Adventure #27: Wallowa River(s) / Lakes Basin Loop

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about getting older. I’ll be thirty this year. I’m almost done with school – the last bit of school I can possibly eke out, unless they invent something beyond a doctorate. (Please, someone: invent something passed a doctorate.) When I turned twenty, I was ready for it, ready to no longer be a teenager, to buy my own beer and wait at the bar for my table to be ready. But now, I’m not ready. Does anyone ever feel like an adult? I don’t think I will. In my mind, I’m still twenty, tipsy, climbing trees in the Park Blocks. In my mind, I’m still young and wild and free. Because what’s the alternative?

One of the things – one of the many, many things – that I love about spending the night outside is that all the rules, the stodgy rules that turn people into cardboard, disappear. Let’s climb on that rock! Let’s jump in the water! You don’t need clothes, who’s here to care? Let’s sit in the dirt and have a snack, eat peanut butter from a spoon like when we were six.

But summer’s ending. It’s been one of the best I’ve ever had. Maybe the best. In mid-September, Krista and I took a trip to Wallowas to sit in the dust one last time before fall. We were thinking about a few other possibilities – Alpine Lakes, North Cascades, maybe even the Olympics – but weather forecasts dictated Eagle Cap. I’m glad they did, even if it was actually already fall up there.


When we climbed the Matterhorn in July, we spent at least a half hour on top just staring at the endless ridges and peaks all granite and covered in snow. The plan was to see as much of that as possible, doing a loop up to the Lakes Basin, with a couple low-mile days in the middle to fool around / take pictures / swim / be amazed at where we were:

– Tuesday: drive from Portland to Wallowa Lake TH, hike up the East Fork trail to Aneroid Lake.
– Wednesday: walk from Aneroid over Tenderfoot and Polaris passes, then over to Frazier Lake.
– Thursday: short walk to Glacier Lake / Glacier Pass, then down to Sunshine Lake (next to Mirror, but infinitely less crowded).
– Friday: another short day, from Sunshine Lake to Horseshoe Lake.
– Saturday: walk out along the West Fork trail, go for a swim in Wallowa Lake, smell bad anyway, drive home, shower.


We woke up at four or five or something – I’ve blocked out the specifics – and drove through the familiar gorge to the unfamiliar fields and finally to the somehow familiar rivers and hills around Joseph. Whenever we leave early, Krista starts out stoic, making like she’s going to stay up the whole way in solidarity while I drive. But then, like clockwork, she’s asleep within half an hour. It’s adorable. I listen to audiobooks and watch the sun rise.

There’d been a small fire near the West Fork Trail, just northwest of where the Ice Lake trail splits off, but it reopened the day we got there. We didn’t learn this until we were on the way back, so we happily headed up the East Fork, unaware of how lucky we were.


Like the West Fork, most of the delights on the East Fork trail are small: old flowers and new, tiny wild raspberries. They were sour and kind of gross, but who’s going to turn down wild raspberries? I ate every one I could find.



After a few dusty, horsey miles, we crossed the East Fork and entered the meadows below Aneroid Lake. I couldn’t quite capture it, but it’s gorgeous up there.



Just after entering the meadows, the trail hits Roger Lake, which is swampy and over-loved – fire rings and old burned beer cans.


Then Aneroid. We followed a well-trodden use trail to the right just after Roger Lake to some glorious campsites on the northeastern shore. I can imagine this being packed in peak season, but had it almost entirely to ourselves (there was another couple camped by the private cabins). We took a quick swim – or at least I did, shrieking with cold – filtered water, ate a leisurely dinner sitting on the rocks and stumps, and turned in early. What a beautiful place.





We woke up early by our standards – which is, I suspect, a little late by most people’s – said goodbye to camp, and reluctantly made our way up toward Tenderfoot Pass.


