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2016 Sept: Oregon: Wallowa: Eagle Cap Wilderness backpack

From September 11-13, 2016, we enjoyed walking 22 miles in 3 days backpacking to Mirror Lake and idyllic Glacier Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness, within Wallowa–Whitman National Forest, in the Wallowa Mountains, on the Columbia Plateau of northeastern Oregon. Scenery of “the Wallowas” resembles that of California’s Sierras but is much closer to Seattle!

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Our 3-day, 22-mile route was as follows:

  1. Hike 7.3 miles gaining 2000 feet from Two Pan Trailhead (5600 ft) up East Lostine River to camp at popular Mirror Lake (7606 ft). This excellent base camp has lots of sites (but adjacent Sunshine Lake may be more photogenic and less crowded), with three good day hikes for extended stays:
  2. Day hike from Mirror Lake to Glacier Lake via Glacier Pass (6 miles round trip, 1200 ft gain), highly recommended! Other options from Mirror Lake include (not done by us):
    • Ascend Eagle Cap, a short and steep 3.5 miles round trip gaining 2000 feet.
    • Loop via Moccasin Lake to Douglas Lake and Horseshoe Lake, 8.6 miles gaining 500 feet (or omitting Horseshoe makes 5-mile loop).
  3. Backpack out 8.7 miles via scenic Carper Pass (800 feet gain) to remote Minam Lake and West Fork Lostine River. Walking out this different route adds variety to the trip but creates a more-punishing 3000-foot cumulative descent back to Two Pan Trailhead. Minam Lake suffered from low water levels this September, but the outlet West Fork Lostine River was pleasant to explore.

If you have 4+ days, considering reversing the loop and camping the first night at less-crowded Minam Lake, then the second/third nights at one of the following: Upper Lake (good base for ascent of Eagle Cap), or popular Mirror Lake, or nicer Sunshine Lake, nearby Moccasin Lake, or most-beautiful Glacier Lake (which is more effort over a ridge 1000 ft up, 200 down). Alternatively, backpack to these lakes in a lollipop-shaped loop from Wallowa Lake Trailhead to add the beautiful Ice Lake and Matterhorn ascent.

Directions: In the northeast corner of Oregon, from Pendleton, take Interstate 84 east to La Grande. Turn north on State Highway 82 through Elgin to Lostine (10 miles west of Enterprise). In Lostine, go 7 miles south on Lostine River Road to the National Forest boundary where it turns into Forest Road 8210, up Lostine Canyon for 11 more miles to the end of the narrow gravel road with some washboard roughness. At the trailhead, backpackers self-issue their own Wilderness Visitor Permit, one per group. Horse-packers can be booked to assist your trip.

Other good hikes in the Wallowa Mountains

A good inexpensive base with hot showers is Wallowa Lake State Park, where we stayed in September 2023, just south of Joseph and Enterprise, Oregon (reservations recommended). If the frequently-high levels of campfire smoke become troublesome, try the primitive Forest Service campgrounds which are cheaper and quieter.

My separate article “2023 Sept: hiking Oregon’s Wallowas & Idaho’s Sawtooths” covers the following worthwhile activities:

  1. Wallowa Lake Tramway
  2. Hike 7.6 miles round trip with 1360 feet gain from Tenderfoot Trailhead to Bonney Lakes in Eagle Cap Wilderness, near Joseph, Oregon.
  3. Maxwell Lake in the Wallowa Mountains is a hike of 7.8 miles round trip with 2375 feet gain from Shady Campground on the Lostine River up into Eagle Cap Wilderness. Stage this hike from one of several nice Forest Service campgrounds along Lostine River Road (FS8210). We enjoyed quiet Williamson Campground which has roomy sites, spaced far apart.
    • Another good day hike or backpacking trip from Lostine valley would be Chimney Lake (and beyond) from Bowman Francis Trailhead near Irondyke Forest Campground (10.6 miles round trip with 2911 feet gain).
  4. Hike 11 miles round trip with 1700 feet gain from West Eagle Trailhead to Echo Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness. At the trailhead is the nice, primitive West Eagle USFS Campground.
  5. Saving the best for last, from Wallowa Lake Trailhead, I backpacked solo 7.7 miles one way with 3200 feet gain to Ice Lake plus day-hiked 3.7 miles round trip with 2000 feet ascent and descent to the Matterhorn. A 360-degree wilderness panorama and Fascinating geologic rock patterns reward the effort of ascending the Wallowas’ highest ridge! I tented overnight at Ice Lake before returning 7.7 miles to the trailhead.
    • From the Ice Lake Trail junction (2.8 miles one way from Wallowa Lake Trailhead) would be a worthwhile scenic extension which adds 21.3 miles round trip: a lollipop-shaped loop to Horseshoe Lake, Douglas Lake, Moccasin Lake, Mirror Lake and Glacier Lake (previously mentioned as done in 2016 on a 22-mile route from a different starting location – Two Pan Trailhead on East Lostine River).

Optionally extend your trip to nearby hikes in Hells Canyon and Eastern Oregon.

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