Saddle Creek-High Trail

  • Date: November 20-21, 2017
  • Location: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Start: Freezeout Trailhead
  • Distance: 16 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back

The search for a snow-free area to go backpacking in the Pacific Northwest can get a little tough by late November. I had originally wanted to head out to Utah or Arizona for some desert trekking, but the long drive there and back would’ve cut too much into our Thanksgiving vacation time. Searching more locally, the Honeycombs of the Owyhee Canyonlands were a particularly strong contender, but the notorious drive to reach the trailhead (and our lack of car-related emergency skills) eventually convinced us otherwise.

At the last minute (literally a day or two before we left), we decided on Hells Canyon in Eastern Oregon. It had actually been on our list for awhile, but we’d set it aside as a spring season trip. With our lack of options, we decided to give it a shot. In the end, it was a far from perfect trip (as evidenced by the trip’s duration and type, which was originally supposed to be a three to four day loop). However, despite the relatively minor setbacks that ultimately convinced us to turn around, our brief time spent in this rugged and remote section of Oregon only convinced us that we need to come back and fully experience everything it has to offer.

 

Day 1: Freezeout Trailhead to Log Creek (8 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)

After dealing with the stress of last minute trip/route planning and, thereafter, procrastinating on packing, we arrived at Freezeout Trailhead a day later than expected. My little Crosstrek was the only vehicle there that morning. Maybe it was because it was a weekday. Or maybe we were the only people dumb enough to be out there with rain and high winds in the forecast. At least we’d most likely have the place to ourselves!

The rain started as soon as we hit the trail and we got our first taste of what tread conditions were going to be like for almost the entirety of our hike in. The combination of prevalent horse use and heavy rain transformed the trails into a sloppy, shoe-sucking, mucky mess. Mud caked our boots from the get-go. Scraping it off was futile as it just continued to pile up as we hiked. In addition to the muck, sopping piles of horse shit (Cassie’s favorite trail snack unfortunately) covered our path. Thankfully, we had an expansive view of the area as we slogged up the switchbacks to Freezeout Saddle; a welcome distraction from the miserable aspects.

Looking down at all the switchbacks
Mack and Cassie nearing the saddle

According to our guidebook map and the signage at the trailhead, Freezeout Saddle is just over two miles in. However, it took us a whole two hours (with almost no breaks except to check our map) to reach it! I found it difficult to believe that we were actually moving that slow. Regardless, it meant we were losing daylight fast and still had a number of miles to cover in order to reach Saddle Creek camp. At this point, I had serious doubts about making it there or even continuing on. I wanted so badly to make our original 30-ish mile loop happen, but I knew it wasn’t likely. Knowing this fueled my desire to just turn around at the saddle, but Mack remained positive and insisted that we at least stay the night and make the most of our trip. I wasn’t thrilled in the moment, but in retrospect I’m happy he convinced me to push on.

In all honesty, we’ve dealt with worse conditions (I’m looking at you Hoh River Trail!), but for some reason, on this particular trip, I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with even the slightest amount of bullshit. If I’m being more honest, I was still feeling bitter about having to forgo our Utah plans (specifically Zion NP, where I’d seen a few friends sharing recent photos of absolutely impeccable trail and weather conditions) for something closer to home and it was messing with my attitude.

Freezeout Saddle
Looking back at where we came from

The rain had subsided by the time we reached the saddle (and blue skies were even starting to peek out from behind the clouds!), but the wind speed had picked up tremendously. We just couldn’t catch a break! We descended quickly in order to escape the blustery wrath and actually enjoyed semi-decent tread conditions and wind-free hiking for a short while. As we made our way down into the canyon, it felt more like we were journeying deeper and deeper into the heart of a vast mountain range straddling the Oregon-Idaho border. I managed to forget about my worries as I looked around me. Then conditions returned to their previous state just before the junction with the Bench “High” Trail. As if the slop fest wasn’t enough, there were even overgrown sections of tall grass thrown into the mix for an additional challenge.

Starting the descent

At the junction, we decided to turn onto the Bench “High” Trail rather than continue descending to Saddle Creek camp. With sunset less than three hours away, our best bet to avoid trekking in the dark on an unmaintained trail was to aim for Log Creek camp, only two to three miles away now. I knew by doing this we’d probably have to scrap the Snake River portion of our route, but I didn’t care anymore. I still half-wanted to turn around and go back to the car, especially when the wind picked up again and practically knocked us over for long stretches of time due to the exposed terrain. The majestic scenery along the Bench Trail managed to pull me back in though.

To our left, towering above us, was the rim of the canyon on the Oregon side. The Western Rim National Recreation Trail was somewhere up there paralleling our current path. To our right lay the Snake River somewhere far below and the outstretched rolling hills and rocky slopes of the Idaho side. We also happened to be moving in the same direction as a giant herd of elk! Over the course of two hours or so we encountered this large group of 30 to 40 at least four times. Cassie went crazy over them, barking and pulling hard on her leash. They continued ahead when they heard us, moving with grace and ease as a unit over the steep, rocky slopes.

