18 Family-Friendly Things to Do in Joseph, Oregon, and the Wallowas

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Making a trip out to the Wallowas and Joseph, Oregon has been on our list for years now. The long drive from either Portland (our old home) and/or Bend (our current home) means dedicating at least a 4-day weekend to truly make the trip worthwhile.

We had a trip planned a decade ago that was scuttled by illness but, 10 years and 2 kids later, we finally made the trip and it was a resounding success.

With the little ones in tow, we couldn’t quite do the backpacking trip we had originally planned but we were still blown away by how much there was to do in Joseph and the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains.

From panning for gold to hiking to fishing to dining out at some amazing restaurants our week in Joseph was one we won’t soon forget.

During our trip, we camped in a travel trailer at Wallowa Lake State Park (more to come on that later!) which put us right in the heart of the action and kept our days filled with fun for the entire week.

Things to do in Joseph Oregon and the Wallowas

Here’s a quick summary of our list of things to do in Joseph. Scroll down to find out more!

  • Learn About Eastern Oregon at the Wallowology Natural History Discovery Center
  • Pan for Gold at the Minecart Panning Company
  • Ride the Rails at Joseph Branch Railriders
  • Visit the Wallowa County Fair
  • Rent a Boat at Wallowa Lake
  • Ride the Wallowa Lake Tram
  • Go Putt-Putt Golfing at Eagle Cap Chalet Miniature Golf
  • Listen to Music at the Wallowa Lake Lodge
  • Try some Hand-Crafted Truffles at Arrowhead Chocolates
  • Go Paddleboarding at Wallowa Lake
  • Try Your Hand at Fly Fishing on the Wallowa River
  • Go to a Nature Talk at Wallowa Lake State Park
  • Hike up the East Moraine Trail for Stunning Views of Wallowa Lake
  • Enjoy Brunch at The Blythe Cricket
  • Find the Need for Speed at Wallowa Go-Karts
  • Sit at the Base of a Waterfall on the Chief Joseph Trail
  • Paddle Wallowa Lake in a Glass Bottom Kayak
  • Stargaze at Wallowa Lake State Park

Learn About the Wallowas at the Wallowology Natural History Discovery Center

Outside of the Wallowology Center in Joseph, Oregon

Funny name but an amazing resource to this remote part of Oregon. We honestly had pretty low expectations going into our visit to the Wallowology Natural History Discovery Center. It felt like something that might be good for killing 15 minutes but in the end, we wound up spending over 2 hours inside this absolute gem!

The Wallowology Center covers the natural history, animals, and geology of Joseph and the Wallowa Mountains with interactive displays that are fun for both kids and adults.

Downstairs you can browse through animal skulls, look at life-sized animals, and learn about the formations of these incredible mountains.

Upstairs is a kid’s play area with a giant bird’s nest, feathers and masks to play dress up, an incredible salmon spawning model that just has to be experienced to fully appreciate, and a well-stocked library of books covering everything you’d ever want to know about the area.

If you’re in Joseph with kids, or even without kids, we highly recommend paying a visit to the Center. Best of all, there is no entry fee! Although I guarantee you’ll be dropping a few bucks into the donation box after you’re done!

Pan for Gold at the Minecart Panning Company

Minecart Panning Company Sign in Joseph, Oregon

The Minecart Panning Company is a fairly new attraction in town that allows kids to pan for precious gemstones or even gold!

The setup is simple!

When you arrive you’ll head into the office and pick out a pail of paydirt. The pails vary in size and what types of gems and minerals they hold.

You can even pick out bags that will contain gold although these were a little spendy for our taste. We picked out a pail of mixed gemstone dirt for each of the kids. Each of the pails includes a bag for holding the gemstones that includes all the identification info needed so you’ll know exactly what you’re finding.

Sluice at Minecart Panning Company

From there you head over to the sluice and start sifting through the dirt to uncover your treasures. Expect to spend around 30 minutes going through all the dirt.

On hot days make sure to bring a hat and sunscreen as there is no shade while working the sluice.

Ride the Rails at Joseph Branch Railriders

Riding the rails in Joseph, Oregon with the Joseph Branch Railriders

Since the Minecart Panning Company is right next to the Joseph Branch Railriders we combined the two to make for a full afternoon of fun.