This always happens to me: early on, I think I’ve reached the prettiest point we’ll reach; but then, as we keep going, things just keep getting better. It’s a nice problem to have. Maybe there’s a metaphor there somewhere? The meadows above Aneroid Lake and up toward Tenderfoot are lovely, maybe lovelier than the lake itself.



It was tempting to take the short trip to Jewett Lake, but we had miles to go before sleep, so I settled for a few pictures of the basin. What cool rocks!



Passing over Tenderfoot and into the upper Imnaha River valley, we entered some of the most beautiful alpine meadows I’ve ever seen. They must be a wonder when the flowers are blooming. They’re a different sort of wonder in their autumn sweaters.






Passing over Polaris Pass there was a stark change in scenery. In contrast to the meadows of the east, on the west side it’s all scree and trail that seems more goat than human. It’s not exactly sketchy, but we slowed way down, and were definitely careful with our footing. Here’s the area just before the pass:


And here’s the area just after:




We lost a whole bunch of elevation very quickly on this steep trail that seemed to persist mostly on faith and kicked in steps, then stopped for a windy lunch when things finally leveled out. I laid back on my pack, playing with stones and sticks.

Maybe I was wishing too hard for a level trail, because, after the initial Elevation Onslaught, the trail meanders gently – for my money: too gently – down toward the West Fork Wallowa River. The grade is so gradual that at times I wondered if the trail builders had somehow built a loop out of switchbacks and we were actually just staying constant in elevation.

There were some nice water features, though.




After seemingly descending two switchbacks for each foot of elevation lost, we eventually hit the (unmarked) junction with the West Fork trail, and headed left (south) toward the Lakes Basin. The area between the junction and Frazier Lake is just gorgeous. For neither the first nor the last time, I told Krista that this was probably the prettiest thing we’d see on the trip.




We arrived at Frazier Lake a little late, and found it surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday. Everyone was camped right along the north shore. We found an excellent, out of the way spot further along the trail, maybe a hundred feet up the way to Little Frazier Lake.

I went to find some water in the creek with a headlamp, then we made dinner in the dark. As we were eating, a strange pair of glowing eyes appeared, staring into camp and, more importantly, into our food bowls. We thought it was a cougar at first – we’d startled one coming down from Polaris – but it was a deer. A very sweet deer. Bambi! But then she didn’t leave. She was so persistent! Bambo! You know, like Rambo? Or maybe she wanted to come into our tent and snuggle.

We went in without her, and fell asleep almost immediately, well passed hiker midnight but two hours before the real thing. Young people go to sleep at ten, right?

A few hours later when we got up to pee, Bambo was still there. Staring. And staring. “In town you’re the law. Out here it’s me. Don’t push it!” We went swiftly back to sleep.


Wednesday night was rainy and windy – the only appreciable rain we got all trip. And it was crazy smokey when we woke up Thursday morning. Like: so smokey that it was almost as though we were in a cloud. I’m not sure what it was from. Maybe the last remains of the fire near Ice Lake? In any case, after an hour the smoke cleared and the sun came out. It stayed out for the rest of the trip.

We yard saled our stuff on the rocks, ate a long breakfast, packed up our now nearly dry stuff, and started the short walk to Glacier Lake.

Notice our tent in the middle right?


I hadn’t noticed the night before when I was wandering around looking for water, but the stream that feeds into Frazier – I think it’s still called the West Fork Wallowa? – is really pretty.


Oh, and I almost forgot to show you the lake! Here it is, from just below camp:


The trail between Frazier and Glacier is just fantastic. (This post contains roughly a dozen versions of that sentence.) For the third time: “This might be the most prettiest part of our trip!”


Except for that, this time, I may have been right. Walking through paradise.


There’s a large basin just under Glacier Lake that I initially mistook for the lake basin itself. I think I took twenty pictures of the same thing.



Closeup of Cusick Mountain:


Because the trail leads up into the Glacier Lake basin, when you first come out the lake’s at eye level and it sort of feels like you should be underwater. And the thing is huge. Eventually, we gave up on getting a good picture of the whole lake. Krista took some great ones, though:





On the walk toward Glacier Pass, I kept looking back. If you could find an out of the way spot, this would be a great place to camp. It would be hard to ever leave.



