If you go

INFORMATION

Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce. 309 S. River St., Enterprise; wallowacountychamber.com, 541-426-4622.

LODGING

The Jennings Hotel and Sauna. 100 N. Main St. (2nd floor), Joseph; jenningshotel.com. Rates from $95

Minam River Lodge. 901 E. Greenwood St., Enterprise; www.minam-lodge.com, 541-362-4453. Rates from $95 (tepees) to $595. Three meals $125 per day

Wallowa Lake Lodge. 60060 Wallowa Lake Highway, Joseph; wallowalakelodge.com, 541-432-9821. Rates from $129; cabins from $119 (November to April). Dining room serves three meals daily

DINING

Terminal Gravity Brewing. 803 SE School St., Enterprise; terminalgravity brewing.com, 541-426-3000. Lunch and dinner every day. Moderate

Vali’s Alpine Restaurant. 59811 Wallowa Lake Highway, Joseph; valisrestaurant.com, 541-432-5691. Dinner at 5 and 7 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, Memorial Day to Labor Day; Saturday and Sunday only rest of the year. Moderate

ATTRACTIONS

Joseph Branch Railriders. 501 W. Alder St., Joseph; www.jbrailriders.com, 541-910-0089 or 541-786-6149.

Wallowa Lake Tramway. 59919 Wallowa Lake Highway, Joseph; wallowalaketramway.com, 541-432-5331.

Wallowa Lake State Park. 72214 Marina Lake, Joseph; oregonstateparks.org, 541-432-4185.

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest (including Eagle Cap Wilderness). 1550 Dewey Ave., Baker City; fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman, 541-523-6391.

EAGLE CAP WILDERNESS —

The single-engine Cessna Stationair banked left across the golden wheat fields of the Wallowa Valley and set its course over forested ridges to the valley of the wild-and-scenic Minam River.

Unperturbed by minor turbulence from updrafts, veteran pilot Jim Shotwell guided his four-seat aircraft above the pristine river, carrying three passengers — including photographer Barb Gonzalez and me — along with fresh milk, produce and other supplies for the remote Minam River Lodge.

“You might want to keep your eyes out for critters,” Shotwell said, as he allowed his sharp eyes to peruse the rugged landscape 1,000 feet beneath the Cessna. “I picked out a couple of bears in here last week.”

Elk, deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, wolves and cougars also make their homes in this 564-square-mile wilderness area, the largest in Oregon. Much of it is drained by the Minam River, a stream that rises at the foot of 9,595-foot Eagle Cap mountain and flows northwesterly for 77 miles, mostly through a broad, densely wooded, glacially carved valley.

There are only three ways to get into the Minam (pronounced MY-nem). Two of them require hiking or horseback riding some of the 534 miles of trails in the Wallowa Mountains’ Eagle Cap Wilderness. The gentlest access to the lodge, from the Moss Springs trailhead east of Cove, still requires an 8.5-mile trek down the Little Minam River and over Jim White Ridge.

The other way is by air.

Chartered aircraft make the short jump from the Enterprise, Joseph or La Grande airports, each about a 20-minute hop; private planes venture to the Minam all the way from the Portland area.

We ferried with Shotwell from the airstrip at Enterprise, the cozy seat of Wallowa County, and landed at 3,600 feet at the optimistically named Minam International Airport. We bumped across a grass runway, taxied to a stop beside an abandoned, engine-less Beechcraft, and were greeted by a Kubota tractor and a big yellow dog.

A day in Joseph

We had begun our adventure a day earlier in Joseph, a delightful small town of 1,100 in the bosom of the highest peaks of the Wallowa range. The original homeland of the Nez Perce tribe — it is named for Old Chief Joseph, whose grave overlooks deep, glacial Wallowa Lake at the edge of town — the community is famed for its bronze foundries (statues line its main street) and its spectacular mountain views.

We stayed at the second-story Jennings Hotel, an impressive historic restoration project in progress. Built in 1910, it had deteriorated into a derelict apartment building before craftsman Greg Hennes bought it in 2014 and launched a Kickstarter campaign to reinvent the property. To date, he has completed nine of the 13 planned rooms with the help of numerous artist friends who have contributed their painting, furniture making, interior design and other skills to the success of the project.

A highlight of the hotel is a common room with a full kitchen and library of books and music, complete with a stereo system and guitar. The aroma of coffee and confections rising from the ground-floor Arrowhead Chocolate shop is another bonus. But perhaps none is so memorable as the four-person sauna attached to one of the shared bathrooms. Bookings may be made through Air BnB or directly from the hotel website.

Meals in Joseph lack any similar creative energy. Menus seemed to be built mainly around beef, pizza and beer. We discovered the best local dining option to be Terminal Gravity Brewing, six miles away in Enterprise. Not only is the beer at “TG” among the best in the state, especially its IPAs; the pastas, salads and other meals are superb.

At the south end of Wallowa Lake, six miles in the opposite direction from Joseph, the Wallowa Lake Lodge restaurant serves three meals a day with far more variety than in town. (The lodge is open summers only, but cabins are available year-round.) There’s also good continental cuisine — with Hungarian flair — at Vali’s Alpine Restaurant. Your entree (kettle goulash, chicken paprika, pork schnitzel) will be chosen for you.

This end of the lake, with its extensive state park campground, is the hub of tourist activity in the Wallowa Valley. A highlight for many visitors is an aerial tramway, which climbs 3,700 feet to the summit of 8,256-foot Mount Howard for a view across the lake and nearby mountains. (A one-day adult ticket is priced at $33.)