Riding the rails with Joseph Branch Railriders is one of the hottest tickets in town and for good reason!

It isn’t often that you get to pedal your own railcar down an abandoned rail line!

These rail pedal operations have been growing in popularity all over the West Coast but this is one of the original, if not THE original, rail rider operations. Luckily, when compared to many of the others, it is also the cheapest AND allows for small children to ride along as they offer 4-seat carts.

We had our 4 and 6-year-olds on our cart and they spent most of the ride taking in the scenery rather than pedaling. If you’re worried about how strenuous this activity is then worry not. All of the carts have an electric assist motor for the ride back uphill. You do have to pedal to engage the motor but it is not strenuous at all.

Their primary, 2-hour tour is an out-and-back with a break in the middle to turn the cars around. The scenery along the way is stunning and it is a true pleasure to slowly pedal along this historic railway.

These tours fill up early, especially during busy summer weekends, so make sure to book yours early on their website.

Visit the Wallowa County Fair

For most locals, the Wallowa County Fair is THE event of the year out in this corner of Oregon. So much so that many now make a point to head OUT of town during the peak fair week to avoid the crowds that descend on the area to take in the festivities.

If you happen to find yourself in Joseph during the fair, which typically takes place during the early part of August, make sure to stop by to take it all in.

We were there during one of the slower days but still had a good time wandering through the animal stalls and taking in the award-winning vegetables and art.

Award winning kale the Wallowa County Fair

Best of all is that admission to the fair is 100% free!

If you’re used to fairs in larger towns then you may be in for a surprise at the lack of carnival/concert-like atmosphere that has taken over many county fairs.

Rent a Boat at Wallowa Lake Marina

Driving a boat on Wallowa Lake

If you want to spend a day out on Wallowa Lake (and don’t feel like paddling) then swing by the Wallowa Lake Marina at the south end of the lake.

This well-stocked marina offers a variety of boat rentals that make for the perfect day on the lake.

We rented a small motorboat for 2 hours and it ended up being surprisingly affordable. The kids had a great time steering the boat as we spent time motoring over to one of the floating docks for some swimming.

We followed that up with some fishing near the mouth of the Wallowa River where we managed to pull in a beautiful rainbow trout. If you have any questions about fishing in the lake make sure to chat with the folks at the marina as they are very tuned in to where to fish and what bait to use.

The marina also rents out paddleboards, kayaks, rowboats, and pontoon boats.

Ride the Wallowa Lake Tram

View from the top of the Wallowa Lake Tram

Did you know that the Wallowa Lake Tram is the steepest tramway in all of North America!?! And the fact that it doesn’t even serve a ski area makes it even more wild.

From the base of the tram at 4,450ft you quickly ascend 3,700ft in only 15 minutes to an elevation of 8,150ft.

We picked a clear day to take the tram up to the top of Mt. Howard where we could take in some stunning views of Eagle Cap Wilderness.

The tram isn’t cheap as it cost us $188 for a family of 4. The views from the top and hearing the kids laugh with delight as we soared higher and higher made it well worth it though.

If you’re in the Wallowas to travel the backcountry then you’ll probably be able to get similarly amazing views with your own two feet. But for us, that wasn’t in the cards so this was our next best option.

At the top of the tram, there are numerous trails to take in different views from the top of Mt. Howard. You can also grab some lunch or a cocktail at the Summit Grill which we found to be surprisingly tasty and not nearly as expensive as we expected.

Go Putt-Putt Golfing at Eagle Cap Chalet Miniature Golf

Mini golfing at the Eagle Cap Chalet Putt-Putt Course

After soaring high atop the Wallowa Mountains on the Wallowa Lake Tram we decided to take in the best vacation activity known to man: putt-putt golf.

Luckily for us, all you have to do is walk across the street from the tram to arrive at one of the more delightful putt-putt golf courses I have played in a while. To be fair, it’s also one of the only putt-putt courses I have played in a while…but it’s still a really good one!

Eagle Cap Chalet Mini Golf is a mountain-themed course with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a putt-putt course.

Best of all the kids had a great time!

