There is something romantic about walking somewhere with everything you need on your back. Even better when the destination is a luxury backcountry retreat with no Wi-Fi or cell service where we could be blissfully ignorant of the news cycle. We were on our way to the Minam River Lodge, hidden among the 360,000 acre Eagle Cap Wilderness and accessible only by private plane, horseback or on foot.
Owner Barnes Ellis came here in his twenties for a family reunion. It was 1990 and the property, a former hunting lodge, had seen better days. The beauty of the rugged landscape, however, impressed him and 20 years later he purchased the expanse of approximately 126 acres. At the time, the lodge was a dilapidated wreck, but Barnes hired an architect and embarked on a multi-year, multi-million dollar renovation. Since the opening of Minam in 2017, I had in mind to visit and, more precisely, to arrive on foot, even if that meant possible, even improbable, encounters with elks, cougars and bears.
The eight-and-a-half-mile, mostly downhill journey began at the Moss Springs Trailhead, above the small town of Cove. We didn’t have to walk long after leaving the relative civilization of Moss Springs Campground to feel totally enveloped in the wilderness. We crossed steep scree-covered paths, crossed hillside meadows, and crossed pristine coves, all set against the backdrop of evergreen-covered mountains.
By the time we got to Minam our feet were aching and it was a challenge to stand under our bags. Our tent was more of a glamping variety than camping, with luxury linens and wide plank floors. (The resort also has cabins and conventional guest rooms in the lodge.) After a quick rest, we slowly made our way to the main lodge, where Chef Sean Temple, a veteran of John Georges in New York and Portland’s beloved Paley’s Place, holds court at the restaurant. Most of the herbs and vegetables he uses are grown on the property, while almost everything else comes from nearby farms, ranches and wineries. It was a memorable dinner – and not just because it was one of the first, in a very long time, that we didn’t have to cook for ourselves. After a chicory salad sprinkled with Jonagold apples and drizzled with Parmesan, Temple presented a perfectly seared grass-fed strip loin over a mashed roasted chanterelle mushroom. We heard laughter from a loud group on the outdoor patio, a balm after months of isolation.
Later that night, as we calmed our sore muscles in the wood-fired outdoor hot tub, we looked at the big orange moon and counted our blessings. Last year had been colossally bad, but it was as if nature was telling us to hang in there.
The Minam may be the most luxurious newcomer to the Wallowas, but it’s not the only one. Over the past decade, a slight wave of openings, mostly in the artistic little town of Joseph, has made the area more than just a destination for hikers and hunters. One of the first and clearest warning signs of change was the redeveloped general store, Mr. Crow, which opened in 2013 in the sleepy hamlet of Lostine, about 25 km from Joseph. Its owner, Tyler Hays, designer, artist and founder of New York-based furniture company BDDW, grew up in Joseph. When he learned that the Crow family, who had run the general store for over 100 years, could not find a buyer, he intervened. He remembered walking the aisles as a child and couldn’t bear to see another relic of rural America disappear.