Wallowas – Four Day Backpack Trip

Wallowas – Four Day Backpack Trip

Location:  Oregon, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa Whitman National Forest
Distance: 40 miles
Difficulty:  Medium to strenuous
Type: Loop with 3 overnights
Season: Summer
Description: A 4 day trip through the Lakes Basin area in the Eagle Cap Wilderness starting and ending at the East Eagle Trailhead

My friend Brookie organized this 40 mile loop through the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowa Mountains for her 61st birthday.  Trip was set for early August, 2018.  On the itinerary was a 4 day, 3 night backpack trip, including Horton Pass, Eagle Cap Peak, Moccasin Lake, Glacier Lake, Hawkings Pass and Crater Lake.  The weather was hot, and we had a couple of long days, but we had a fun group, some nice trail surprises, and great views of the Wallowas.

Day 1 – A long drive and hike up East Fork Eagle Creek

We started out our trip on a Thursday morning, leaving Portland around 6 AM for a long 5 hour drive to Baker City in eastern Oregon.  We rendezvoused for lunch at the Lone Pine Cafe with our second car around noon, ate a quick lunch (I had key lime pie), and caravanned out to the trailhead.  The drive to the East Eagle Creek Trailhead took about an hour, about half of which was on windy unpaved forest roads.  We had a Kia and an Audi, and aside from a lot of dust, both made it relatively fine.  By 2:45 PM we were on the trail, starting out around 4,550 ft elevation.

Starting out at Lower East Eagle Creek Trailhead.

We hiked up the East Eagle Creek canyon for about 4 hours Thursday afternoon, alternating between pine forest and open meadows, on mild grade.  The meadows were in the waning side of wild flower season, but there were still colors galore.  We hit a big patch of delicious Huckleberries about halfway in, which slowed us down by half an hour.

Hiking up the East Fork Eagle Creek canyon.

We set camp somewhere below Hidden Lake, just past the turnoff to Minam Lake, at around 6,600 ft in elevation.  We found a few tent sites just off the trail in an otherwise sloped meadow.   We filtered water out of the creek, and enjoyed out first dinner together.  After it got dark, we all went to bed happy to be out in the wilderness.

Day 2 – Eagle Cap Peak, and a trail surprise

We were up at daylight the next morning, and after breakfast and coffee, we were on the trail around 8:30 AM.  We hiked the remaining end of the East Fork Eagle Creek canyon making our way toward Horton Pass.

Climbing up toward Horton Pass.

Near the top, the trail wrapped around a beautiful granite bowl, climbing up out of the trees and into alpine territory.  Around 11:15 AM we topped out at Horton Pass (8,450 ft).  From the pass, we got our first sights into the Lakes Basin, as well as nice views back into the canyon we’d hiked in the morning.

Looking back over the East Fork Eagle Creek canyon.

We took a short break at Horton Pass, eating a few bars and looking over our map.  After a quick check in, we decided to take the short side trip up to Eagle Cap Peak, a 2.5 mile roundtrip climb up the ridge to a summit lookout at elevation 9,480 ft.

Eagle Cap Peak

In an surprising case of serendipity, we ran into two of our friends from Portland on our way up to the Eagle Cap summit, Walls and Stellner.  They were also on a backpack trip through the area with Walls’ girfriend, and were camping at Moccasin Lake, the same lake we were planning to camp at later that night.   It was decided then that we would finish the Eagle Cap hike together and share their large campsite together at Moccasin Lake.

We completed the hike to the Eagle Cap summit in a short 30 minutes.  The views from the top were excellent, with nice vantages on all the surrounding lakes and peaks.  We stayed for an hour, eating snacks and taking photos.

Taking in the views at Eagle Cap Peak

The hike down to Moccasin Lake was a longish descent with short stretches of switchbacks.  This leg was not particularly difficult, but still wore on the knees.  After a couple hours of descent we began to make our way into the Lakes Basin proper, passing through Mirror Lake first.  Mirror lake was crowded but pretty.

The picturesque Mirror Lake.

We rolled into Moccasin Lake around 3:30 pm.  Walls, Stellner and Gorman had set camp the night before on a large site overlooking the lake, and there was plenty of room for our extra tents.   After setting up our tents, we all jumped into the lake for a swim.  Camp elevation was around 7,560 ft.

Swimming at Moccasin Lake.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing, making dinner and catching up with our friends, while Timber the dog rolled around in the dirt.  Since it was Brookie’s birthday week, we surprised her with 5 cans of wine that we packed up from town.  We split the wine, and watched the alpenglow on the peaks, before hitting the hay.

Day 3 – Glacier Lake, Cusick Mountain, and the South Fork Imnaha River Valley

We started our third day with a leisurely breakfast and a late start around 9:45 AM.  We said goodbye to our friends, and headed down the Glacier Lake Trail.

Heading out on the Glacier Lake Trail from Moccasin Lake.