Listen to Music at the Wallowa Lake Lodge

View from the deck at the Wallowa Lake Lodge

The Wallowa Lake Lodge has served as a basecamp for food, lodging, and fun in the Wallowa Lake area for over 100 years now!

While we didn’t stay at the lodge we still frequently walked down from our campsite at Wallowa Lake State Park to take in the views and lively atmosphere during their FREE concerts.

The expansive lawns and large decks allowed for plenty of room to spread out. The kids alternated between dancing to the music and playing with the frisbees that were scattered around the lawn.

We enjoyed the beer tent serving up drinks outside so we didn’t have to make our way past the band to head into the bar inside.

On warm summer evenings, there is no other place we’d rather be than at the lodge!

Try some Hand-Crafted Truffles at Arrowhead Chocolates

Nestled right in the heart of downtown Joseph is a chocolatier that you might expect to find in downtown Seattle rather than this rustic outpost in the Northeastern corner of Oregon.

As we mentioned in our post about our favorite places to eat in Joseph we visited Arrowhead Chocolates daily. Whether it was just for a cup of Stumptown coffee or to grab a cookie and some of their amazing truffles we couldn’t get enough of this shop.

The back of the shop also features artwork handcrafted by locals and, once again, the prices were surprisingly affordable for the quality of work available!

Go Paddleboarding at Wallowa Lake

There are two public access areas to paddleboard on Wallowa Lake. One at the north end which is convenient for folks staying in Joseph. The other is at the south end at the Wallowa Lake Marina near Wallowa Lake State Park.

As we were staying in the state park we spent most of our time on the south end of the lake. The lake bottom here is fairly shallow, especially near the outflow of the Wallowa River, which makes for warmer waters.

Note though that if you’re in the current of the river itself the water gets very cold, very quickly.

We loved floating in the shallows and watching the 100s if not 1000s, of trout that were patrolling the bottom. You’ll probably quickly notice by the number of fishermen in the area that this is a hot spot for trying your hand at fly fishing (more on that later).

If you didn’t bring your own paddleboard then they are available for rent at the Marina.

Try Your Hand at Fly Fishing on the Wallowa River

Going into this trip I had been eyeing fly rods as I thought it looked like a fun way to spent an hour or two when we’re out camping on a lake or river.

By chance one day we decided to stop into the Joseph Fly Shoppe and got to chatting with the owner, Rob.

Within 10 minutes he offered to lend us a fly rod and reel, gave us some tips on where to fish, and set us up with a couple of flies that he guaranteed would land a fish.

His generosity and willingness to help were truly amazing and, at the end of the week when we returned the rod, he had a new customer.

Another fun fact about Rob is he rides his horse 8 miles into the shop every day. The horse knows the route so well that he can take a quick nap on its back and it doesn’t miss a beat.

On to the fishing

Rob recommended we try our hand at fishing the outlet of the Wallowa River where it flows into Wallowa Lake. Even if we hadn’t gotten that advice it is hard to miss the spot as most days it is filled with fly fishermen like ourselves.

The area trout tend to congregate around the cold water flowing out of the mountains which makes for easy fishing for a beginner like ourselves.

Once we got set up it only took a few casts to hook our first fish and we were ecstatic!

Landing a rainbow trout at Wallowa Lake

If you’ve ever wanted to try fly fishing and are in the area be sure to pay Rob a visit!

Go to a Nature Talk at Wallowa Lake State Park

Wallowa Lake State Park is an absolute gem in the Oregon State Park system. It has one of the most beautiful settings you could ever imagine and there are a ton of things to do while you’re there.

One of our favorites was the ranger talks for the kids. Most evenings the rangers at the park give hands-on presentations ranging from wildlife to outdoor survival to astrology.

Our kids got to make their own star wheels and learn about constellations one night. Another they had a chance to hold the skulls of various wild animals that live in the area like bear and deer!

The rangers would walk through the campground each morning to let us know when the talks started and what they would be covering for the day. We recommend arriving on time as there were A LOT of kids who showed up for these presentations each night.

Hike up the East Moraine Trail for Stunning Views of Wallowa Lake

The east and west moraines of Wallowa Lake are some of THE BEST examples of glacial moraines that you will find anywhere in the world.

