We pass Minam on the way up to Blue Lake. Many hikers choose to stay here at Minam, as it has quite a few established camps around it.
When glaciers moved through Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, they ripped apart the earth, leaving dramatic granite faces streaked and exposed, creating what is now the Wallowa Mountains, the state’s premier backpacking location. As my father likes to say, "This is God’s country," and I’ll hand it to him that the Wallowas do provoke a sense of awe and perhaps even a spiritual feeling within me. Maybe it’s the solitude or the openness of the landscape. Maybe it’s the people I meet when I am on the trail, cowboys mostly, who shuffle by on horses and remind me that there is a simpler life happening not too far from where I stand, on the sloping ranches and golden farms of La Grande and Lostine.
My family is from Portland, Oregon, and the Wallowa Mountains are our tradition. From the time my three brothers and I could strap on a backpack, our father loaded us in the car for a six-hour drive east, followed by a two-day hike into the heart of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, where we’d explore for a week or so. Though our family is spread out now, we make an effort each year to come home and hike into those familiar alpine meadows. We do it for us, but we also do it for dad, as nothing makes him happier than seeing his children suffering under the weight of a pack or tenderly applying moleskin to enlarged blisters on our heels and toes. By the end of our trips to the Wallowas, we are sunburnt, mosquito-bitten, blister-covered, and physically exhausted. We are also happy. Some families have picnic reunions or vacations to Cancun; ours goes backpacking.
This summer, we came back together after a lapse of a couple of years. We loaded up the car with packs, sleeping bags, oatmeal, and a beat up map that no one ever looks at because there’s no need. We know to take Highway 84 east from Portland through the windy Columbia River Gorge and then out onto the plains of the state’s cattle country, eventually turning off in La Grande. We then head through Wallowa and Lostine, small farming and timber towns. Past Lostine, at the end of a forty-minute drive down a rocky road that can pop the toughest tire, we park at Two Pan trailhead and unload.
On the road up to Two Pan trailhead, there are a few leftovers from the years before the zone was deemed a National Wilderness area, such as this original log cabin.
This year, as usual, we’ve taken our time getting to Two Pan, and the sun is starting to go down. No matter. We take off down the trail with our headlamps handy for when darkness hits. My brother Jason is quickly ahead of us, disappearing up the path. We call him "the antelope" because of his long stride, which has had us eating his dust since he was fifteen years old. Each one of us has a different way of approaching the hike up. My father keeps a steady, sturdy pace far ahead of me, but way behind Jason. Greg, my "little" brother, is 6’5" and hikes like a pack mule. He can carry more weight than any of us, but is slower because of it. He also never complains. Chad is light and quick and keeps the mood upbeat. I am the slowest, the turtle to Jason’s hare. I stop a lot to take photos and search the landscape for white mountain goats in rocky knolls and slide areas. We’ve seen goats a few times up here, bounding like ballerinas from boulder to boulder, sometimes with kids.
An hour and a half into the hike, and it’s dark. We’ve turned on our headlamps, but only use them to watch for roots and complicated rocks on the trail, as the moon is just about full, lighting up the night forest around us in a magical blue shadow. The trail out of Two Pan up to Blue Lake, our destination, is the West Fork trail, which follows the Lostine River most of the way. There are fifty-two named alpine lakes in the Wallowas, and some are more secluded than others. Falcon Guide author on the Wallowas, Fred Barstad, rates the climb from Two Pan to Blue Lake as "moderately difficult" with an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. Tonight, we won’t make it to Blue Lake, and instead decide to make camp near a trail split in a meadow. It’s a good stopping spot because of the soft grass and fresh water nearby. The rest of us set up our tents, but Jason decides to sleep under the stars, which are thick and ablaze in the August sky, tainted only slightly by the light pollution coming from the white moon. At night he’ll hear white-tailed deer nosing around the meadow, and in the morning he’ll wake with dew on his face.
The trails in the Wallowas are rocky dirt paths with great views.
On day two, we take the hike more seriously. It’s up, then up some more, which is how I love to hike first thing in the morning. This series of switchbacks makes for a dramatic climb in elevation on a slim, rocky, dirt path. Because it’s Wednesday, we don’t see many hikers. After a couple hours, a group of cowboys with saddle stock pass us. We stand off the path and let them go by, saying our "howdies" and smiling, but my father and brothers consider all these "horse people" to be traitors to the Wallowas. Unless you’re wearing a pack, you’re lazy in my father’s eyes.
Dad comes down a typical Wallowa trail though a sunny clearing.
He also hates the way the horses tear up the stream banks and muddy the trails. I have often dreamed of having an alpaca or mule carry my pack come late in the afternoon on day two of the hike and so can’t share my father’s distaste for the horses. Plus, for the most part, the cowboys are laid back local guys who know and love the Wallowas. A couple years ago, on the hike out from Mirror Lake, one brother and I were stopped by a group of them riding enormous horses and trailing loaded up mules behind them. After some small talk they offered us a drink.
"A drink?" we asked.
"Yeah, how ’bout a Bud?" one of them said and opened up a large sack attached to a hazel-color mule. Inside was not only a case of beer, but ice. They gave us each a Budweiser, which is not my favorite beer, but was probably the best one I have ever had after spending six days in the wilderness. We emptied our cans, and they headed up the trail, while we carefully headed down. Since then, the "horse people" have made my good list.
