My First Foray Into The Wonderful Wallowas
My day job is in the staffing industry, not exactly a hotbed of arts and culture, so it rarely warrants a mention on the blog. But we do have an interesting client or two, one of those being Travel Oregon. Last year they gave us some beautiful poster prints from their recent ad campaign. My favorite is on the wall within view of my desk – a small car with a roof rack towering with camping gear passing through a farm scene, enormous green and gray mountains in the background. “The Wonderful Wallowas” is scrawled across the top in white cursive lettering.
Those readers who know me personally know that at the moment I am working toward a rather adventurous goal: a 2020 thru-hike attempt of the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail. In order to prepare for it (as much as one can prepare for something like that), I’ve been hiking constantly and fitting in backpacking trips to try out all my gear. Even though I grew up in Oregon, and went on many far-flung family camping trips, until this summer, I’d never been to the Wallowas. PCT prep gave me the perfect excuse to check it off my list.
“The Wallowas” is a range of mountains in the far north-eastern corner of Oregon. They fall within the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, “2.3 million acres of varied landscape, extend[ing] from the Blue Mountains and rugged Wallowa Mountains down to the spectacular canyon country of the Snake River on the Idaho border. The forest ranges in elevation from 875 feet in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area to 9,845 feet in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area.” They’re a bit in the middle of nowhere – five-and-a-half hours' drive east of Portland.
I planned on 4 days/3 nights on the Wallowa River Loop, through the Lakes Basin and Eagle Cap Wilderness. The route is only about 40 miles, but because of the long drive on either side, I stretched out my timeline to cover the distance.
Even if you don’t love the outdoors, if you ever have a chance to visit the Wallowas, DO IT. Just the drive over was amazing. Think pastoral farmland backed by 9,000-foot granite peaks that seem to rise up out of nowhere (basically the poster at my work come to life). I was immediately taken with all of it, including Joseph (population 1,100) – the small, artsy town you pass through on the way to Wallowa Lake State Park, or in my case, the Wallowa Lake trailhead.
After the long drive, my first day of hiking was short. 6 miles up the East Fork of the Wallowa River to camp at Aneroid Lake. The trail itself wasn’t my favorite. Heavily used by stock I found myself regularly dodging piles of dung and waving away flies. The track was dusty and entirely uphill but once I reached the first plateau things opened up to a green-gold meadow with the river shining silver in the sun. Eventually, I came across a sign that said “Aneroid Lake Campsites.” I took the turn and wound my way through more forest and meadow to a handful of campsites on the lake’s edge.
The beauty of where I was made me smile with my whole body. It sounds cheesy but that’s the only way I can explain it. The lake was deep blue and perfectly still, gray granite cliffs shot up dramatically behind it with patches of green and orange plants. There was the occasional bird call, but really, all was quiet. After a quick rinse (it was too cold to swim), I set up camp and settled in for the evening. The sky was clear and a dry night was predicted. The stars didn’t disappoint. A pitch-black sky revealed the specked expanse of the milky way. A good thing because I barely slept, my brain somewhat perplexed by the total silence. But that didn’t lower my spirits or excitement to get on the trail the next morning.
I had a big day planned. 17 miles up and over two passes. As I made my way up to Tenderfoot Pass I was met by another overwhelming view. Just 30 minutes prior I had been eating breakfast and now I was looking at the most beautiful river valley blanketed in the glow of the morning sun. It was impossible to capture. Predictably, I spent my day climbing up and hiking down. By the time I got to Polaris Pass at 8,850 feet, clouds were rolling in. A chance of thunderstorms was predicted during my trip, but not for that day. Still, I knew I didn’t want to get caught in any type of bad weather while I made my way down the exposed, rocky ridge. I hustled.
Nothing came of it but some stress, some wind, and a few sprinkles. It was a 2,000 foot descent to the valley floor where I met a trail junction. My plan had been to head into the upper valley and spend my second night at Moccasin Lake. What I hadn’t paid enough attention to was that to do that I had to climb up and over Glacier Pass – another above 8,000 feet. After already covering Tenderfoot and Polaris, and with very little sleep supporting my day, I took a cutoff trail at the junction and boomeranged up into the Lakes Basin from the other way.
I ended up at Horseshoe Lake – another unbelievably pristine alpine lake. After a
cool dip in the blue-green water, I set my hiking clothes out to dry in the sun and set up camp. It was a lovely, warm evening but I couldn’t quite settle in. I’d been feeling a little anxious all day. The weather at the top of Polaris Pass, having to reroute on an unsigned trail, general fatigue. I kept bouncing around my camp area. Sitting to read for a few minutes, checking my clothes, taking pictures in the changing light. I couldn’t relax. I realized while I was falling asleep that night that if I continued to feel anxious I could just cut the trip short and hike out the next day. When I woke up in the middle of the night to pouring rain and lightning flashes, I thought to myself, “Yup, fuck this, I’m going home tomorrow.”
The Lakes Basin where I was camping that night falls within the Eagle Cap Wilderness (part of the greater Wallowa-Whitman National Forest). Originally inhabited by a variety of Native tribes (Nez Perce, Shoshone, Cayuse, and others), it was designated as a wilderness in 1940 and now covers nearly 360,000 acres. According to the Forest Service, the Eagle Cap Wilderness is “characterized by high alpine lakes and meadows, bare granite peaks and ridges, and U-shaped glaciated valleys. One is constantly reminded that nature operates on her own terms with her own rhythms that may not match our structural lives.”
I woke up the next morning feeling humbled by, and cranky about that undeniable truth. It was a very gray day. Luckily the rain had stopped and my sleeping bag had stayed dry. But as I packed up a wet tent and dried off my sleeping pad I was feeling solid in my decision to hike out. After a few miles of hiking, I started to waffle. Every break in the trees offered sweeping views and the day was cloudy but not unpleasant. I still had the option to take a side trail to my planned third camp at Ice Lake, but when I got to the junction something in my gut told me to keep hiking down.
By the time I got to the trailhead it was pouring rain and thunder cracked overhead. I stood sheltered under the open hatch of my car and situated my gear for the drive out, feeling grateful for the instinct that told me to swallow my pride and bail. I stopped in Joseph for the most delicious breakfast sandwich of all time (shout out to Red Horse Coffee Traders for that blissful brunch) and a cup of coffee. While still on the trail I’d had the thought that I’d wander around town and maybe treat myself to a night in a hotel. But it rained and rained and rained. Reluctantly I headed toward home.
I drove out of the weather system about 20 minutes down the road and was pleased to take in the even more beautiful views driving from east to west. Even though the trip wasn’t perfect, three days was enough to fall in love with the area – the shock of mountains, the blue of Wallowa Lake, the friendly feel of Joseph – and I didn’t really want to leave it behind. I have a tendency to make these types of quick connections, and I feel a draw to go back. It’s fair to say this won’t be my last trip to the Wonderful Wallowas.