Junction with Bench “High” Trail
We took the path on the left
So many elk!

We reached camp around 2:25 pm. (Side note: For those interested in hiking some of this route and camping here, know that this spot is completely unmarked/unsigned. Bring along a good map and be able to find Log Creek on it. The camping spot is a short ways off the trail on a noticeably impacted site.) It wasn’t raining anymore and we were out of the wind. Maybe our luck was about to change? Nope. Instead of getting to relax and de-stress, we were swarmed by gnats. It was impossible to sit outside and enjoy the nice weather and scenery, even if we moved around. They followed us everywhere! I spent our down time in camp swatting them away from my face and picking them out of Cassie’s hair. The gnat attack made cooking dinner an absolute nightmare of course. We barely managed enough to eat because of it.

The only time the swarm finally subsided was when it started to pour again. We were still finishing dinner when it started up. We scrambled to get our food hung and hauled ass back to the tent. Cassie was so desperate to get in she belly crawled under the rainfly and pawed at the tent. She was covered in mud though so she was forced to hold out a little longer until we could wipe her down. She was not happy about this and literally gave us the cold shoulder for the rest of the night. We attempted to salvage the rest of our evening with cocoa and holiday movies as we listened to the rain patter on the tent.

Looking up at the rim

Campsite near Log Creek (as seen from the trail)

 

Day 2: Log Creek to Freezeout Trailhead (8 miles; 4 hours, breaks included)

We awoke in better spirits the next morning, although I think a good deal of that can be attributed to the fact that we’d already decided to cut our trip short and hike back out. With the decent weather, the gnats were back in full force as we packed up the tent. Despite being extremely hungry (especially after not eating enough the previous day), we skipped the sit-down breakfast and stashed snacks in our pockets so we could get moving instead. I munched on my Poptart as we hiked once we’d put some distance between ourselves and the gnats.

Morning snuggles

We’re totally getting attacked by gnats in this picture

We hiked a lot faster this time around while still taking moments here and there to appreciate our surroundings. The conditions hadn’t improved of course, but by this point we were used to it and had clean socks and shoes to look forward to back at the car. Freezeout Saddle remained in view for much of the Bench Trail part of the hike. Always getting closer, but still feeling faraway. I wasn’t looking forward to the final climb up to it.

Storm a-brewin’ it seems

Still a ways from the saddle (upper right)
Miles and miles of this stuff

As expected, the two mile climb from the junction back up to the saddle was the most difficult part of the day. On top of that, the wind and rain had returned and clouds had descended upon much of the Idaho side (i.e. no more expansive views). The Poptart I’d scarfed down a few miles back had done little to satisfy my aching stomach. We were getting closer now though. I daydreamed about all the food we had stashed in the cooler in the car and it kept me moving.

Starting the climb up from the junction
Last bit of bushwhacking!

Cloudy views from near the top

The weather (with the exception of the wind) seemed to instantly improve once we began to make our way down the opposite side of the saddle. We had views again! Somehow though Mack and I had swapped places in terms of general demeanor. Now he was the one in a cranky mood, anxious to get back and change out of his mud covered pants and boots. (Oddly enough, I managed to stay mostly mud-free with the exception of the bottom and sides of my boots) Fortunately, this final stretch went by quickly and before we knew it we were back at the car by 1:15 pm, throwing on clean, dry clothes, and stuffing our faces with bagels and other snacks.

As we sat there in the car, resting up before the long drive back home, I actually felt a tinge of sadness that we were leaving so early. Despite the crappy weather, awful trail conditions, and swarming gnats, the beauty and solitude we’d experienced over the past two days were what stood out in my mind (even if they didn’t completely outweigh some of the negative aspects). Well, Hells Canyon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon as far as I know. We’ll definitely be back to explore more thoroughly in the near future I imagine.

Elkhorn Crest Trail

  • Date: July 21-23, 2017
  • Location: Blue Mountains (Eastern Oregon)
  • Start: Marble Pass Trailhead
  • Distance: 27.6 (not including hike up to trailhead)
  • Duration: 3 days
  • Type: Point-to-point
  • References: Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain; Outdoor Project

Since Mack and I began backpacking together over two years ago, it’s always been just the two of us. Hell, even a majority of our day trips (hiking and trail running) are done alone without the company of other friends. At the end of last summer, we and a couple of friends, Kaylyn and Evan, threw around the idea of doing a trip together in the future. By January of this year, we’d figured out dates, picked a location, and solidified the route!

