Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness

All trails lead to the top in this lake-lover's paradise.
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All trails lead to the top in this lake-lover's paradise.

Little-Known Fact: Elevations in Eagle Cap Wilderness range from 5,000 to 10,000 feet.

When I discovered I'd be moving to the northeast corner of Oregon, my first thought was to learn more about the area many call "Oregon's best-kept secret." So I purchased some maps and started pinpointing what seemed like interesting looking destinations within the Eagle Cap Wilderness tucked deep in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains.

I quit counting after I'd highlighted 27 peaks between 9,000 and 9,845 feet elevation. High ridges and glacier-carved canyons converge on Eagle Cap Mountain like spokes to a hub. The 361,466 federally protected acres within the wilderness area boast 480 miles of trails and 58 named lakes, according to the map.

The point is, there's no lack of great places to go in the Wallowas, and you can make your trip as brief or as challenging as your time and legs allow. Since that first map survey of the area, I've visited the Wallowas on many short dayhikes and three longer multiday treks of 26, 29, and 58 miles.

The longest of these trips began on the less-traveled western side of the Wallowas and traversed the heart of the wilderness, ending on the eastern side of Eagle Cap at a second car. The first day of the trek we saw about 75 head of elk in the comparatively lower, more wooded ridges of a segment of Whitman National Forest. The second morning, we sloshed across the Minam River into Wallowa National Forest and followed its gradual ascent to Minam Lake (elev. 7,600 feet). It's the origin of both the Minam River and Lostine River, which flows north from the lake, passing several national forest campgrounds on its way to State Route 82 and the valley.

Eventually, we mounted Lookout Pass (elev. 8,800 feet) and viewed an area called the lakes basin, with several of its 10 watery gems peeking at us through drifting fog. Because of its central location, you can hike to the basin from almost any direction; many of the routes would make fine weekend trips.

After enjoying the scenery and reminiscing about a previous hike to Matterhorn, where we had been guests of a nanny goat, her two yearling twins, and a frisky, foot-high kid, we began our descent down the Imnaha River - a designated Wild and Scenic River - and the eastern side of the wilderness. All too soon we reached our other shuttle vehicle, waiting to carry us back to the lowlands.

Contact Information:

Eagle Cap Ranger District

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

USDA Forest Service

Enterprise, OR 97828

(541) 426-4978

Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center

88401 Hwy. 82

Enterprise, OR 97828

(541) 426-5546

Location:

Eagle Cap Wilderness is in the heart of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in the northeastern corner of Oregon, next to Idaho and Washington. The nearest sizable towns are Enterprise to the northeast, La Grande to the northwest, and Baker City to the southwest. For more information on Log County, call (800) 585-4121.

Getting There:

Access to the area from the west is about 10 miles east of LaGrande, Oregon, and I-84. LaGrande is about four hours or 265 miles from Portland, Oregon, and about three hours or 170 miles from Boise, Idaho, all on I-84. Most hikers enter from the scenic Wallowa Valley on the northern side of Eagle Cap. The town of Enterprise in the Wallowa Valley is about four hours or 190 miles from Spokane, Washington, via U.S. 195 and SR 3.

Seasonal Information:

In winter, temperatures can dip as low as -30° F and the area may be accessible only by ski or snowshoe. In most areas the majority of the Eagle Cap Wilderness trails snow-free by July 4. The area is then normally open until late October.

In summer, temperatures can soar into the mid-90s and then dip to lows in the 40s. Be prepared for sudden changes in the weather and late-afternoon thunderstorms.

Wildlife:

Abundant wildlife features bears, cougars, deer, elk, and raptors. Bighorn sheep were re-introduced in the 1950s along with mountain goats.

Area wildlife presently classified as endangered, threatened, or sensitive include the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, ferruginous hawk, Swainson's hawk, and the western spotted frog.

Insects:

High temperatures cause insect problems: mosquitoes around wet areas and horseflies elsewhere.

Plant Life:

You can follow the Imnaha River through stands of old-growth ponderosa and tamarack laced with grape and berry vines. There are also cottonwoods and various brush and grasses, but vegetation changes with elevation.

Engelman spruce, larch, mountain hemlock, sub-alpine fir, and whitebark pine can be found in the higher elevations.

Facilities:

Camping is primitive in the wilderness, but there are a number of sites available just outside of the wilderness. National forest campgrounds ring the lakes basin area, providing convenient access points. For all of these reasons, the lakes basin can be quite crowded on summer weekends. Come after Labor Day for more solitude.

Moss Springs, Boundary, Hurricane Creek, Indian Crossing, and Twin Lakes are primitive sites very close to the wilderness borders. Of these, only Indian Crossing is a fee site.

Parking:

No information available.

Permits:

Free permits should be obtained at the trailheads, visitor center, and other forest offices May through December.

Policies:

  • Camps must be at least 200 feet from any lake.
  • Groups are limited to 12 (limited to 6 in the lakes basin).
  • Fires are not allowed in some areas of the lakes basin. Check with the forest service for more specifics.
  • Motorized vehicles and bicycles are prohibited in the wilderness.
  • Pets should be kept under control.

Hazards:

  • Watch for poison ivy and down trees on trails.
  • There are bears and cougars in the area.
  • The country is very rugged and all trails have some steep pitches.
  • You are advised to carry a saw or ax to clear downed trees from the trails.
  • Finding water can be difficult, especially in fall.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

USGS quads of Chief Joseph Mountain, North Minam Meadows, Aneroid Mountain, Eagle Cap, and Steamboat Lake cover the lakes basin and general vicinity. Consult a USGS index for more extensive coverage. USGS and Eagle Cap Wilderness maps ($6) are available from the Eagle Cap Ranger District, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

Other Trip Options:

  • Wallowa Lake State Park is just on the northeast edge of the wilderness.
  • Hells Canyon (503/426-4978), the deepest gorge in North America, lies to the east.