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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.