Two weeks before our adventure was to begin, we found out that Gothic Basin (near the North Cascades), our intended destination, was still under quite a bit of snow. Neither of us wanted to haul snow gear up to camp nor deal with sketchy trail conditions/navigation for this particular trip, so I frantically searched for another option. Just like two years ago when Mack and I were turned down for the Wonderland Trail and looking for another option, Douglas Lorain’s Backpacking Oregon saved the day. The Elkhorn Crest Trail, a point-to-point route along the Elkhorn Mountains (a subrange of the Blue Mountains) in Eastern Oregon, presented itself as the perfect alternative.

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Day 1: Marble Pass Trailhead to Twin Lakes (4.8 miles, plus additional 3-4 miles hiking up to the trailhead; 4 hours 18 minutes, breaks included)

On Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours since returning from Glacier Peak, Mack, Cassie, and I made the long drive out to Anthony Lake. Our trip didn’t officially start until the following morning, but getting a few hours of sleep in the car sounded far more appealing than driving out at 2 or 3 am in order to make an 8 am shuttle pick-up. Kaylyn and Evan opted to do the early morning drive and at 8 am we all piled into the shuttle that would take us to Marble Pass.

It probably sounds a little ridiculous that we decided to hire a shuttle, especially since we had two cars to work with. However, the forest road leading up to the trailhead is notoriously rough and steep. Neither of our cars seemed suitable and we didn’t want to take the chance of bottoming out on the way up or back down this road. Ironically enough, our shuttle ended up breaking down just as we were starting up this section! We ended up with a few extra miles tacked onto our low mileage day, so it wasn’t too bad for us. Unfortunately, our poor driver (with no food or water, low battery on his phone, and no other coworkers to come get him) had to hike back down in search of a ride to get back to work! (We found out after the trip that he didn’t have to hike too long before getting a ride)

After just over an hour and a half of hiking, we finally reached Marble Pass TH around 11 am and took shelter from the sun below some trees to enjoy a short lunch. Less than five miles until our destination for the day!

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An unexpected part of the day’s route: the road to Marble Pass

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Although walking along this completely open ridgeline meant full exposure to the hot sun, it also meant stellar views as we hiked. Since the trail stays primarily on the west side of the Elkhorn Crest, the most prominent views for the day were of the Sumpter Valley and Phillips Lake to the southwest. We continued at a leisurely pace, watching our footing on the loose volcanic rock comprising much of the trail surface. A few patches of snow served as a small reminder of the long, harsh winter that had hit this area earlier in the year. Cassie, being the snow-loving dog that she is, seized every opportunity to roll around in them to cool herself off.

The four-ish miles to the junction with Twin Lakes Trail went by fairly quickly (most likely due to the lack of elevation change). The cool, sparkling waters of the lakes in the basin below beckoned to us after hours in the sun. At the junction, we also got our first taste of the high mountain goat population in the area! Just as we were approaching the junction, Evan spotted one a few yards in front of us. Fortunately, these goats appear to be less habituated to people (unlike those in the Enchantments) and it quickly scampered off when it saw us. We made our way down the switchbacks of Twin Lakes Trail, eager to make camp and check out the lakes.

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Looking back at Marble Pass

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It was a little toasty outside
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First view of Twin Lakes (with Rock Creek Butte towering in the background)

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It was just before 1:45 pm when we finally made it down and finished our hiking for the day. We set up our camp within a small grove of trees then walked down to Lower Twin Lake, the larger and more accessible of the two lakes. We saw at least three mountain goats on the opposite side of the lake. One stood/sat perched on a rocky overlook as if to oversee the goings-on of the lake below. Another two or three walked along the edge of the lake, grazing here and there along the way. I don’t recall ever seeing this much wildlife on any of our trips so it was pretty exciting to experience!

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Guardian of Lower Twin Lake (can you spot it?)
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Lower Twin Lake

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After getting some relaxation time down at the lake, we returned to camp for dinner. Mack and I went about our semi-lazy routine of heating water in the Jetboil to throw on our instant mashed potatoes. Kaylyn and Evan actually made an effort and brought along a delicious mixed vegetable chili that they cooked/reheated in a pot! They were kind enough to share some of the chili with us. It tasted fantastic mixed in with our mashed potatoes. As much as I hate cooking (both in the outdoors and in everyday life), that chili had me reconsidering my “cooking takes too much effort” stance.

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Always sleeping

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Camp vibes
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Goat hair!

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Mack, Cassie, and I decided to go for an evening stroll around the lakes area. Although we hadn’t seen too many goats since being down at Lower Twin Lake earlier, we did see the same goat several times throughout the afternoon wandering through the campsite areas. This time, it was grazing along the shore as we walked. Surprisingly, Cassie did not seem too bothered. After reaching the far end of Lower Twin, we decided to walk back up and see the more hidden Upper Twin Lake. The rocky cliffs above Upper Twin blocked out the sun, making the area more cool, shaded, and moodier compared to Lower Twin. All the visitors to the basin stayed down near Lower Twin, so Upper Twin remained calm and quiet, completely void of people with the exception of me and Mack.

