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Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness

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.

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1 Comment

  1. As a long time backpacker, backpack trip leader, sometimes wilderness ranger, contributing photographer to Backpacker and local resident who’s hiked extensively in the Wallowas, I was amazed at how such a short article can contain so many factual errors and such bad advice.

    Incorrect statements:
    ● “Watch for poison ivy and down trees on trails.” There is no poison ivy in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
    ● “You can follow the Imnaha River through stands of old-growth ponderosa and tamarack laced with grape and berry vines.” There are no grape vines in the Wallowas.
    ● “Other Trip Options: Wallowa Lake State Park is just on the northeast edge of the wilderness.” This looks like the kind of thing that someone wrote from thousands of miles away using lazy research. Wallowa Lake State Park is a very small park with no overnight trip options. As a matter of fact there’s not even a day hike option in the park that would take over an hour, so no, it’s not another trip option.
    ● “Location: For more information on Log County, call (800) 585-4121.” There’s no such thing as Log County in Oregon.

    Partially correct statement:
    ● “Fires are not allowed in some areas of the lakes basin. Check with the forest service for more specifics.” The statement is true but it leaves out that fires are also not allow at many other locations in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

    But the worst statement was:
    ● “You are advised to carry a saw or ax to clear downed trees from the trails.” That likely ranks as one of the worst pieces of advice ever given out in Backpacker. There’s absolutely no reason why backpackers should carry a saw or ax and there are heaps of reasons why they shouldn’t:
    1. Backpackers can walk under, over or around fallen trees. Leave the tree cutting to the trail crew or horse packers. And even if backpackers were going to cut trees that have fallen across the trail, to do so with the kind of ax (e.g. a hatchet) or light saw that a backpacker would carry would likely take a day or so to cut the average size tree that would fall across a trail.
    2. Advising backpackers to carry completely unnecessary extra weight and bulk decreases the quality of their experience without adding any benefit.
    3. Many areas of the of the Wallowas, especially sub-alpine areas with popular camps, are already suffering from the visual and ecological effects of too many people with saws and axes. (I’d be glad to expound on that if you’re interested.)

    And to top it off, I was going end by joking that at least the article got the Forest Service address right, but then I realized that the phone number listed for Hells Canyon is wrong – it goes to the “Free & Fun Party Line.” Yikes!

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