You probably don’t know about this lift, even though it has the largest vertical rise of any gondola in North America. Yes, more vertical than if Vail had a top-to-bottom lift and more than the (much newer) gondolas at Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Silver Mountain and Aspen. You wouldn’t know how cool this lift is from the tiny ticket booth and parking lot, or from the tramway’s Facebook page, which lists it as “permanently closed.” Despite all signs pointing to a lackluster roadside attraction, the Wallowa Lake Tramway, as it’s known, is incredible.
Situated at the far shore of its namesake, past the end of an abandoned railroad and at the dead-end of a 13-mile road, it feels like a trip to the Alps with high mountain peaks all around. Opened in 1970 after two years of construction at a cost of $700,000, the tramway was conceived as the launch point for a large ski area, so the cabins have ski racks. Although skiing never materialized, nearly fifty years later the gondola serves as a scenic throwback for the lucky few who venture six hours from Portland or 4.5 from Spokane or Boise (the local Lions Club opened a ski area nearby called Ferguson Ridge in 1983.) Those who trek to the Wallowas are rewarded with a 3,700′ vertical lift to 8,256′ Mt. Howard with monster mountain views along the way and a shimmering blue lake below.
Then there’s the lift itself. Built by PHB Hall, 21 original Skycruiser cabins have been swapped for classic CWA ones that came from a Mueller gondola. I’m thinking the one up Mt. Hays in British Columbia, which closed in 1995. West German company Pohlig-Heckel-Bleichert entered into a marketing agreement with Hall of Watertown, NY in 1966, two years before construction began. The Wallowa tramway’s double PHB grips are completely unique in North America and sail along the line at 690 feet per minute (Lutsen formerly Loon’s gondola also used them until it was removed in 2015.) PHB also supplied tower sheaves while everything else is Hall. Operators turn around and launch a cabin by hand every minute and 45 seconds, yielding a capacity of only 140 passengers per hour. Even on Memorial Day weekend, I got my own cabin for the 9,650-foot, 13.9 minute journey.
Some of the 25 towers feature cool tramway-like saddles, and the huge 1,200′ cabin spacing makes the gondola feel like a tram. Just about everything is still original, from the General Electric drive to Continental auxiliary engine, controls and 150-HP electric motor. There is no motor room; everything is sandwiched just below the drive bullwheel like on many Hall chairlifts. One newer addition: a countdown clock that alerts operators to launch the next cabin using a black handle in each station. The rope was replaced in 2003.
Co-owners Mike Lockhart and Bill Whittemore host some 35,000 riders annually. The lift is impeccably maintained and the entire operation is clearly a labor of love. The tram has had a few hiccups over the years, including heli-assisted rope evac in 1992, a 4.5 hour evacuation of the mountain by truck in 2008 and a wildfire scare. Tickets to the Wallowa Lake Tramway run $33 and the lift operates daily from late-May through September. In the time it took me to drive there, I could have flown to the actual Alps, but it was totally worth it to ride this gem!