The American West is speckled with mountain ranges, some more remarkable than others, but only a few are exceptional. The Tetons of Wyoming are in that category, as are the Sawtooths of Idaho. The Wallowa mountains of Oregon also merit a place on that list.
Situated in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, about 200 miles south of Spokane, the Wallowas are known by some as the “Alps of Oregon.” The range is famed for its glacially carved valleys, with vast sweeps of polished rock rising to ragged, needle-sharp peaks. Better still, the Wallowas are far from any population centers – so there’s plenty of solitude if you steer clear of the popular trails.
My wife and I were there recently, hiking for days without seeing anyone except Forest Service trail crews. We drank from bone-chillingly cold, clear streams, camped at a stunning alpine lake and lost ourselves in nature’s embrace.
It was a perfect place to escape life’s cares.
Quick change of plans
Our original plan was to drive to the Two Pan Trailhead, about 18 bone-jarring miles south of Lostine, Ore. It had been a hectic week and, in the confusion, we hadn’t given much thought to the actual trail we’d take. On the morning of our departure, the hike was shaping up as yet-another jaunt up the West Fork of the Lostine River to Minam Lake, over Carper Pass to Lakes Basin, then down the East Fork to the trailhead.
Trouble is, that loop is one of the most popular in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, which lies at the heart of the Wallowa mountains. Lakes Basin in particular, with its postcard-perfect assortment of lakes, can be dispiritingly busy during the heated season. And the last few times we’ve used the Two Pan Trailhead, the parking lot was jammed and dozens of cars and trucks were marooned along the side of the road.
Remembering a tip from a friend, my wife suggested we start hiking at an alternate trailhead, a few miles short of Two Pan. The idea was to loop around to the west and south, emerge at Two Pan, then thumb a lift back to our car.
As usual, my wife’s suggestion was brilliant.
Heading for high ground
Unlike the chaos at Two Pan, there were only four vehicles at our chosen trailhead. We spent a few minutes shaking down the loads in our packs, then launched on a steep, hot climb to the west.
The first mile of trail was clearly popular with the local bear population as it featured five fresh, green piles of bear scat. At one point, we encountered a couple of day hikers who were treated to a bear-standing-on-hind-legs performance less than 20 minutes from the trailhead. (Note to self: Don’t skimp on the bear hang tonight.)
At nearly 360,000 acres, the Eagle Cap Wilderness has plenty of room for creatures great and small.
Less than 150 years ago, it was the summer range of Chief Joseph and his Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe. But in 1877, the tribe was driven off its land by the American government. Furious, Joseph and his people waged a weeks-long, 1,170-mile running battle with the U.S. Army. Finally cornered in the Bear Paw mountains of Montana, a mere 40 miles from sanctuary in Canada, Chief Joseph gave one of the most stirring surrender speeches in history: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Chief Joseph’s homeland was, and remains, a land apart. At lower elevations, the trails are often shaded by thick forest cover, but the views open up and the sun beats down as hikers ascend into higher, sub-alpine zones.
Even in late summer, many of the streams still run high and crossing them is an iffy, edgy business. Bold rock hopping and careful navigation of fallen trees got us across most streams, but on our last day we finally surrendered to a boots-off crossing of the West Fork of the Lostine.
In all cases, the visual clarity of the water was striking.
All alone in the wilderness
We met a handful of day hikers in the first four or five miles, but after that we had the place to ourselves. Buggy conditions forced us to reject our prospective first-night campsite, so we pressed on until arriving at a merry little stream on the brink of a long tumble to a meadow far below.
It was a perfect spot, so the decision to stop was a no-brainer. The tent went up in a wink, the wine was set to cool in the creek, and our tired little dog settled down to a big bowl of food.
The following morning found us descending 1,800 feet – entirely in the shade – to the meadow below. There were lots of fallen trees across the trail and, at times, we wondered how our day-use fees ($5/day) were being spent. Shortly after arriving at the meadow, we got our answer when we bumped into a two-person trail-clearing crew.
They, along with another two-person crew with the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, were the only people we saw that day.
Our goal for the second night was Steamboat Lake and, after a long and miserable uphill slog, we finally arrived at one of the most spectacular mountain lakes I’ve ever seen.
Better still, we were completely alone. It was “hard yakka” getting up there, but we were rewarded with a flawlessly still evening.
Hide and seek
Our third day was a nervy one as we climbed up and over an 8,400-foot pass before dropping into the Lostine River drainage. It looked straightforward on the map, but a lot of snow lay above 8,000 feet and the trail was buried most of the time. Though trail crews walked it the day before, their tracks had melted away under the sun.
For once, I hadn’t brought a 7.5-minute topo map, and our little map was sorely lacking in detail when we needed it most. In the end, we spent an anxious hour hunting for the trail and, once we found it, we clung to it with zealous devotion.
I’ve done a fair bit of backcountry skiing in the Wallowas over the years, so I have a lot of respect for its avalanche terrain. None of the snowfields we crossed were prone to slide, but they were slick and steep enough to launch us on Mr. Toad’s wild ride if we stumbled. Caution was the order of the day.
The trail continued to disappear under the snow after we crested the pass, but dead reckoning and dumb luck kept us on the right track. The first stream we came to – Elkhorn Creek – tumbled over a series of spectacular waterfalls and we feared for our dog’s safety as we crossed at the brink of a disturbingly long cascade.
As the day wore on, we finally got below the snowline and the trail was a constant companion. With route finding no longer an issue, it was time to select our final night’s campsite. In the end, we chose a spot next to a dilapidated cabin that hinted at failed human endeavor long ago.
The evening was warm and we drifted off to sleep with our bags fully unzipped. As the night cooled and I began to zip up, our dog assertively nosed her way in with me, demanding a thermal upgrade. I’d developed a strong funk of my own after three days on the trail, so granting canine access had little effect on the hygiene index.
In the end, it was just another backpacking trip in the Wallowas. But taken together, all those trips run together and thicken into a seamless mosaic of alpine beauty.
That’s reason enough to return to the mountains.
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