Imagine a place where the landscape transforms from rich, agricultural lands built upon sediments brought down from historic cataclysmic floods to dense forest atop ridges cut by hundreds of creeks in just the turn of a corner. Imagine a place that exemplifies the four seasons, transforming the valley from a crisp, white wonderland of rolling hills to fields blanketed by wildflowers. Where iconic amber waves of grain give way to vibrant displays of fall foliage.
Imagine a place where you can enjoy a locally-sourced breakfast, shop for the day’s picnic at the farmers market, raft a Wild and Scenic River, and be back in time to unwind with a few friends at the annual Chamber Music Festival at the heart of town. That place is Walla Walla, Washington, and we can’t wait to show it to you.
Outside Walla Walla was designed with one goal in mind—showcase outdoor recreation opportunities in the Blue Mountain region. With over a million acres of National Forest, including three wilderness areas, across southeast Washington and northeast Oregon, there are numerous opportunities to hike, bike, camp, fish, raft, and so much more.
Thanks to a group of local, engaged elementary students, Palouse Falls is the official state waterfall of Washington. Dropping roughly 180 feet, Palouse Falls is a must see attraction. Yet another geologically interesting location, it is truly an impressive feature of the landscape. The park offers multiple views of the falls and many interpretive signs to enrich the experience.
From a family with small children to thrill seekers, there is something for everyone. A leisurely stroll along the South Fork Walla Walla Trail could easily become a mountain biker’s dream ride. Go north, go south, go east—the terrain surrounding Walla Walla is unique and interesting, which makes it an amazing place to explore and recreate.
Outside Walla Walla exists for those with an adventurous spirit, a collection of tales of being in the wild and ideas about how to create your own adventure. No experience needed. If this is your first time biking a trail or casting into the river, welcome, and prepare to be amazed. If you fell in love the first time you saw the sun rise over a field of balsamroot, welcome back—there are countless memories to be made. If you’ve hiked all 715 miles of trails in the Umatilla National Forest, awesome—can’t wait to meet you out there someday. Welcome to Outside Walla Walla!
Twenty years ago, I rafted the Snake River with my mother. It was a world away from the Texas hill country that I was used to as a young gal. Despite the unique beauty of the south, the Pacific Northwest’s big sky, mountain ranges, and outdoor spirit won our hearts. The Walla Walla Valley is an amazing place to raise a family, retire, or lay down roots in general—we do have that great cataclysmic soil after all.
Even for locals, the area provides countless firsts in the name of adventure. After two decades in the valley, I admittedly feel like I haven’t even begun to explore all our area has to offer. Outside Walla Walla is more than a destination site. It is also a place for locals who constantly ask themselves ‘where is there to hike around here’ or ‘can you bike in a wilderness area’ (no by the way) to discover all our local treasures.
Take advantage of our local resources. There are many folks in town who can’t wait to help you get outside, and we can’t wait to introduce you to them. The Blue Mountain Land Trust, for example, runs a robust Learning on the Land program featuring many programs, such as a sunset paddle on the Columbia River or learning about wind power or nature painting—there is something for everyone at any age. Programs run just about year-round and spots fill up fast, so grab a schedule and mark your calendar as soon as possible.
Many local retail shops offer everything from bike rentals (on and off road) to raft rentals. Most also offer classes to get you started or provide guided trips. These folks will also likely mention local clubs or groups if interested in a more community experience. Take advantage of local outdoor recreation programs that offer seemingly endless supplies and equipment for every possible adventure—they rent to the public. Check out an outdoor activity that interests you to learn more about how to get outside.
Your hosts on this quest to discover more about all the outdoor activities in the Blue Mountain region, Gwen & Steve Dildine. This photo was taken after Gwen completed her inaugural mountain bike ride. Her smile reflects the fact that her collarbones are still in one piece. Steve is far more gifted on two wheels, but the two offer a balanced perspective of trail difficulty.
Wine, check. Wheat, check. Onions, check. Hiking, biking, fishing, rafting, who knew? Walla Walla is an exceptional home base to explore vast arrays of terrain and engage in a whole host of outdoor activities. Agriculture definitely put us on the map, but the town has evolved into a wonderfully welcoming, flat-out fun place to spend a weekend. Consider adding outdoor recreation to the weekend plans as many activities are within two scenic hours of town.
Since it is already a destination location, Walla Walla has many opportunities available at various price points for lodging, dining, and shopping. Its historic downtown is easy on the eye, and its local cuisine is even better on the tummy. After a hike in the Umatilla National Forest, enjoy live music at any number of venues. Follow up a morning fly fishing lesson with some wine tasting. You’ve made it this far; you might as well drink the juice. Burn a few calories on the bike ride? Freshly crafted desserts await.