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Getting some dinner along Lower Twin Lake
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Upper Twin Lake

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Back at camp, our curious goat friend returned again and again, sometimes sneaking up on us while we were lost in conversation. Despite its persistence, it always ran away when we shouted at it or tossed some stones in its general direction. I did take advantage of the fact that it kept returning and snapped a few photos (from a good distance away I should add, zooming in with my camera). Not sure when I’ll get to see these magnificent creatures up close again! We turned in for the night and kept our fingers crossed that our food bags would still be in tact when we woke up.

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A frequent visitor

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Day 2: Twin Lakes to Summit Lake (12.8 miles; 7 hours 15 minutes, breaks included)

Despite knowing that our second day would be our longest, we decided to take our time in the morning. Why rush? We had all day to get to camp afterall. We didn’t start the hike out of the basin until 9:15 am. Just like the day before, the sun was shining and the sky was clear. Another fortunate bluebird day on the trail!

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Prior to the trip, we’d discussed the idea of scrambling up Rock Creek Butte (the highest point in the Elkhorn Range at 9,106 feet), but with the late start we decided against it. It was difficult to pass it by and not give it a go though. Maybe next time! A little over five miles into our hike we arrived at the junction with the Pole Creek Ridge Trail. It was 11:45 am and this junction would be the only one until the junction with Summit Lake Trail (still another 6.6 miles away). We settled down here for a few minutes to eat some lunch and take in the view of the Blue Mountains stretched out before us.

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Rock Creek Butte

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Pole Creek Ridge Trail junction

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After our lunch break, Mack and I noticed Cassie becoming more and more lethargic. We’d been giving her water and snacks regularly, but Cassie is picky sometimes. She really only likes to drink water from streams, creeks, puddles, and ponds,–basically anything that’s not her water bowl–so sometimes when we tried to give her water, she refused to drink. Her energy level continued to drop dramatically and she was breathing heavily. Any time we walked through an ounce of shade, she would plop down, sprawl herself out on the ground, and refuse to budge. Concerned that these were the first signs of doggy heat stroke, we removed her pack, allowed her several minutes of rest each time we reached a shady spot, doused her in water to cool her down, and even carried her in our arms when she didn’t want to walk. Although Cassie has dealt with heat before and completed far more strenuous hikes, climbs, and trail runs, this was the first route we’d done with her that lacked water sources. Thankfully, after we’d made it through (very slowly I might add) a majority of the 6.6-mile stretch, we came across an ice cold spring. Cassie immediately sat down in the water, drank to her heart’s content, and stayed there the entire time we filled up our water bladders and bottles.

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So many wildflowers!
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She was so hot 😦
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Hitching a ride with Mack
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A well deserved dunk in the spring

The next section of the trail was one of my favorites. Although volcanic rock still made an occasional appearance, granite was now far more prevalent. We were also walking beneath more trees, and through more grasslands and sections bursting with wildflowers. It also felt like we had traveled deeper into the mountains. The valley and farmland below that we were able to see earlier was no longer in sight. Now it was just green, forested mountains. Cassie’s spirits seemed to be lifted after that dunk in the spring, so we were able to move at a quicker pace then we had been. Before we knew it, we’d reached the junction with the Summit Lake Trail.

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I’m carrying Cassie’s pack so she didn’t have to wear it

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We walked beneath granite cliffs, then descended into the cool shade of the forest. I’m quite certain this was the first time we’d entered a legitimate forest since beginning the trip! In addition to the relief it provided from the sun, we were also rewarded with a couple more water sources. We exited the forest shortly after and looked down below on Little Summit Lake, initially thinking it was Summit Lake (which would’ve been disappointing considering this lake looked more like a bog). A quick map check reassured us that Summit Lake would be on the other side of the trail and above us (not below us). As if by the power of our collective wishful thinking, we found ourselves gazing out over the true Summit Lake just a minute or two after the map check.

Not only was the lake itself enchanting, but the basin that holds it, surrounded by unnamed, 8,000+ feet granite peaks, stopped me in my tracks multiple times while we sought out a campsite. As soon as we found a site large enough to accommodate both of our tents, we dropped our packs and walked out to the water via a rocky peninsula jutting out from the camp area. The granite peaks at the southern end of the lake were perfectly reflected in the calm, still water. It was 4:30 already, so enjoying a swim in the lake now made more sense than setting up right away. Cassie, on the other hand, had no interest in getting in the water. She stayed nearby and curled up beneath a tree, falling fast asleep within seconds.

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Granite cliffs
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Summit Lake

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The rest of the evening passed quickly since we arrived later in the day. We spent much of it around the fire ring talking, eating, chasing away pesky ground squirrels. I hadn’t experienced such a socially involved backcountry trip since my NOLS course two years ago, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until now. Before this trip, Mack, Kaylyn, Evan, and I hadn’t spent much time together outside of infrequent social gatherings, and yet here we were getting to know one another in a far more vulnerable setting. I was actually pretty amazed at how well it was all going!

