Nicknamed "Little Switzerland of America," Wallowa Lake is a favorite spot of Oregonians, who wish that we'd keep it a secret!
Tucked into the northeastern corner of Oregon, you’ll find a gem of a spot mostly unknown to those who live outside the state: Wallowa Lake. Nicknamed “Little Switzerland of America,” the snow-capped mountains and ribbon lake will have you yodeling, that is until you look at the other side of the lake and realize that you’re in the high desert. Yes, this is cowboy country, and the nearby town of Joseph oozes Western charm. I won’t lie - it’s a haul to get here, but the fact that Oregon families return year after year tells you all you need to know. So grab your cowboy hat… or lederhosen and explore Wallowa Lake.
Where to stay?
You’ll find plenty of vacation rentals, cabins, and small hotels on the north side of the lake near Joseph and on the more popular south side near the tiny village of Wallowa Lake. But to be honest, the best real estate belongs to Wallowa Lake State Park. If you have a tent, trailer or RV, this is the place where you want to be. It has great beach access and is in close proximity to the public floats (more on that to come).
This state park is quite sizable and typically packed during the summer, so make your reservations early. And location here matters. Choose a site close to the lake to cut down on long walks, especially if you have younger children. Cost: Tent $20/night; Yurt $43; RV site with full hook-up $30.
What to do?
A visit to Wallowa Lake is, of course, all about the water. You’ll want to make your first stop Wallowa Lake Marina, right inside the state park. Here you can rent small horsepower motorboats for either fishing or slow cruising around the lake. With a whopping 6-horsepower engine, it took my son and I about 45 minutes to ride around the entire lake. Cost: $25-$45/hour; $75-$135/5 hours; $125-$225/all day, depending on size. The marina also rents a pontoon boat, but it’s pricey and, I think, unnecessary because of the public floats. In addition, the marina rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards that you can use to access the floats; I’d skip the pedal boats for this purpose, as they simply go too slow.
So what are these floats all about? Five public, floating platforms line the east side of the lake closest to the state park. They’re first-come, first-serve, so get an early start. Groups will make their way to the floats and basically set up camp for the day. There’s no shade, so some visitors even bring a canopy. It’s basically a base for swimming, diving, and kayaking. The water is deep, so make sure that young children wear life vests. And the water… it’s cold, like too-cold-for-most-grownups cold. But my brave husband did make the plunge… and then a very quick exit!
KidTripster Tip: If you have teenagers, I’m about to clue you in on the biggest “win” at Wallowa Lake. First, set up camp on the second float from the beach. Then look to the nearest shore. Ok, go about 25 yards north… there! It’s a rope swing that kept our group of five teenaged boys entertained for nearly two hours. They loved it so much that they came back again later in the afternoon. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend the swing for younger kids; you need to be tall enough to grasp the rope and have good enough judgement to clear the rocks.
Little ones will feel more comfortable swimming in the water from the beach. This area can be hit or miss. When we visited in August, the beach was sandy; but at other times of the year, it can be a bit boggy.
Away from the lake in the village, you’ll find regular tourist traps like bumper boats and miniature golf. Frankly, the attractions here are a bit rundown.
KidTripster Tip: Some people will recommend that you ride the Wallowa Lake Tramway to the top of the mountain for a bird’s-eye view of the area. I actually recommend that you don’t! At $33/person, this attraction is way overpriced. While you do see the lake from above as you ride up, lake views at the top are obstructed. And the restaurant up there, too, is overpriced.
If you’re looking to do some hiking, continue on the main drag away from the lake to Little AlpsDay Use Area, where you can choose from several trailheads.
While you’re staying on Wallowa Lake, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Joseph, just a short 10-minute drive from the south end of the lake. I love Joseph, named for Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce people. I’d describe it as Western bohemian… in other words, very Oregonian! I’m not a shopper on vacation, but the boutiques here are so unique and charming that they even enticed me inside. Just a block from the main street, you’ll find an inviting playground with dragons and a splash pad. But what will likely catch your eye the most is the art. Joseph is home to an impression collection of bronze statues. Stop in at the Valley Bronze Gallery (18 S. Main St.) and walk Main Street to enjoy the artwork.
KidTripster Tip: If you have younger kids and need a break, head into Wallowology Discovery Center (508 N. Main St.). During the summer, there are children’s activities; admission is free.
Where to eat?
If you’re going to eat out on your Wallowa Lake vacation, head to Joseph.
The Embers Brewhouse (204 N. Main St.) is a must. The salads, calzones, and pizza are exceptional, and I strongly recommend trying the fried pickles. The restaurant has a good brew selection with expansive outdoor seating in the warmer months. Don’t be surprised if you eat lunch here one day and come back the next for dinner.
If you need a little pick-me-up, order a mocha at Arrowhead Chocolates (100 N. Main St.). Don’t forget to grab the spoon that the barista dips for you in rich, delicious chocolate. And the chocolates here are divine, as well.
Wallowa Lake is a 4-hour drive from Boise, 5-1/2-hour drive from Portland, and 6-1/2-hour drive from Seattle.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two sons, and well-traveled dog. She’s often behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot RV, making new discoveries for KidTripster.
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