A more recent attraction is offered by the Joseph Branch Railriders. On an abandoned track between Joseph and Enterprise, once used to carry lumber and livestock from the Wallowa Valley to La Grande, parties of up to four people may peddle specially designed rail cars between the two small towns. They pay $22 per person, Thursday to Monday, to cover the 12 miles in about two hours. A longer half-day route operates between the towns of Minam and Wallowa.

‘Simple and humble’

But on this visit to the Wallowas, we were all about the wilderness experience — or, at least, the semi-wilderness experience. My last-century understanding of wilderness doesn’t include down comforters, river-rock showers, private flush toilets or gourmet meals with wine pairings.

Don’t get me wrong. Tents, sleeping bags and campfires all have their place, but I was glad to have landed in the lap of luxury, complete with solar-energy panels.

“Mellow Yellow,” the Labrador who greeted us at the airstrip with his master, “Dave,” led us on a dirt track up a gradual slope to the Minam River Lodge, where we met owner Barnes Ellis, Jr.

“This is a relatively simple and humble place that honors the location,” Barnes said. “I don’t think there’s another place like it in Oregon. It’s a beautiful place that’s hard to get to, and I think that’s a positive.”

Located on a 126-acre island of private property completely surrounded by protected wilderness, the Minam River Lodge was established in 1950, long before the federal Wilderness Act of 1964 created the Eagle Cap Wilderness and others across the nation.

A modest hunting lodge flanked by primitive cabins, it competed for business with Red’s Horse Ranch, a popular dude ranch and lodge less than a mile upriver. Purchased by the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-1990s, Red’s is now a backcountry refuge and historic site manned during the summer months by a revolving cast of volunteers. Only a couple of buildings have been maintained, including the horse barn. An airstrip even more basic than that at the Minam lodge also is open for landings.

A six-year project

Barnes, 52, is a Harvard graduate who spent his 20s as a reporter for The Oregonian newspaper before making a mid-career change to investment management. Still a resident of the Portland area, where he grew up backpacking and whitewater rafting, he first visited the Minam River in the late 1980s.

Six years ago, Barnes read that the lodge, which had fallen into disrepair, was up for auction. He paid a sum that he calls “insignificant” compared to the millions he subsequently put into it, building a new lodge and log cabins on the footprints of the original buildings.

Beginning in 2011, Barnes and a team of 25 builders and craftspeople, many from long-established Wallowa County families, set to work. Chartering helicopters to deliver everything from heavy-timber trusses and delicate solar panels to a Kubota tractor, they harvested and milled local lumber and repurposed wood from the original structures.

The team installed a modern septic system, a pressurized fire-sprinkler system, solar power and a heat-recovery ventilation system. They added commercial restaurant equipment and took steps to meet handicapped accessibility standards.

Today the lodge property can accommodate up to 35 guests in nine cabins, two wall tents, four budget tepees and the magnificent log lodge itself — a two-story structure with three rooms and a grand suite upstairs; a full dining area with attached kitchen, bar and sitting area downstairs. Outside, a broad deck with a view to the Minam River, a few hundred yards distant, welcomes live musical performances.

Barnes’ construction manager, Isaac Trout, stayed on to serve as lodge manager. And a variety of Oregon artists have contributed to the decor of the rooms, from hand-made furnishings to raku stoneware to historic photographs. A massage therapist is available on site. A wood-fired hot tub, albeit rustic, beckons muscles sore from hiking and riding.

Our cabin, the Boulder, featured two queen beds (one of them in a loft atop a ladder), a wagon-wheel chandelier and a bathroom sink carved from a boulder and placed atop the trunk of a mountain mahogany bush. It also had a covered deck with two chairs from which we could keep an eye out for wildlife and small planes, arriving and departing.

Gourmet meals

Chef Carl Krause, a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America and former head of cuisine for the Biwa group in Portland, specializes in American craft cooking. He serves three meals a day, sourcing much of his produce from the lodge’s own hothouse vegetable garden. On our visit, a six-course dinner with tastings from Sonoma’s Cline Family Cellars included a garden salad with pork-belly mole and a generous serving of smoked ribeye.

Still under construction

Work on the Minam River Lodge isn’t quite finished. An old barn, at the bottom of the hill between the lodge and the airstrip, is being enhanced with a new floor for special open-air events such as weddings. Scheduled for completion next month, it will serve the lodge for its normal June-to-September season. (In other seasons, the entire lodge may be leased for corporate retreats or family gatherings.)

Some landscape restoration remains to be done, especially around the main lodge building and on the hillside below.

But the main draw of the Minam River Lodge may be the total absence of cellphone and wireless internet reception. You may as well leave your laptop at home.

“I think that has pretty wide appeal,” said Barnes.

Ultimately, though, it’s the call of the wilderness, coupled with the comforts of home, that makes me want to return here again and again. By day, Gonzalez and I could hike as far as we liked in the Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forest. An easy walk was Red’s Horse Ranch, where we took time to look around with one of the resident volunteers — and to read some history about Richard “Red” Higgins, who owned the ranch from 1946 to 1970. By night, we relaxed at the lodge with fine food, drink and conversation.

“There’s a lot of local love and local history in this place,” Barnes said.

Our stay was certainly not long enough. By the time Jim Shotwell signaled it was time for us to return to our car, parked at the Enterprise airstrip, we had nearly forgotten that we owned one. I was almost ready to trade it in for a horse.

Now, having discovered this isolated gem of a getaway, I’m sure it won’t be long before I return.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com.

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