We continued to enjoy solitude as the afternoon melded into the evening. Although I did see one or two other people at the southern end of the lake, not a single person came out to the northern tip where we were camped. We had the place entirely to ourselves on a beautiful summer night. A perfect ending to our final full day in the Elkhorns.

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Summit Lake at sunset

 

Day 3: Summit Lake to Elkhorn Crest Trailhead at Anthony Lake (10 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)

In an effort to make it out by noon and avoid hiking in the heat of the day, we departed Summit Lake at 7 am, stocking up on water at the creeks we’d passed in the forest the afternoon prior. Despite experiencing slight confusion at a four-way junction near Columbia Hill (after getting back on the Elkhorn Crest Trail), the rest of the way was straightforward and easy to navigate. We skirted the west side of Mount Ruth, another stunning, pyramid-shaped granite peak, and dropped down to Lost Lake Saddle, where we enjoyed mountains views, as well as a view of Lost Lake down below. We ended up seeing quite a few lakes on our final day!

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Following the junction with Lost Lake Trail we continued along the west side of the crest, still gaining elevation and wondering when we’d finally get to the downhill section. After Cunningham Saddle, the terrain to the west of us transformed from mountains to spacious meadow. It looked so clean cut I thought we’d stumbled upon a golf course in the middle of Wilderness. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t think to take a picture here.

At Dutch Flat Saddle/Dutch Flat Lake Trail junction, with only 3.5 miles remaining, we took a break in the shade to load up on whatever snacks we had left. As soon as we started walking again, we ran into several people and three or four dogs coming down from the saddle near Angell Peak (our final climb of the day we found out!). It was the most people we’d seen since hiking to Twin Lakes two days earlier and reminded us that we were basically back in the frontcountry. Solitude was officially over. Thankfully, the final trek down from the saddle was one of the most beautiful sections of the entire hike that day. Fields of granite boulders, forested mountain slopes, and the prominent Van Patten Butte rising high above the slightly hidden Black Lake comprised the picturesque landscape before us. After reentering the forest area adjacent to Black and Anthony Lakes, we were back at the car in 20 minutes or less. It was exactly 12 pm when we stepped into the parking area.

We treated ourselves to pizza and beer at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort (which is where we ran into our shuttle driver from Friday) before making the drive back to Portland. Although we didn’t discuss it, I can definitely see all of us plotting out more backcountry adventures together in the future. As much as Mack and I love adventuring alone, going with friends brought even more joy to the experience than I thought it would. A pleasant surprise that I hope we can make happen again.

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Wallowa River Loop

(Original post date: July 29, 2015)

  • Date: July 23-28, 2015
  • Location: Eagle Cap Wilderness
  • Start: Wallowa Lake Trailhead
  • Distance: 51.2 miles
  • Duration: 6 days
  • Type: Loop
  • Map: Green Trails Map 475SX: Wallowa Mountains
  • References: Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain

In my last post, I expressed my deep disappointment in getting turned down for the Wonderland Trail. Now I can say, without a doubt, that I’m glad we got turned down. Circumnavigating one glorious mountain sounds fantastic, but being amongst numerous breathtaking mountains (and mountain lakes!) for nearly a week is an experience I can barely begin to describe. What’s more is this trip represents only a small portion of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. There is still so much more of it left to explore and experience! Mack and I definitely look forward to coming back.

Pros:

  • Lives up to the “Little Switzerland” nickname–you are constantly surrounded by unmatched beauty
  • Peakbaggers paradise (Matterhorn, Sacajawea, Eagle Cap, Aneroid, Pete’s Point, etc.)
  • Water is plentiful; we didn’t need to carry 10 lbs of water since it was easy to resupply each time we made camp
  • Permits are FREE and UNLIMITED
  • Parking at Wallowa Lake Trailhead doesn’t require a pass

Cons:

  • HORSE POOP EVERYWHERE (especially near Wallowa Lake Trailhead)–you seriously can’t walk 10 ft without running into some and it often times covers the entire width of the trail
  • Trail can be rough and rocky; mixed in with the horse poop dilemma and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a sprained ankle
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Official welcome

 

Day 1: Wallowa Lake Trailhead to Ice Lake (8.2 miles; 3 hours 40 minutes, breaks not included)

The trailhead is about 5.5 hours away from Portland, so we left around 3 am with hopes of getting there around 9 am. Unfortunately, we had to turn around about 20 minutes into the drive because I realized we forgot to pack our trekking poles (which ended up being soooo pivotal throughout the trip), so after turning around and picking them up, we were officially on the road by 4 am. Lesson learned: always review your entire checklist the day you leave, not just the day you pack. We arrived at the trailhead around 9:30 am and, following a few miscellaneous preparations, officially began our hike around 10 am.

