, sweeping views of the RV Park, the town of Wallowa and the Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Hells Canyon and surrounding areas.  There are, by the way, several access points for this trail.  From the RV park it is a 3-mile round trip and about 500 feet of elevation gain.

The only downside to this RV park is that the spaces are tight.  There are 31 spaces in all, and it’s the closest we have been to our neighbors since we started doing this.  However, everyone we met was friendly, so it wasn’t all that bad, to be honest.  They also have on site laundry (two each of washers and dryers), showers and the staff are helpful with whatever you need.  For example. we needed to print something out while here, and they were happy to oblige.  Laundry is a bargain here at $1.50 per washer or dryer load and the dryer goes for a full hour.  Despite the tight nature of the sites, I would recommend this place if you are in the area.  

Hells Canyon:

Another hidden gem within eastern Oregon is Hells Canyon, which is the deepest river gorge in North America, deeper even than the Grand Canyon, according to Wikipedia.  Matt has been wanting to visit this area for quite some time, and Dana and Dave from the RV park also recommended checking out Hat Point within Hells Canyon, so we set off to drive up there, despite knowing we would be driving on unpaved, rough roads for over 20 miles to get there.

We drove into Joseph and set out eastward on Highway 350, which just so happens to be a breathtaking drive to Imnaha, OR, the town you arrive at just before you lose the pavement.  I cannot get over just how beautiful this part of Oregon is.  There’s something about the winding roads next to the river, golden hills spotted with evergreens and rock outcroppings, and the smattering of pasture land dotted with cows and horses that gives me a sense of contentment and happiness.  I can look at views like that all day long and never tire of it. 😍

However, the one thing I have a lot of trouble with is heights.  As such, when we started ascending the narrow, unpaved, very rough, one-lane road with hills rising on one side and falling steeply away on the other, I was ill at ease.  I have tried to get over this anxiety time and again and still have not figured out how to alleviate my troubled thoughts.  My mind automatically goes to the darkest places, with visions of tumbling over the cliffside to our death, puncturing a tire and being stranded or having an accident with an oncoming vehicle, and I simply cannot calm down.  I try to take deep breaths, but my temples get so tight that it gives me a headache, I feel lightheaded and seemingly cannot take in enough air to settle my nerves.  I just don’t have the constitution for this type of exploration. 😩

After only about three miles of climbing we came to an overlook with a pullout.  Matt took pity on me and turned us around, but because I knew how much he wanted to explore this area, I felt awful.  We went back to Joseph and had lunch, during which time he assured me it was ok.  Just like I had expressed that I cannot always hide my disappointment, but I would never ask him to do something he found truly terrifying, he would not ask me to either.  That did make me feel a little better.  We all have our issues, and this is definitely one of mine. 😬

Wallowa, OR and surrounding areas:

Though we spent most of our time backpacking, we did enjoy our stay and recommend checking out any of these towns nearby, as they all have their own charm and attractions, depending on what you like to do for fun.  I’ll talk briefly about each location, starting from east going west.

Joseph, OR:

Joseph is located at the base of the Wallowas/Eagle Cap wilderness, is also home to the nearby state park, Wallowa Lake, Hells Canyon, has beautiful metal sculptures around the town, and caters to the influx of tourists enjoying the outdoors.  One of our favorite observations was the local Fly Shoppe owner, who rides into town on his horse Shadow each day and drops by the local market before opening his business in the morning.  He even has a stall and sign introducing Shadow next to his shop.  It’s not something you see every day, even in small country towns.

According to BestPlaces, this areas has higher unemployment, but is moderately priced and has a cost of living close to the national average, and more sun than we were used to in the Portland area, for sure.  However, I believe this place has the potential to become the next Jackson, WY if the attraction to the Wallowa mountains grows.  

Enterprise, OR:

Just north of Joseph is Enterprise, OR.  You will find some more modern conveniences in this town, including a Safeway grocery store, Ace hardware, and a local drive thru coffee place we frequented on a few occasions.  It is also home to Terminal Gravity Brewing, which has a fine line up of locally brewed beers.  BestPlaces has similar stats for this town, albeit about twice the size of Joseph.

Lostine, OR:

We did not stop in Lostine, but know you can find alternate access points to the Wallowa mountains from there, and it is home to the notable Blue Banana coffee place that you cannot miss if driving through town.  It is tiny, with a population of around 225 people.

Wallowa, OR:

Our home base during our stay in the area, Wallowa is also quite small with a population of less than 1000 people, but the folks are friendly at the local grocery store, post office and of course the RV park where we stayed.  The Wallowa River runs through the town and it is home to the Nez Perce Tribe.

All of these towns have similar stats on BestPlaces, with higher than average unemployment at 8.2%, lower cost of living than the national average, median home prices in the $200,000-$300,000 range, the area is overwhelmingly conservative politically, and the towns have around 170-175 average days of sun per year.  

La Grande, OR:

The nearest big town to Hells Canyon and the Wallowa mountains, aside from Baker City, is La Grande, which also happens to be home to the manufacturers of our travel trailer: Outdoors RV! 😊. With more sun and modern conveniences and lower unemployment than its eastern counterparts, this area is also along a bike tour route.  I was hoping to check it out while out that way, but the weather didn’t cooperate.  

Of note for us was their local DMV.  As mentioned before during our travels through Idaho and Wyoming, we traded in our Ford F150 for a Ram 2500, and we received the paperwork from the auto dealership while in Wallowa.  We were practically pulling our hair out just thinking about what the process would entail to transfer plates, register and title the vehicle in Oregon given our sordid experience with the Oregon DMV…it took 4 months to get our plates and registration for our trailer, and we had more time in one place then to deal with it than now while on the road. 🙄 

I called the DMV, waiting on hold for 45 minutes to see what we could do online vs. in person, and to figure out what forms we would need.  Thankfully, this time around we had a great customer service representative helping us, making sure we had all of our paperwork sorted out in advance, and she said we did NOT need an appointment to get our registration and plate transfer taken care of, which was relieving to hear since the latest appointment in the entire state of Oregon wasn’t for another 3 weeks!!!  As such, we decided to take a chance by driving to La Grande to get everything squared away.  

Boy are we glad we did!  Even without an appointment, we were in and out of the DMV in less than 40 minutes and it took a load off our minds knowing we wouldn’t have to wrestle with their mail-in or appointment processes.  I even overheard one guy who came all the way from Portland to get his drivers license renewed since the La Grande DMV had the earliest appointments you could get with the DMV in Oregon.  Everyone at the office was pleasant as well, so if you are desperate to get something taken care of with the DMV, go here and perhaps stay a night or two and support the town while you’re at it. 

Overall, this part of Oregon is picturesque, quiet, and filled with friendly people and hidden gems everywhere you go.  It may not get all of the fanfare that other parts of Oregon get, but it is just as deserving of your awe and wonderment as the rest of the state. If you love spending time outdoors, come visit.  You won’t regret it. 👍

The Wallowa Whitman National Forest

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