While the Eagle Cap Excursion Train offers a variety of train rides at the west end of the Walllowa Union Railroad in northeastern Oregon, a new business has opened that provides a whole new way to enjoy the magnificent scenery from the east end of the historic rail line. Imagine pedaling across a lush valley, with the towering peaks of the Wallowas as a backdrop, sharing the route with no cars or other vehicles. A unique new business has launched in Joseph, Oregon, that lets people experience such a ride, pedaling past green pastures and red barns, through cottonwood and pine trees, and beside bubbling streams.
Joseph Branch Railriders offers rides on a unit with four wheels that straddle the rails, two recumbent seats, and bicycle pedals that propel the unit with ease as you descend from Joseph to Enterprise in the famously beautiful Wallowa Valley in the northeastern corner Oregon.
The Railriders opened for business in late May, operating from a base on Joseph’s Main Street, amid the bronze sculptures and landscaped setting of the Joseph Artwalk. My sister and I had the opportunity to try them out in June and had a great time. After purchasing tickets, we headed for the track a few blocks away, where a line of railrider units awaited the next group departure. Our guide briefly explained the units and handed out helmets before the group took off, several units in a row, going at our own rate of speed. The scenery was spectacular and wildlife was plentiful as we pedaled through meadows and beside the tumbling stream.
Kim and Anita Metlen have long been avid cyclists, involved with the development of bicycle tourism in northeast Oregon. They were leaders in the development and designation of the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway, under a program of Travel Oregon and the Oregon Department of Parks & Recreation. Admired nationally, the Oregon Scenic Bikeways Program is unique to Oregon and patterned after the state’s acclaimed scenic byways program.
The couple owned and operated Mountain Works Bicycles in La Grande for five years, before selling the shop to their daughter and her husband, Mavis and Witt Hartz. Advocates for fitness and fans of history and nature, the Metlens admired the scenic beauty of the Wallowa Union Railroad (Historically known as the Joseph Branch), a 63-mile line that connects Elgin with Joseph and links the communities between. They wondered how they could follow their passions while utilizing the section of railroad that is not being used for excursion train rides. After hearing about railriders in Europe and discovering a similar business in the Unites States, the idea for Joseph Branch Railriders was born. Local manufacturing companies fabricated the frame and wheels to Kim’s specifications and the rail units were tested on the rail line last fall. After acquiring permission from the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority and setting up a base of operations in Joseph, the business began offering rides in late May.
Each trip takes about 2 hours to complete. The ride from Joseph to Enterprise requires only easy pedaling; the 1.5% grade means there is a more energy expended as you pedal back to Joseph. A guide accompanies each trip and a motorized unit will aid your return, as needed. Riders are welcome to use the transit system’s shuttle or return by private vehicle. Each unit carries two people. Helmets are furnished and you are encouraged to bring drinking water. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children (under 12). Children must be able to pedal or use a car seat and must be accompanied by an adult.
Departures are available at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday, plus holiday Mondays, from mid-May through mid-October. Private events are welcome during off-hours by appointment. Reservations are encouraged, especially for groups. Tickets can be purchased at 304 Main Street, beside Red Horse Coffee Traders, or make reservations by calling 541.910.0089.
The century-old Joseph Branch, now known as the Wallowa Union Railroad, was rescued from salvage in 2003 when the Wallowa and Union county governments formed the Wallowa Union Rail Authority and purchased the highly scenic 63 miles of railroad connecting Elgin with the Joseph in Wallowa Valley and the communities between. The section of the railroad from Elgin to Minam is used by the Eagle Cap Excursion Train. The rest of the line from Minam to Joseph is available for use by the Joseph Branch Railriders. The Metlens plan to expand their operation to include trips from Wallowa to Minam.
The group we rode with was of mixed age and physical fitness, but all had a fun time. Upon returning to Joseph, our legs were a little tired but we felt invigorated and ready for lunch. Good dining choices are plentiful in Joseph, including Red Horse Coffee Traders, which is right next to where we purchased our Railrider tickets on Main Street. Add this experience to your itinerary on your next visit to byway country. As our fellow rider exclaimed, “It’s a blast!”