The first 3 miles were a breeze (despite the aforementioned horse poop dilemma). The real climbing began once we turned onto Ice Lake Trail. To reach Ice Lake, we followed this trail uphill for about 5 miles. Although it required some serious work–our packs were at their heaviest the first day–views of endless mountains blanketed with forests, meadows, and waterfalls made the trek feel much easier.

Crossing West Fork Wallowa River

Beautiful views along Ice Lake Trail

We arrived at Ice Lake around 2 pm. Clouds were starting to roll in and the wind was picking up. I’d read that afternoon thunderstorms were common in the Wallowas, so I was anxious to set the tent up quickly. Prior to this, Mack and I had never set up our tent while the wind was blowing. It took us nearly 15 minutes (when it usually takes us less than 3 or 4 minutes) to get the tent up and attach the rainfly. Lesson learned: stake the footprint first (to keep it from blowing away), attach the tent to the stakes, then do the pole setup. After a brief freak storm of wind and rain, we enjoyed blue skies and sun as we took in the magnificence that is Ice Lake. Dark, yet clear waters cradled by towering peaks (including Matterhorn), and only reachable by miles of climbing, make this lake a seemingly hidden gem. We endured a few more weather mood swings before turning in, but we did end up waking up for a few minutes around 10 or 11 pm to gaze up at the stars. The night sky in the Wallowas is definitely something to behold.

First view of Ice Lake

Ice Lake campsite

 

Day 2: Ice Lake to Matterhorn (and back), then Ice Lake to West Fork Wallowa/Ice Lake Junction (10.1 miles; 5 hours 43 minutes, breaks not included)

Although we considered beginning our ascent of Matterhorn in the dark (to see the sunrise at the summit), we decided against it since we weren’t familiar with the path. Fortunately, the climber’s path (located along the right side of Ice Lake) is very clear the entire way up. In addition, cairns are present whenever the path disappears due to changes in terrain. The climb is steep, but fairly short, and you have an amazing view of Ice Lake down below. Mountain goats also use the climber’s path (as was evident by the numerous tracks, droppings, and tufts of fur). Although we didn’t see any, we could hear them on the rocks below the summit (probably making their way back down). After summiting the Matterhorn, we made our way across to the unnamed middle peak hoping to traverse the ridge between this peak and Sacajawea Peak. Sadly, after assessing the ridge (which is notoriously sketchy) in conjunction with gale force winds (okay…I might be exaggerating a little, but it really was quite windy), we decided not to make the traverse. After a short break we began the descent, cutting cross country down the Hurwal Divide rather than re-summiting Matterhorn to access the boot path. All in all, it was a great way to start the day.

View from Matterhorn summit
Rockpile on Matterhorn summit

Walking towards the middle peak
View of Ice Lake from the middle peak
Ridge leading to the summit of Sacajawea Peak

Descending Hurwal Divide
Mack constructing his own cairn

Since we completed our summit early, we thought it would be nice to relax at camp before heading out. Little did we know what awaited us…

While we were out, we had been ransacked by chipmunks! Before heading out to climb Matterhorn, I made the foolish decision to leave our food bags inside the tent. I figured since everything was sealed in various odor proof Opsaks (and placed within an Ursack) that it would be fine. I was dead wrong. The chipmunks–I believe there were at least two–chewed thru our tent, leaving two gaping holes. They managed to squeeze into our tightly fastened Ursacks and chew thru some of the Opsaks. Although they only managed to destroy my toiletries bag, they tore into Mack’s food bag and opened several packets of Emergen-C, leaving the powdery contents piled all over his sleeping bag and pad. After a minor breakdown and a couple of hissy fits, we pulled ourselves together. We patched up the tent using duct tape, cleaned the Emergen-C (as well as other “little surprises” left by those devilish rodents) using wet wipes, and sealed the torn Opsaks using the tent guylines. Lesson learned: NEVER leave food–no matter how well sealed–inside the tent; DUCT TAPE IS GOD–always pack it!

Damn chipmunks…
Campsite at West Fork Wallowa Trail/Ice Lake Trail junction

First patch job
Other patch job

 

Day 3: West Fork Wallowa/Ice Lake Junction to Moccasin Lake (9.7 miles; 4 hours 30 minutes, breaks not included)

We finally made it to the Lakes Basin Management Area on this day! We left camp around 7 am and took our first break at Six Mile Meadow–a beautiful place to camp when we make our way out here again. It was here that we had to do some route finding (involving map and compass) for the first time. After losing the trail at a creek with no obvious means of crossing, Mack and I took out the map to doublecheck our location and used the compass to ensure we were traveling in the right direction. After confirming both were correct, Mack did a little more scouting and noticed two halves of a wiped out bridge located beneath some logs and partially submerged in the water. The trail continued on the opposite side of the creek and it appeared that people had been crossing using the various logs strewn across the creek. We followed suit and, upon reaching the other side, traced a giant arrow in the dirt to (hopefully) help direct other hikers.