Visiting Walla Walla has never been easier. Multiple daily flights from Seattle make the journey pretty accessible for folks making the trek from afar. It is also a scenic drive from all the surrounding larger cities (Seattle, Portland, Boise, and Spokane) and only takes a few hours.
While the valley is under a blanket of fog, a short drive 19 miles east into the Blue Mountains is Tiger Creek Road. Often non-maintained Forest Service roads make excellent snowshoeing and cross country skiing destinations. This road winds up Tiger Canyon and provides breathtaking winter wonderland views. The snow was so perfect; I’m pretty sure I ate most of it on my way up the mountain.
Hundreds of miles of trails; over a thousand miles of wild, unobstructed rivers; waist-deep, soft, dry snow; and a few mountain lakes await locals and visitors alike. There are plenty of activities to span the seasons. Outside Walla Walla focuses on providing folks our experience exploring the Blue Mountain region and all the hiking, biking, camping, fishing, water sport, and snow sport opportunities we can find. Hopefully along the way, we can all learn more about our natural world and ways to enjoy the wild while keeping it wild.
We hope you will spend a little time exploring our site as well. As our catalog of activities grows, we hope you find something new and inspiring with each click. Your feedback is always appreciated, and if you have an idea of where we should head next we welcome suggestions. With something for everyone and every ability, it is time to head outside.
And if you like a good campfire story, check out our blogs—Adventures, Campering, and Grow Them Wild. Adventures offers ideas about what to do, how to get started, and other fun stories about our area. Campering focuses on our journey traveling around the Pacific Northwest with two small kids in a camper, and Grow Them Wild offers ideas from experience (the good, the bad, and the poorly planned) about engaging kids with nature.
Visiting Walla Walla will likely not be a one-time event. There is just too much to do and see. It is a gateway city that leads to so many great finds. Heading up the mountain or winding through the wheat fields, there are numerous sweet little towns to stop and visit. Though the goal is to find a great outdoor adventure, it really wouldn’t be a complete story without a few stops along the way.
Strike up a conversation with the locals—likely they have great tips on area places to visit: where the barn owl was last seen, the trail conditions, where the fishing honey hole is. Who are we kidding—no one is going to tell you their fishing spot. Stick with the birders; they will talk. Here are a few towns of interest, although by no means a complete list:
Located just 40 miles northeast of Walla Walla, Dayton serves as the gateway to many outdoor adventures in the Blue Mountain region. The city’s now Main Street was reportedly once a Native American racetrack. In the late 1880s and early 1900s the fertile soil attracted settlers, and growing barley quickly led to numerous breweries and saloons. This town’s edgy beginnings definitely have a story to tell, and many historic sites, including the oldest standing train depot in the state, offer tours and events throughout the year.
After you pick up a few pastries and the morning coffee at Moose Creek Cafe & Bakery, you are calorically ready to hit the trails. Many trails are accessed via the North Touchet Road, which is located on the east end of town. This is also the road to Ski Bluewood, the regional ski area. Another local spot providing access to one of three wilderness areas is just down Highway 12 past Dayton on Tucannon Road. Providing access to the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area, there are multiple places to camp, fish, and hike along Tucannon Road.
Once you’ve worn yourself out hiking the ridge-lines or maneuvering the current all day in hopes of catching the big one, don’t forget to stop by Blue Mountain Station, an artisan food center, to pick up local honey, homemade candy, have a bite to eat, or pick up some beans for the coffee pot when you get home to remind yourself of how awesome your trip to southeast Washington was.
Another small town rich with tradition and history is Waitsburg. Along the Lewis and Clark Trail, of course, Waitsburg still enjoys the same railroad, newspaper, and Territorial Charter that it did when the city first began. Even the hardware store is fun to visit in this town, which could come in handy if you realize you’ve forgotten a tool or two for your backpack.
One community event that might be of interest to outdoor enthusiasts is Swim the Snake. An annual event held in August, Swim the Snake offers paddleboarders, kayakers, and swimmers the chance to cross the Snake River with plenty of support and encouragement. Definitely a neat experience and scrapbook worthy.
A ride on the Eagle Cap Excursion Train is a one-of-a-kind experience. With a number of themed rides starting in spring and keeping busy through fall, any ride is a unique way to see some quite remote landscape. The train follows the Grande Ronde River and then meets the Wallowa River to the ride’s end in Joseph, Oregon. On this particular occasion, my son and I were enjoying the mother’s day brunch ride. The catered food, sweet volunteers, and ability to travel between the cars made this a memorable trip for both of us.