Wallowa Lake was formed by glaciers flowing out of the mountains to the south. As these glaciers retreated they left large piles of dirt and rock (called moraines) to the side. These piles of rock which stand over 850 feet tall are called glacial moraines and now serve as an incredible place to hike and take in the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains.

The East Moraine is the most accessible of the two for public access and trails will take you to the top.

East Moraine of Wallowa Lake

To access the trails there is a small pullout near the middle of the lake. The trail follows an old roadway and switchbacks its way up the side of the moraine.

Once at the top you will have amazing views and can follow the ridge for as long as you’d like…although the official trail peters out after a bit.

There aren’t a lot of beginner-friendly trails in the area and even though this trail does have some decent elevation gain it can be done by most moderately fit folks.

Here’s a link to the trail details on Alltrails.

Enjoy Brunch at The Blythe Cricket

If you’re going to go out to eat anywhere in Joseph we can’t recommend trying brunch at The Blythe Cricket enough.

It had everything we wanted in a restaurant. Delicious locally made food, wonderful owners, and a sense that it was a gathering place for locals and visitors alike. We did a whole write-up on this wonderful spot in our last post so head over there to check it out!

Find the Need for Speed at Wallowa Go-Karts

I’m going to take a second and admit a parenting failure here. Going into this trip I did quite a bit of research on things to do while we were in Joseph. One thing that I noticed was that many of the websites for companies in the area were pretty out of date or completely non-existent.

This led to not being 100% certain about what would be open or available.

Well… throughout my research, I found out that there were (or at least used to be) bumper boats very close to where we’d be staying. I excitedly told the kids all about it and THEY. WERE. PUMPED.

Well, dear reader, once we got there I realized that the bumper boats were long gone and all that was left was an overgrown lot. Let’s just say the kids were not happy about this development.

Luckily for us (mostly me) go-karts came to the rescue. Just up to the road from where we were staying, and where the bumper boats were supposed to be, was a go-kart track that was equally exciting for the kids.

A few laps around the track and all of my parenting failings were forgiven.

So my advice is as follows. Do your research and, if all else fails, ride the go-karts.

Sit at the Base of a Waterfall on the Chief Joseph Trail

If you’re traveling to the area with young kids were are in the too big for a hiking backpack but too small to do longer (8+ mile) hikes then you may find, like we did, that finding good hikes is kinda difficult in the area.

The Wallowa Mountains have a ton of amazing backpacking opportunities but easy day hikes are another matter.

Aside from the East Moraine trail, the other hike that we found to be good for both us and the kids was the lower portion of the Chief Joseph Trail.

BC Creek waterfall on the Chief Joseph Trail

The trail starts at the parking area for the Little Alps Trailhead. From there it follows the West Fork of the Wallowa River to a wooden bridge. You can turn around here to make a 2-mile hike or continue to where the trail crosses BC Creek for a small but beautiful waterfall.

A hike to the waterfall makes the round trip just over 3 miles and there is some uphill on this section but it was doable for our kids.

Paddle Wallowa Lake in a Glass Bottom Kayak

One of the more unique tour options in the area is a nighttime glass bottom kayak tour of Wallowa Lake.

These kayaks are amazing during both the day and night but I’d recommend the night tour. This is because not only are the kayaks see-through but they also light up so at night the waters below are illuminated with a soft glow that makes for an otherworldly experience.

Stargaze at Wallowa Lake State Park

One of the reasons why we booked our trip to the Wallowas last summer was to coincide with the Perseids Meteor Shower that happens in August of every year.

In the past, we have gone camping around Central Oregon to view the meteors but this year we wanted to do something bigger with a better view of the sky.

On the peak night for the shower, we headed down to the grounds next to Wallowa Lake where we had a perfectly clear sky and an uninterrupted view to the north.

Watching the meteors streak across the sky in this incredible setting was a memory we will never forget. Quite a few people were watching but everyone was respectful to stay dark and it made it even more fun when an especially bright meteor would streak by and there would be a chorus of oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

About the author
Derek Carlson
Pacific Northwest native, cross-country skier, hiker, mountain biker, wannabe fly fisherman, writer and owner of Roam the Northwest