Washed out bridge
Another section of the washed out bridge

From Six Mile Meadow, it was all uphill to the first lake in the basin, Horseshoe Lake. This was supposed to be our stop for the day, but since it was only 10:30 am we decided to head out further. We kicked off our shoes and enjoyed cooling our hot feet in the clear blue waters of Horseshoe for a few minutes before hiking to Moccasin Lake about 3 miles away. After more uphill hiking in the scorching sun—thank goodness for the Nuun in our water—we made it to the long (less rounded) stretch of water known as Moccasin Lake in the early afternoon. After setting up camp, we took some time to explore the lush wildflower meadow surrounding the lake and got a glimpse of magnificent Eagle Cap, another peak we hope to summit in the future.

Horseshoe Lake

First view of Moccasin Lake

Favorite view of Moccasin Lake

Moccasin Lake campsite

 

Day 4: Moccasin Lake to Frazier Lake (5 miles; 2 hours 8 minutes, breaks not included)

Despite the steep climb over Glacier Pass, day four was definitely our most relaxing day. It only took us a little over an hour to reach the top and as soon as we began the descent we were rewarded with a spectacular sight: Glacier Lake. Mack and I both agree that this was our favorite lake of the entire trip. It’s situated right below Eagle Cap, so you have a grand view of the mountain, and the waters are a clear, light turquoise (like tropical beach waters). Since we only had another 2 miles to cover, we stopped for nearly an hour to enjoy the lake. We even went for a brief—and I mean brief—dip in the lake! Cold, but very refreshing. We felt a little bit cleaner for the time being.

View of Moccasin Lake far below us
Heading up to Glacier Pass

First view of Glacier Lake

Incredible view of the entire lake and Eagle Cap

Following our break at Glacier Lake, we descended thru the most amazing valley. Mack mentioned that he felt like he was walking thru a section of Middle Earth! It was truly the most magical section of the entire trip. I don’t think my pictures can even begin to do it justice. We arrived at Frazier Lake soon after. Although not nearly as stunning or pristine as some of the other alpine lakes—it closely resembles a shallow, murky watering hole—it is surrounded by beautiful mountains and meadows. Unlike with the other lakes, we decided not to refill our water directly from the lake. Instead, we backtracked a little ways and scooped water from a nearby creek.

One of our favorite sections of the entire trip

Frazier Lake campsite

Frazier Lake

 

Day 5: Frazier Lake to Aneroid Lake (11.9 miles, plus 2 miles due to backtracking; 6 hours 17 minutes, breaks not included)

Day five was by far our most difficult day; quite possibly the most difficult hike we’ve ever done together. Although we’ve done longer hikes, as well as hikes with greater elevation gain, we’ve never had to brave the elements as much as we were forced to do on this day.

We started out early (just before 6 am) because I wanted to get over Polaris Pass before the afternoon (since thunderstorms are common around that time). Within a half hour of hiking we reached West Fork Wallowa River, and there was no means of crossing it. At first we tried to create a stepping stone path by tossing boulders across the river since it wasn’t very wide. Unfortunately, the water was too deep. To add insult to injury—more like the other way around in this case—I slipped with my pack on while maneuvering myself to a safer spot and pulled a muscle in my shoulder. We’d barely hiked a mile. Realizing there was nothing else we could do, we removed our boots and socks then donned our flip flops. Although the river didn’t look very deep, it came up to my knees in a few spots. (Note: My height is slightly below 5 feet) It was a new experience for both of us, but definitely one I’d prefer to avoid. Nonetheless, we were proud of ourselves when we reached the other side safely. Aside from the elevation gain we anticipated for Polaris Pass, I honestly thought that river crossing would be the most difficult feat of the day. I was wrong.

The portion after the river crossing was easy going, and the junction with Polaris Pass was only a mile or so away. However, after an hour of hiking we still hadn’t seen the junction. I figured we’d started a little slow since the terrain was pretty rocky coming out of Frazier Lake. Another 20 minutes went by and still nothing. I was worried and expressed my concern to Mack. We took out the compass and it confirmed what I already suspected. We were hiking in the wrong direction. Mack mentioned that at one of the streams we’d passed he’d seen a post with orange tape around it, but he didn’t bring it up thinking it was some sort of cautionary post about the stream crossing. He also assumed that I had seen it. I had not since I was too preoccupied watching my feet while crossing said stream. We backtracked about a mile uphill until we came to the post and, sure enough, there was a trail leading up to Polaris Pass. I was fuming. We climbed in silence for the next hour and a half.

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Crossing West Fork Wallowa River

Less-than-obvious junction with Polaris Trail
Switchbacking up to Polaris Pass

Polaris Trail is a series of seemingly endless switchbacks. The grade isn’t particularly steep because of this, but it really does take a long time to ascend. As we neared the top, I noticed we were approaching a near vertical rock face comprised of loose, sliding rock. I figured the trail would somehow wind thru this section to reach the top. It wasn’t until we got closer that I noticed a faint path etched into the rock. We had to climb it.

