Exploring the Eagle Cap Wilderness
Written by Lindsay Williams
More than 6 miles in, the straps of my backpack begin to dig heavily into my hips and collarbone. The back of my shirt is drenched in sweat, my purple boots now the color of a dusty trail. Finally, a wooden sign at an intersection of trails is carved with guidance, the first we’ve seen in many miles. Eagle Cap, straight ahead; Mirror Lake to the left; Minam Lake to the right.
“We’re here,” says my partner. Suddenly fueled with adrenaline, we stride toward the twinkling reflection of Mirror Lake in the distance. We drop our backpacks.
Photos by Lindsay Williams
The Eagle Cap Wilderness, nestled inside the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, is Oregon’s largest wilderness area. Within its boundaries are nearly sixty alpine lakes, four designated Wild and Scenic rivers and more than twenty-seven peaks.
“That’s some beautiful country out there,” said our host at a bed and breakfast in Summerville the night before starting our trip. “You can get way out into the country without having to go very far.”
From Summerville, we headed out in the morning for an hour-and-a-half drive to Two Pan Trailhead, our designated starting point. During our drive, the landscape transformed from rolling farmland to a granite-laden alpine wonderland. After chugging along a rough gravel road in my less-than-ideal Prius, we arrived at our starting point, buckled the many buckles on our backpacks, and began our three-day excursion into the wilderness.
Hiking the Lostine River
As we tromped uphill along the East Lostine River, we passed pristine waterfalls and meadows of wildflowers. It was quiet beyond the sound of our boots on the trail and those flying bugs that make snap-snap-snap sounds. Almost more common than other hikers were horses, noticeable in their passing but even more in what they left behind on the trails.
Once the summer home of the Joseph Band of the Nez Perce tribe, the wilderness has long hosted horses as seasonal visitors, brought to graze while their owners fished, hunted and gathered huckleberries and other plants. Astonishingly, many of the trails traveled in the wilderness today were formed by the Nez Perce as far back as the early 1800s.
When we arrived sweaty and tired at the Lakes Basin, we immediately found a flat place to set up camp with a grand view of Mirror Lake and Eagle Cap Mountain lifting its wings above it. The Lakes Basin, marked by several alpine lakes gathered closely together, is the most highly used area of the wilderness. Nonetheless, finding camp on a holiday weekend wasn’t difficult.
Photos by Evan VanSandt
Our first morning in the wilderness, we woke with the sun, downed bitter instant coffee and undercooked oatmeal, and headed up toward the summit of Eagle Cap. Starting from camp at 7,600 feet, the summit was less than a mile-and-a-half up to 9,572 feet. The climbing was steep at points, but not without a sweet reward. At the top, we were met with views of the tallest peaks in the Wallowas and gem-colored lakes below.
The Wallowa Mountains—or The Wallowas as they’re colloquially called—aren’t like any other mountain range I’ve seen in Oregon. While the Cascade Range has taller mountains, its peaks are spread out and easily defined. In the Wallowas, several small peaks swell into one another, creating crests and troughs like waves of a river. They’re nicknamed “The Alps of Oregon.” Others point out the wilderness’s resemblance to environments like Yosemite, with an abundance of salt-and-pepper granite rock.
After descending from the summit, we spent the day exploring the area and swimming in the nearby lakes. By swimming, I mean getting in the water and immediately getting out until we were warm enough to repeat. The water was frigid, but it sure helped to take the edge off of our sun-ripened backpacking stench. By night, the stars were luminous, the mosquitos were lively, and our bodies were exhausted in the best way possible.
Morning came, and we regretfully packed our camp to head out along the West Lostine River. I didn’t want to go back to life outside the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The realization came that I had just discovered my favorite place in the whole beautiful state of Oregon.