It’s hard to imagine a small western town that’s more picture-perfect than Joseph, Oregon. Of course, it probably helped that I had arrived at the perfect time of day, when purple light from the low sun was streaming over the top of the nearby mountain peaks, turning everything a soft shade of blue.
Joseph has a downtown district that stretches several blocks, with old buildings lining a wide street. All the stores had closed by the time I drove through, but a couple of restaurants were open. With the sun setting, though, I didn’t have time to eat.
As if the old brick buildings and background mountains weren’t enough, Joseph’s downtown has been further beautified by a public arts project, with a western theme.
You’ll want to spend some time in downtown Joseph, especially if it’s a time when businesses are open. I enjoyed the town as much as five minutes would allow me, then reluctantly headed on.
Just south of town is a small graveyard maintained by the National Park Service. It is here that Old Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians is buried, and they couldn’t have selected a more fitting place. For eternity, the Chief’s spirit can enjoy a view of Wallowa Lake, and the mountain that bears his name.
The small monument and surrounding grounds are considered sacred by the Nez Perce. Dozens of trinkets have been left here in the Chief’s memory.
For a more thorough history lesson about the great Chief Joseph, I’d suggest you read Wikipedia’s entry, or search the web for other related sites. But for those of you with a casual interest, here’s a brief history:
Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians lived in this part of Oregon up until the late 1800’s. His unwillingness to cooperate with the government’s relocation efforts led the military to evict his people from this land, and they retreated north, hoping to make it to Canada.
They were attacked just 16 miles from their home, and for the next three months, Chief Joseph led them on a highly successful strategic retreat, that amazed the American military leaders. 800 Nez Perce eventually traveled 1,700 miles throughout the northwest, while being pursued by 2,000 soldiers. Finally, after a 5 day battle in freezing weather, while lacking blankets and food, Chief Joseph admitted defeat, swearing he would fight no more, for the rest of his life.
A quarter of his people had died during those three difficult months. Those who survived were taken to eastern Kansas. Eight years later, the Nez Perce were allowed to move to a reservation in Washington State. Chief Joseph died there in 1904, and was originally buried there. His remains were moved back to his homeland, and placed in their current location, in 1926.
Just about a mile south of Chief Joseph’s burial site, you’ll find the shores of beautiful Wallowa Lake. It was nearly dark by the time I arrived–too late to take a good picture or truly appreciate the beauty of this mountain lake.
With the day dwindling, I didn’t have much of a choice but to head for La Grande, and the motels clustered around the interstate. But, the scenery along the way was still enjoyable. Because Rte. 82 circles north, then west, then south, you end up staring at these beautiful mountains forever, as you drive around them. (Joseph would only be about 40 miles from La Grande, if those mountains weren’t in the way.)
On your way to La Grande, you will pass a few more small towns: Enterprise, Wallowa, and Elgin. Enterprise appeared to be the largest, and offered the most promise for a good restaurant or motel (there’s even a Best Western there, along with some independents). La Grande isn’t terribly thrilling, so if you want to stop for the night here, it wouldn’t hurt.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006. Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.