The Glacier Lake Trail climbs up a narrow drainage about 900 ft, to a pass above Glacier Lake.  The climb was gradual with switchbacks towards the top, but got our legs warmed up for the day.  We took a quick break at the pass and then climbed the short distance down to Glacier Lake for an early lunch.  Glacier Lake was beautiful and probably my favorite lake of the trip.

The beautiful Glacier Lake below Glacier Peak.

The stretch between Glacier and Frazier lakes was also really nice.  Its a downhill grade all the way to Frazier Lake, through talus slopes and clumps of wildflowers, and with an impressive view of Cusick Peak all the way down.

View of Cusick Peak from the Glacier Lake Trail.

The Frazier Lake valley was equally nice.  Massive walls of granite form the southern face of the valley, with Sentinel Peak resting high above.  We got into the lake around 1:15 PM, where we took a quick break, before jumping on to the Hawkings Pass trail.

Sentinel Peak over Frazier Lake.

The trail up to Hawkings Pass climbs about 1,200 ft. via a couple long sets of switchbacks, with a short flat section near Little Frazier Lake.  The terrain here is rocky, but the trail is otherwise well graded.  At the top (8,470 ft) we got great views of the the west face of Cusick Peak and South Fork Imnaha River Valley.

South Fork Imnaha River Valley from Hawkings Pass

We climbed down to a network of creeks making up the headwaters of the South Fork Imnaha River, where we found an excellent spring for filtering water.  We broke here for about 30 mins to refill our water and look up a few names of wildflowers.

The trail down the South Fork Imnaha valley was a mellow 3.5 mile downhill stretch alternating between patches of trees and meadow.  Rain clouds formed while we hiked and we heard thunder over other parts of the Wallowa Mountains, but never got rained on.

The South Fork Imnaha Valley

We rolled into camp around 6 PM, near the turnoff for the Cliff Creek Trail, (elevation 6,160 ft).  We set up our tents in a flat meadow near a couple other groups.  We filtered water and enjoyed our last trail dinner together before going to bed.

Dinner time.

Day 4 – Crater Lake and a delicious burger in La Grande

We were up early on Sunday morning.  We had 11 miles to go and long drive back to Portland, so were on the trail by 7:30 AM.  We took the Cliff Creek Trail up past Red Mountain, along a gradually climbing trail through trees, and meadows filled with sagebrush.

Red Mountain over the Cliff Creek Trail.

The trail topped out at Crater Lake, (elevation 7,580 ft), where we stopped for lunch.  We ran into group from the Spokane Mountaineers here who were doing the same loop as we were.  We talked to them for a little while, comparing notes on the loop, and exchanging information on the Mazamas and the Spokane Mountaineers.

Lunch at Crater Lake.

One of their party members was celebrating his 82nd birthday out on the trail.  Hope I will be as in shape as him when I turn 82.

Spokane Octogenarian celebrating his 82nd birthday.

The last leg of the trail from Crater Lake down to our cars was fairly brutal, descending down a long set of knee jarring switchbacks, while bushwacking through thick clumps of scrubby brush.  On top of this, the heat of the day was starting to kick on and shade was sparse.  As Alabama put it, it was an excrementally long descent.  It was not an impossible section, but still a long, less pleasant couple hours of lugging a pack down the mountainside.

View over the the East Eagle Creek canyon, and our cars.

We were back at our cars by 2:00 PM, happy to pull off our boots, wash our faces, and dig into a couple bag of BBQ potato chips.  By 2:30 we were on the road, and after a quick stop to gather some sagebrush near Baker City, we were off to La Grande to find burgers.

Closing out the trip with a delicious cheese burger.

We selected Side A Brewing for dinner, where I had a House Burger with fries.  We ate, reminisced on the highlights of the trip, and checked all of our missed emails from while we were out of range.  We left full and ready for our 4 hour drive back to Portland.

Overall, this was a great trip.  We had good weather all the way through, and running into a few friends along the way was an excellent surprise.  This was my first trip through the Wallowas, so I has happy to explore a new area for me.  The Wallowas are very much worth the drive out from Portland or Boise, especially for a long extended backpack into the Lakes Basin.  The alpine environments around this section very beautiful and will make you wish you’d scheduled extra days for your trip, (we definitely wish we’d had more time).

Additional Information

Our four day loop based on an itinerary from the Backpacker Magazine link below.  We essentially followed this same route, minus the side trip to Hidden Lake.

Backpacker Magazine – Eagle Cap Wilderness Loop (includes map)

This was a long loop, but took us through great parts of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.  The Lakes Basin was busy, but the first, third and last days were peaceful and quiet, with great views throughout the whole loop.  There are lots of other options in the area for backpacking as well, and I’m looking forward to future trips through other parts of the Wallowas.

The US Forest Service manages the Eagle Cap Wilderness.  Official information, including permits and wilderness regulations can be found at the link below.

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest – Eagle Cap Wilderness

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