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Wallowa Lake is the anchor-point for recreation in Oregon's Eastern tourism region. This well-loved lake has been a sought-after destination since before European explorers ever set sight on the beautiful expanse of water. It was here that Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce left with heavy heart to lead his people toward freedom in Canada. The name Wallowa is taken from the name of the Nez Pierce band that Chief Joseph led: the Wal-lam-wat-kain. On the north end of the lake, a monument marks the grave of Old Chief Joseph, the famed chief's father. A mile further north, the town of Joseph memorializes the high esteem local white settlers held for the leadership of a man who made repeated attempts at peace with those who stole his people's land. Eventually the Nez Pierce were forced to abandon their beloved Wallowa Valley. It is now loved by the more than 80,000 people who visit here each year - all of them swear they intend to come back.
Wallowa Lake is a natural lake gouged from the rock and ravines of the Wallowa Mountains during the last glacial period. The narrow lake is nearly 300 feet deep in spots. It is fed by the inflow of the conjoined East and West forks of the Wallowa River and was originally dammed with a rough wooden dam in 1880. In 1926, a modern concrete dam raised the lake level by more than 28 feet, creating a storage reservoir for both hydroelectric generation and irrigation purposes. No longer used for electricity, the lake serves as a water supply for the towns of Joseph and Enterprise and irrigates over 15,000 acres. But it is recreation that most people equate with the name Wallowa Lake.
A number of cottages and residences hug the shoreline of the west bank of the river. State highway 82/351 runs only a stone's throw from the lake the entire length of the eastern shore. Wallowa Lake State Park lies along much of the south end of the lake, and an unincorporated village of seasonal homes lies between the State Park and the edge of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. A marina at the State Park rents all types of boats, from canoes, kayaks and paddle-boats up to 21-foot motor boats and pontoons. The marina can provide everything a visitor could want for a day on the water. There is no docking space for visitors with boats unless they are registered at the State Park campground, but a large parking area can hold boats on trailers.
Swim areas are available at both the State Park and at the north end of the lake at a small park owned by the town of Joseph. Swimming is usually limited to the hottest part of the summer due to the extremely cold water of the lake. Most residents and visitors spend their time on the water sailing, wake-boarding, water-skiing, pontooning or power-boating. Those seeking quiet shoreline pursuits can canoe and kayak at the margins watching for the eagles and osprey that live at the lake. No matter what their chosen sport, residents and visitors alike enjoy the sight of Mount Howard and Chief Joseph Mountain towering above the lake.
Wallowa Lake is a famous fishing destination for kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon): several record-breaking fish have been caught here, only to have their title taken by yet another Wallowa-caught fish! Local legend has it that Wallowa Lake holds a 'lake monster' - called Wally. Fishermen privately speculate Wally is just another huge kokanee that hasn't yet been caught. The lake also produces a good supply of rainbow trout and even a few mackinaw (lake trout). The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks the lake regularly. Boats can put in either at the state park boat launch or the small boat ramp at the city-owned park at the north end of the lake by the dam. The rainbow trout are often caught from shore on the east side of the lake along the highway right-of-way. The entire Wallowa Valley is famous for great fishing. There is even a Steelhead Train that delivers fishermen to hot spots along the Wallowa River during the spring steelhead run.
For those seeking a chance to hike or camp in the mountains, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest provides both. Three trailheads begin at the lake: the Chief Joseph Trail, the West Fork Wallowa River Trail, and the Aneroid Trail all lead into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. This wilderness has 541 miles of trails and can be accessed from other locations as well. Some trails can accommodate everything from horseback riders to mountain bikes. There are 50 high mountain lakes in this area. A good trail guide is recommended as this is true wilderness. If hiking is difficult, visitors can still access the spectacular views over Wallowa Lake by taking the Wallowa Lake Tramway in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest to the top of Mount Howard. This is a great place to enjoy both lunch at the Summit Grill and the view of Wallowa Lake and surrounding mountains from 8,150 feet.
Joseph is not only the gateway to Eagle Cap Wilderness and Wallowa Lake; it's considered the gateway to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The HCNRA includes 215,000 acres of wilderness, three Wild and Scenic rivers, and North America's deepest river gorge. Joseph itself holds many shops and arts activities including several bronze sculptors. Several nearby ski areas provide for downhill skiing, snowshoeing and sledding. Nearby areas offer designated trails for snowmobiling. The towns in Wallowa County hold a number of festivals and events of interest to visitors such as Chief Joseph Days, with a huge rodeo and Hells Canyon Mule Days in nearby Enterprise. It would be impossible to be bored at Wallowa Lake.
Vacation rentals in the area are plentiful, with several resorts and lodges located along the shore. Some are more technically fish camps and cater to anglers. A number of private cottages are available on the lake, often with boats included. Motels and RV camps can be found nearby as can bed-and-breakfasts. There are even a few existing cottages or cabins available for those in the market for real estate. Everyone can find just the right vacation rental here to suit their lifestyle and their budget. So make arrangements to visit Wallowa Lake on your next vacation. You'll wonder how you missed coming here sooner!
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