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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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