On the path south to explore more of the Umatilla National Forest, access Harris Park, or make a day or weekend trip out of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Milton-Freewater is a sweet town with a big heart. Known locally for its abundance of orchards, this town takes advantage of its extremely fertile soil. Whether it is peaches or cherries, or you-pick blueberries, or perhaps even apples turned into scrumptious cider, filling a picnic basket with fresh, healthy items is easy to do in this town.
Check out the farmers market on Wednesdays during the summer. There are a number of fruit stands in the area as well. If you need a break from the mountains or decided you’ve hit your max number of switchbacks for the afternoon, check out the Blue Mountain Cider Company and learn about third generation apple farmers.
Your trip to Milton-Freewater would not be complete without a visit to Saager’s Shoe Shop. (Trust me, I can tie this in to outdoor recreation.) Their selection of shoes from work to play is exquisite. Keen, Chaco, Birkenstock—you name it; they have it. Their small town charm and multi-generation business is refreshing. Quality and customer service is definitely a priority, and they even employ a cobbler to keep your favorite kicks kicking. Trust me, you’ll be a repeat offender.
Whether you want to experience the west, taste the west, or dress like a cowboy for a few days, Pendleton needs to be on the to-do list. Providing an excellent stop-over for visitors or pit-stop for locals, Pendleton is also the gateway to travels further south into the Blue Mountain region.
Known for the Round-Up, Woolen Mills, and underground tour just to name a few attractions, Pendleton’s historic downtown with the Umatilla River running through the heart of town could derail any plans to get outside in a timely fashion. Also of note, the Tamastslikt Cultural Museum celebrates the traditions of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes and is an exceptional way to foster a deeper understanding of the region, both its people and the land.
The Wallowa Mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area are the crown of the Blue Mountain region, with peaks reaching over 9,000 feet. If hiking that far isn’t in the travel plans, but you really want to see one of the best views in the country, consider taking a ride up the Wallowa Lake Tramway. You’ll gain 3,700 feet of elevation in roughly 15 minutes. Trails at the top of Mount Howard treat visitors to absolutely breathtaking views.
There are few better ways to enjoy two hours in the car than the drive to Joseph, Oregon. As part of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, the landscape is simply remarkable. On the ascent through agricultural lands and sagebrush, the road enters the Umatilla National Forest and winds through the trees and eventually drops down into the town of Elgin. Catch the Eagle Cap Train and choose between any number of uniquely themed rides starting in May and running through October. I would call it a once in a lifetime experience, but truly you will want to go again.
The road then descends into the canyon bottom and parallels the Minam River to its confluence with the Wallowa River. That spot, at Minam Store, is an excellent jumping off point for a majority of the river access in the area. Continuing on to the town of Wallowa, the sense of remote and wild is increasingly enhanced. The Wallowa Mountains are to the south. At this point opportunities to check out a trail become more frequent. Just a few miles down the road is the town of Lostine, and if more remote camping and hiking appeal to you, simply follow the Lostine River Road up into the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and enjoy the fast moving river and an evening or two under the stars. This well-maintained gravel road also offers access into the Eagle Cap Wilderness area via an intricate system of connecting trails.
The next two towns are the larger metropolises of the drive: Enterprise and Joseph. Both offer plenty of unique shopping opportunities as well as dining experiences sure to satisfy the calorie burn from a day in the mountains. One of Oregon’s 7 Wonders, this area is rich with history, enjoys a prolific art culture, and is home to the best cup of hot chocolate in the world.
There are so many ways for folks of all ages and abilities to engage with the natural world in the area. The Wallowa Lake Tramway, for example, is a thrilling way to summit Mt. Howard and hike a relatively easy loop or connect into a longer, more difficult trail system. Enjoy the lake thanks to moraines formed by glaciers and time on a paddleboard or kayak, or hang out and fish the kokanee and trout.
Like all the small towns noted, it is absolutely worth the longer travel time or extra day of vacation to support local restaurants, shops, museums, various attractions, and at the heart of it learn about a new place and the people who call it home. As part of Outside Walla Walla’s mission to showcase outdoor recreation in the Blues, highlighting those who make it possible is also integral. If you are a local like myself who is constantly amazed by all our area has to offer, join me in finding these places. If you have ventured from afar, please enjoy our special places. There are so many opportunities to get outside, and Outside Walla Walla can’t wait to show them to you.