A backpacking trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Northeastern Oregon has been on our longtime bucket list of places to go in the Pacific Northwest for several decades.
Just four hours away from the Tri-Cities, this legendary location is the largest wilderness area in the state of Oregon.
It encompasses some 400,000 acres, has 31 peaks all higher than 8,000 feet, and over 50 miles of trail for those who are brave enough to try it either on foot or horseback.
One of the other members of the Inter-Mountain Alpine Club planned out an impromptu three-day adventure and invited us along.
The group left Tri-Cities at 6 a.m. and got to the Wallowa Lake Trailhead, just south of the remote alpine town of Joseph, Ore., about 10 a.m. This is one of several popular gateways into the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Being Labor Day weekend with excellent weather in the forecast, there were cars parked at nearly every available spot for half a mile along both sides of the dead-end road.
But the crowds dispersed onto the various trailhead options. In a little while, you are wrapped in the glorious solitude of the wilderness.
We planned on doing three-day, two-night hikes on the Wallowa River Loop Trail — a total of 24.7 miles with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and loss, all with 30 pound-plus backpacks on our backs carrying all our food and gear, including some wine, of course.
We started walking at 11 a.m., going up the valley on a delightful and well-maintained forested trail adjacent to the cool rushing river. We stopped after two hours and had a quick lunch on the trail.
Revived, we then kept walking past Six Mile Meadow. Here the trail splits, and we took the trail to the south and headed on a clockwise direction on the loop.
At eight miles, the trail begins to seriously climb higher. If you stop and look back over your shoulder, you are rewarded with remarkable views of the stark, rocky granite formations that crown the sides of the deeply glaciated valley.
After hiking six hours and climbing nearly three thousand feet in three miles and over a pass, we arrived at our first overnight destination — Fraser Lake at 7,127 feet in elevation.
The next morning, the star-studded skies gave way to the rising sun and blue skies, creating spectacular views of Cusick Mountain and Jackson Peak reflecting in the mirror glass Fraser Lake.
We had breakfast, broke camp and began hiking. As we started off on the days’ trek, a dappled red fox darted right by us not 30 feet away, apparently having learned to scavenge for food scraps at one campsite after the next.
It is a slow and steady climb for about two hours, and then you make it to a crest and, voila, you are over the top of a moraine and looking at Glacier Lake with Glacier Peak at 9495 feet, and Eagle Cap Mountain at 9,572 feet towering above. This is the halfway point and it is a truly magical place.
It was time to relax, have some lunch, take a swim and soak up the incredible views and stark magnificence of this high-elevation glaciated environment.
Once you’ve had enough, we climbed up another 400 feet, to the top of Glacier Pass at 8,466 feet and gazed out at the truly remarkable views in all directions.
Heading down the trail
Congratulations! From here, it’s pretty much all downhill. Only 12 more miles till the next beer.
After reviving sufficiently, we started heading down the valley, first going past Moccasin Lake, where you can take a rest, soak your feet or even jump into the cool, clean water.
Then it’s on to Douglas Lake then Horseshoe Lake to camp for the night. All told, it’s about eight miles for the second day with a bit of elevation ups and down.
On the final day, we broke camp and headed down two steep miles to the loop trail junction at Six Mile Meadow, and then finished that last downhill trek to the cars.
One the last day of the hike some seven miles from the parking lot, I scrambled off the trail and up a slope to get the view above the trees and take a picture of the entire valley — a remarkable viewpoint that captured the entire 25-mile loop from a single point.
A grizzly, unshaven middle-aged hiking guy just like me happened to walk by.
He was Lee Jacobson, a Seattle attorney and creator of the Washington Hikers and Climbers Facebook page — the largest and most successful online hiking community in the Northwest, and the nation, with more than 130,000 members.
Joseph is a great town
We hit it off and met again later after the hike at the Embers Brewhouse in Joseph for burgers and beer.
As he started to eat, the waitress asks him, “How’s that burger?”
He finished chewing his first bite, took a swig of beer, looked at her, and with a straight face and a sly smile answered, “I’ve just been sleeping on rocks and eating granola and seeds for the past five days. How do you think it feels?”
The Embers’ burgers and multitude of mini-brew options are great.
Even if you don’t do this difficult hike, there are lots of hiking trail alternatives and plenty of things to do nearby.
The town of Joseph, named in 1880 for Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe, has a census listed population of just over 1,000 people.
You can take an art walk and experience a thriving arts and crafts community, hit the beach and enjoy Wallowa Lake, or just relax and enjoy this truly remote alpine town.
It’s a great place to enjoy the outdoors in winter as well.