Wallowa River Loop (7/23/2015-7/28/2015)

(Original post date: 7/29/2015)

  • 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.

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