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They still exist, those outside-the-margins places of the world. The Wallowa Mountains are one of them.
This compact range stands alone in Oregon’s sparsely populated northeast corner, sandwiched between the Rockies and the Cascades and bounded by farmland. While America’s most popular parks and wilderness areas drew their largest-ever crowds in 2021, the Wallowas remain wonderfully out of sync. This is especially true of the area’s western side, and doubly so in winter. While the eastern Wallowas see some backcountry skiers and boarders thanks to a small hut system—and hikers, mostly local, frequent the entire range in the summer—the western portion is comparatively untouched, especially when it comes to ski touring.
That solitude is why we’re here. Over the four days we spend adventuring through the Wallowas, we don’t see another soul. Instead, we have the mountains to ourselves: thick forests of fir and spruce, their branches draped in shaggy beards of lichen. Rolling, open snow slopes sprinkled with the husks of burned trees, and impeccable ridgetop views into the craggy heart of the range. It’s perfect, it’s quiet, and it’s all ours.
On a map, this 800,000-acre region might seem unremarkable. The highest elevation is just shy of 10,000 feet, and it lacks huge glaciers or famous peaks. But the valleys are deep and broad, and when you tour the terrain in person, it’s full of small places that become writ large in your memory. Exploration over subpeaks and into microdrainages that barely register on a topo map reward us with vistas over the valleys below and perfect spring snow that turns anybody into an expert skier. The Wallowas feel taller than they really are, with striking alpine faces that look like they belong in the Swiss Alps, not rising from the wheat and fruit fields of Oregon’s Grande Ronde Valley. Each fold of the terrain holds something unexpected and well worth the schlep.
Our pathfinder through the Wallowas’ treasures is Victor McNeil, co-owner of Eagle Cap Mountain Guides. He, along with his wife and co-owner Kelly and their two golden retrievers, Sadie and Luna, seemingly know every fold of this terrain. Victor and Kelly shepherd us up switchbacking skintracks, hard snow still thawing under the early spring sun, and to the top of ski lines that cleave pristine slopes and then weave into the forest below. Sadie and Luna barrel after us, their tails whirling like propellers.
At night, we settle into benches dug out of the snow and feast on meals that feel too sumptuous for the backcountry, courtesy of Victor and Kelly’s chef friend, Aaron. On the day that we spike out to another camp, several drainages over, the potentially disappointing change to freeze-dried food takes a backseat to a watercolor Wallowas sunset. And still, no other humans. Just days-old snowmobile tracks from another party who came before us.
As backpackers, we constantly seek novelty. New trails, new mountains, new adventures. The Wallowas deliver all that and then some. As we leave, sore and sunburnt but full of gratitude, we all agree that we’ll be back. There’s too much here to explore in one trip, and we want to become familiar with it all. To know the Wallowas—a place resisting the press of the world—is to know backcountry paradise itself.
Do It: Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains
How to get there Boise Airport is 2.5 hours from La Grande, OR
Guides to hire Eagle Cap Mountain Guides
Season January to mid-April for best snow conditions