This hot Wednesday, no one offers us drinks as they pass us by, leaving a dusty trail to tackle. As we continue, I stop and look west at 9,000-foot Elkhorn Peak in the distance. In the scree fields, there are pika chirping and bobbing in and out, doing whatever it is they do. The Wallowas are rich in flora and fauna, but they have a very short summertime growing period from June to September. As a result, in August everything is in full swing. Come earlier or later, and you’ll be up against cold, difficult river crossings, rain, hail, and even possibly snow. Because of the harsh climate, the Ponderosa and lodgepole pines are sparse, and people are advised to protect the native plants, which do their best to reproduce in the summer. Wildfires are also a big concern, so campfires are limited in most places and required to be made 200 feet or more away from alpine lakes.
The terrain around the alpine lakes is mostly soft grassy meadows, full of wildflowers and green onions.
According to ranger Sweyn Wall, the alpine lakes are the most fragile ecosystems in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. With about 30,000 to 40,000 hikers and horses coming through the Wallowas each year, human impact is a significant issue. "Other areas of concern include invasive plants in the lower elevations, and the removal of natural fire from the ecosystem. We do actively inventory and manage invasive plants, but it is often difficult to locate populations when they are at a stage that is easily manageable," says Wall.
Working our way up the trail, we reach a meadow and stop for lunch along the Lostine River. By this time, we have crossed the river twice, using river rocks as makeshift bridges. Some years we’ve had to take off our boots and wade across, but this time the river is low enough to keep our shoes on. When the Lostine River is not criss-crossing the West Fork trail, it’s meandering through meadows scattered with Indian paintbrush, yarrow flowers, and wild onion. These picture-perfect settings beg us to sit down and take a load off… so we do, using a fallen tree as a bench and keeping our eyes open for golden eagles and red digger squirrels.
We eat our cheese and salami lunch in almost total silence. It’s not that we’ve got nothing to say, it’s that the kind of peace these mountains evoke should not be disturbed. The other part is that one of my dad’s Wallowas rules is "no useless chattering." Over the years, Dad has compiled an unofficial list of rules that his children know and abide by. A sampling:
- No electronics (leave iPods, phones, and GPS at home).
- No time (don’t ask how long the hike will take or what time it is, because it doesn’t matter anyway).
- Self sufficiency (you pack your own food, and you pump your own water).
- No whiners (unless you have a cougar attached to your leg, he doesn’t want to hear about it).
- No mothers (um, let me explain).
That last rule may put some people off, but it is actually Dad’s Rule Number One. When he first started coming up to the Eagle Cap Wilderness, he came with his buddies, who were all married with young children. They came up as a group of men probably trying to escape their families for a week. When their kids got older, they started bringing us along, but held fast to the idea that their wives couldn’t come up. The Wallowas was always a trip for guys and eventually became a trip for dads and kids. The fathers feared that with wives in tow, their kids would be pampered (see #4 above), and that the ruggedness of the experience would be altered. Wives and mothers might want certain comforts that the fathers didn’t care to bother with, and so moms were banned from the trip. Sexist? Perhaps. But it’s been like this for twenty years, and only time will tell if grandchildren or other circumstances might eventually change Dad’s mind. I doubt it.
Views from Blue: from Blue Lake, the views extend down glacier carved valleys.
Back on the trail, we cross more lush meadow and reach Minam Lake, circling around it. Many hikers stay at Minam, as it’s a crystal-clear beauty with plenty of swimming, trout fishing, and a handful of established campsites along the perimeter. For us, the Wallowas is all about solitude, and we want to camp alone, so we keep going another 300 feet up to Blue Lake. Camp is in a boulder-clad clearing surrounded by shady lodgepole pine and fir trees, plus a mountainside backdrop which alternates between granite rock slides and patches of snowfields, leftovers from those glacial days.
We spend a few hours every day at the flat piece of granite we call Swim Rock, or just Swim for short. Here, there’s a diving spot and plenty of room to dry off in the sun.
The next day, Jason and a friend climb up to the snow fields, scrambling and hopping over boulders. With them they’ve brought a poncho and a pot. I am laid out on Swim Rock, reading a David Sedaris book when I hear, "Whoop!! Ahhh! Hoo, hoo, hoo," coming from the snowfields. With the binoculars, I watch them zip down the snowfield using a rubber poncho as a sled. Later, they return with Jell-O, which they premixed and cooled in a titanium pot in the snow while sledding.
Around the campfire, there is talk of climbing Eagle Cap the next day, a strenuous hike from Minam Lake with an elevation gain of 1,972 feet. This is the central point of the Wallowa Wilderness, with unobstructed views reaching Idaho on a clear day, plus views of most of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Imnaha River headwaters. Another day hike option out of Blue Lake is the loop trail to Mirror Lake. From Blue Lake, the trail heads down to Minam, then crosses an 8,500-foot pass after a series of switchbacks, eventually dropping onto Mirror Lake. If a hiker didn’t want to take the same West Fork trail back to Two Pan, he could hike over to Mirror Lake, then hike out on the East Fork trail.
There are many day hikes, many trails to traverse, and plenty of ridges to explore in the Wallowas. Jason and his friends will head out and try new trails, plus re-visit some old ones. Greg will fish for trout and cook them up late in the afternoon. Dad will hike too, fish a bit, and sit on boulders in the sun. Packing up and leaving Blue Lake at the end of the week is always hard. We drag our feet and take our time heading out on the trail. Leaving is difficult because the Wallowas are so perfect, but also because it means we’re all going to go our separate ways. Not to worry, we’ll get together next year at the same time and same place, on the edge of a different alpine lake with new campfire stories to tell under a starry sky that thankfully never changes.