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2023 Sept: hiking Oregon’s Wallowas & Idaho’s Sawtooths

Our late-summer hiking trip to Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains and Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area was luckily sunny with no smoke (September 4–20, 2023). No reservations were required for backpacking in either area.

Photo highlights below are selected from Tom’s full trip portfolio, “2023 Sep: hike Oregon’s Wallowas; Idaho’s Sawtooths.

Wallowa Mountains, Oregon

Above: On Sacajawea-Matterhorn Ridge, admire striated patterns in fossilized Triassic reefs and volcanic rocks in Eagle Cap Wilderness.

In the Columbia Plateau of northeastern Oregon, the Wallowa Mountains offer uncrowded hikes on well-maintained trails into the scenic Eagle Cap Wilderness, within Wallowa–Whitman National Forest. The Wallowa alpine areas resemble those of California’s Sierra Nevada, but within a much shorter drive from Seattle. In this article I cover the following hikes:

  1. Ice Lake and the Matterhorn ascent
  2. Wallowa Lake Tramway
  3. Bonney Lakes
  4. Maxwell Lake (similar to nearby Chimney Lake but easier)
  5. Echo Lake

See also our Mirror Lake backpacking trip via Lostine River in 2016.

Ice Lake and the Matterhorn overnight backpack

From Wallowa Lake Trailhead, I backpacked solo to Ice Lake (7.7 miles one way with 3200 feet gain), then on the same day climbed the Matterhorn peak (3.7 miles round trip with 2000 feet ascent and descent). I tented overnight at Ice Lake before returning 7.7 miles to the trailhead.

Above: A mountain goat calmly wandered up the Matterhorn in Eagle Cap Wilderness. The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus, or Rocky Mountain Goat) is a large-hoofed mammal found only in North America. It is an even-toed ungulate in the family Bovidae, in subfamily Caprinae (goat-antelopes), in the Oreamnos genus, but is NOT a true “goat.”

Above: The Matterhorn rises over 3,000 feet above Hurricane Creek Valley, in the Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Above: The Sacajawea-Matterhorn Ridge displays a motley mix of limestone (fossilized reef) and volcanic rocks of the Martin Bridge Formation, along the Matterhorn trail.

Below: A glacier remnant rapidly melts within a cirque below Sacajawea-Matterhorn Ridge in the Wallowa Mountains.

Above: See Ice Lake at sunset, from the trail to the Matterhorn in the Wallowa Mountains.

Above and below: Red fireweed leaves at Ice Lake during evening twilight.

Above and below: The two highest peaks of the Wallowa Range reflect their white limestone in Ice Lake at sunrise, in Eagle Cap Wilderness. Sacagawea Peak (9843 ft at center right) is highest, and the Matterhorn (9826 ft to its left) is slightly shorter. The orange ridge at right is Hurwall Divide (9508–9777 ft).

Above: Adam Creek cascades along Ice Lake Trail. (See Ice Falls higher up the trail.)

Wallowa Lake Tramway

Above: From the Wallowa Lake Tramway, see beyond Wallowa Lake to the towns of Joseph and Enterprise amid squares of fertile ranchland. Opened in 1970, this aerial cable gondola lift runs 3700 feet vertically from the floor of the Wallowa Valley to the top of Mount Howard, in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. An easy walking loop of 1.5 miles with 400 feet gain circles Mount Howard for wide views into remote areas of Oregon and Idaho including Eagle Cap Wilderness, Hells Canyon, and the Bitterroot Mountains.

Three more hikes in Eagle Cap Wilderness

Above: If you have extra time in the Wallowa Lake area, hike 7.6 miles round trip with 1360 feet gain from Tenderfoot Trailhead to Bonney Lakes in Eagle Cap Wilderness (less than 1 hour drive from Joseph). Along the same trail, you can split off to hike Big Sheep Basin (6 miles round trip with 1800 ft gain).

Above: 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 your hike from 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). See also our 2016 backpacking loop to Mirror Lake.

Above: Hike 11 miles round trip with 1700 feet gain from West Eagle Trailhead to Echo Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness.

The drive from Joseph, Oregon to Stanley, Idaho is about 6.5 hours. About halfway (three hours from Joseph) is the following nice campground which we’ve enjoyed several times:

Farewell Bend State Recreation Area, Oregon

is a quiet, scenic campground with full hookups on the Snake River at Exit 353 of Interstate 84 near the Idaho border.

Above: Yellow flowers in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) bloom prolifically in September at Farewell Bend State Recreation Area, Huntington, Oregon.

Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho

On this trip, we day-hiked twice in Sawtooth Wilderness Area and backpacked for 3 days to explore Chamberlain Basin in Cecil D. Andrus–White Clouds Wilderness, all within the picturesque Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Hike Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes

Above: From Iron Creek Trailhead is a classic hike in Sawtooth Wilderness Area to visit Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes, near Stanley, Idaho.

Above: Hike 8 miles round trip with 1300 feet gain from Iron Creek Campground to Alpine Lake. Continue another mile to reach Sawtooth Lake.

Below: Sawtooth Lake is impressively large, at 8435 feet elevation. Hike 10 miles round trip with 1700 feet gain from Iron Creek Campground to visit both Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes in Sawtooth Wilderness Area.

Hike the Marshall Ridgeline

Above: Starting from from Redfish Trailhead, hike 3+ miles round trip with 700+ feet gain through sparse aspen forest to reach the scenic Marshall Ridgeline on the the Alpine Way Trail above Fishhook Creek, in Sawtooth Wilderness Area.

Below: See rugged peaks of Sawtooth Wilderness Area above aspen groves on Marshall Ridgeline.

Above: Sunrise light hits the Sawtooth Mountains, seen from Sunny Gulch Campground, in Sawtooth National Recreation Area, south of Stanley. Campsites at Sunny Gulch are spaced more generously than in the several campgrounds along the Redfish Lake roads. A handy RV dump and showers are found along Redfish Lake Road near the Lodge.

White Clouds Wilderness: Chamberlain Basin backpacking for 2 nights

Below: We backpacked for three days from Fourth of July Trailhead in Sawtooth National Recreation Area to Upper Chamberlain Lakes in Cecil D. Andrus–White Clouds Wilderness (10 miles one way with 2170 feet ascent and 1600 feet descent).
Above: Day 1 of 3: Fourth of July Lake in Sawtooth National Recreation Area (hike 1.8 miles one way, 700 feet gain).

Below:  Sunset at Washington Lake in Sawtooth National Recreation Area (3.1 miles one way with 1000 feet ascent, 200 feet descent).

Above: Day 2 of 3: Sunrise at Washington Lake in Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho, USA.

Above: Burnt forest above Germania Creek in Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Above: Castle Peak—11,815 feet, the highest in Cecil D. Andrus–White Clouds Wilderness—reflects in the largest of the lower lakes in Chamberlain Basin.

Below: Castle Peak reflects in the second highest lake in Chamberlain Basin, near our private camp at the third highest lake.

Above: From Upper Chamberlain Basin, we admire sunset on Castle Peak.

Above: Day 3 of 3: Sunrise reflections in the third highest lake in Chamberlain Basin. Throughout our overnight stay, we had the upper lakes to ourselves.

Ghost towns and more hikes in the Sawtooths area are described in my “USA: Idaho guide.

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