I am not scared of heights. I love the thrill of a steep and exposed climb. However, the final stretch up to Polaris Pass was absolutely terrifying. The trail was narrow and the terrain was unstable. In fact, I slipped once and had to dig my trekking poles into the ground to keep from sliding down further. Picking myself up with a giant pack attached to me was no easy chore and I remained on edge the rest of the way up. On top of all this, the wind picked up tremendously and it started to hail. Of all the days…

We finally stumbled to the top of Polaris Pass after 2.5 hours of climbing. The wind and hail had not ceased and we were freezing our asses off. We hiked furiously downhill, hoping the weather would clear up once we reached lower elevation. WRONG. AGAIN. Next we were hit with sleet. We kept hiking faster, trying to stay warm. As we neared Tenderfoot Pass, we walked straight into a snow storm! At this point all of our layers (including our footwear) were soaked thru. We were definitely concerned for our safety. It wasn’t until the final mile or so that the snow and wind subsided. I can say with complete certainty that I have never been more happy to see a lake in my entire life. We arrived at Aneroid Lake shivering like crazy, our fingers and toes almost completely numb.

We set up the tent quickly, removed our sopping wet socks and boots, and curled up in our sleeping bags. I don’t think our core temperatures returned to normal until the next day, but I was just happy that we made it thru a potentially dire situation.

Hiking in hail

Still hailing at the top of Polaris Pass

Hiking through a snowstorm on the way to Tenderfoot Pass
Attempting to dry our boots and socks

Aneroid Lake campsite
Aneroid Lake

 

Day 6: Aneroid Lake to Wallowa Lake Trailhead (6.3 miles; 2 hours 27 minutes, breaks not included)

After the trials of day five, our hike out was a breeze. We woke up a little after 4 am, packed up quickly, and headlamped it out just before 5 am. It was a cold morning. The rainfly was covered in frost when I put it away. And the grass glistened with crystalline specks. Our boots were still soaked from the day before, but the discomfort was tolerable since we only had a little over 6 miles to hike. Most of our hike was downhill, making it easy to move fast (although the increasing amount of horse poop and rocky terrain slowed me down as we neared the trailhead). Once Wallowa Lake was in sight, we knew we were close. We reached the trailhead around 7:30 am. The car was a welcoming sight, knowing that clean clothes awaited us inside.

Aneroid Lake before sunrise

Wallowa Lake

Second backpacking trip complete 🙂

It had been a stinky, sweaty, and adventure-filled week. I was sad to see it end. But we finished with many stories to share and experiences to learn from. And the Wallowas have further solidified my love for the Pacific Northwest. I look forward to our next adventure here.

Ready, Set, Go!

(Original post date: July 21, 2015)

After getting turned down for a wilderness permit to do the Wonderland Trail, I was uncertain about where to go instead. I’d already spent weeks poring over maps, books, and numerous trip reports. In addition, I was incredibly excited to be going to Mount Rainier National Park. I lived in Washington for 14 years, but our family never got around to visiting the park. I’ll admit that I teared up a little bit when I opened that rejection letter.

I went back to Lorain’s book to research an alternative trip. I’d barely started flipping through pages when Mack made a suggestion that almost immediately brought me out of my despair: the Wallowas. At the time, all I knew about the Wallowas was that they are a mountain range in Northeastern Oregon, considered one of Oregon’s 7 Wonders. As I read more about them, I came upon phrases such as the “Alps of Oregon” and “Little Switzerland.” I was hooked.

Lorain’s book includes several different trips to do in the Wallowas. We decided on the Wallowa River Loop, which takes us through the popular Lakes Basin Management Area in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Although he suggests hiking the loop clockwise, we plan to do it counter-clockwise in order to summit Matterhorn and Sacajawea Peak (the two highest peaks in the Wallowas!) on the second day, while we still have energy. Below is our current itinerary:

  • Day 1: Wallowa Lake Trailhead to Ice Lake (8.2 miles)
  • Day 2: Summit Matterhorn and Sacajawea Peak, then return to Ice Lake (5.5 miles)
  • Day 3: Ice Lake to Horseshoe Lake (11.4 miles)
  • Day 4: Horseshoe Lake to Frazier Lake (8.4 miles)
  • Day 5: Frazier Lake to Aneroid Lake (11.9 miles)
  • Day 6: Aneroid Lake to Wallowa Lake Trailhead (6.3 miles)
Eagle Cap Wilderness:Wallowas Backpacking Trip
Imus Geographics Eagle Cap Wilderness Map

Our adventure begins in two days! Minus food and water, we have our gear packed and ready. My base weight is around 18 lbs and Mack’s is around 21 lbs. We’re working on paring these down, so hopefully those numbers will be a little smaller before we leave.

Theresa’s gear
Mack’s gear

We look forward to sharing about our experience when we return!