After Polaris, Glacier Pass felt tiny, and the views on the north side of the pass are a little less epic than on the south. Still pretty, though:






Small meadows with streams!


Hmm. That last exclamation point felt a little weird, didn’t it?

We descended down an open, friendly trail then hit the Moccasin Lake area. There were suddenly campsites and people and tents and noise everywhere. The lake itself is sort of big and unremarkable. My favorite thing was the way that the trail crossed it. Rather than going all the way around, the trail hops over a thin spot on the southwest side.



Mirror Lake is just up from Moccasin – at most a quarter mile. I was surprised at how uncrowded Mirror was, though the area looks like it sees more than its share of visitors in the high season. Big parts of the shore are closed for regrowth. Bigger parts are bald and sort of sad. (It has been pointed out to me that “bald and sort of sad” might equally be applied to me, but let’s not go there just yet.)


We kept walking a little ways further to Sunshine Lake, a small, totally deserted tarn just north of Mirror. By the look of things, it too gets a lot of visitors, but we had it all to ourselves for the night. We set up camp, lounged around, ate a leisurely dinner, and sat out on the granite, watching the sunset on the Matterhorn and some of the best stars I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’d ever knowingly seen the Milky Way before this summer. And now, if I close my eyes, I can see it from memory.



We spent most of Friday morning staring at the piles and piles of frogs that had somehow materialized on the shores of Sunshine Lake overnight. Maybe they just hatched? Maybe they fell from the sky? It was the weirdest thing. There were some dead ones, some in advanced states of being reabsorbed by the soil, but there were still hundreds of very much life ones hopping around. We walked very carefully.



Lolling around in my flip flops, I tripped and somehow managed to cut the big toe on my left foot really bad – blood and hanging skin and red drips on the soil. And we’d somehow forgotten band-aids. Who does that? Apparently we do. “We are young and will never be hurt by anything ever.” Krista helped me make a bandage with toilet paper and mole skin, which… sort of helped?

Anyway, we packed up, making sure that no frog friends hitched rides in our bags. I limped pretty badly at first, but then, like always, the pain just went away or I got used to it, and it was just happily on to more lakes. We are young and will never be hurt by anything ever.

Saying goodbye to Sunshine.


Then, quickly, hello to Crescent…


…and Douglas…


…and Craig…


…and Lee…


…and Horseshoe, our home for the night.


We made camp well before lunch, and spent the rest of the day just soaking it in: swimming, taking pictures of small things, reading, taking a nap. There was someone clear on the other side of the lake, but otherwise we had it to ourselves. Sitting on a stone bench at the edge of the lake with our feet dangling in the (cold!) water, eating sausage and cheese in stale tortillas, we were the richest people in the world.




The night was like the day: unhurried and full of pictures. I couldn’t get a picture, but the lake was so calm that, when the stars came out, you could look down into the water and it was almost like looking down into the sky. Krista got vertigo, looking down into the sky. And I got a little sad, saying goodbye to sound wave trees and goodnight planes. We are young but this won’t last forever.




We woke up to frost-covered foliage and a mist-covered lake.



After reluctantly packing up, we got back on the main trail, and took the short walk down to Six Mile Meadow.


We got to Six Mile Meadow right around breakfast time, and stopped by a branch of the West Fork for some oatmeal.


I love that, out there, you can just sit down anywhere to eat – in the dirt, legs spread out in front, feeling like the place is ours, at least for a little while.

From the meadow, it was just an uneventful walk back down to Wallowa Lake. The fall colors seem to have gotten even more intense while we were up there.






We made it out in the early afternoon, unsubtly changed in the parking lot, and took a quick swim in the lake. “We are still young and still wild and, right now, this place is still ours.”


5 thoughts on “Adventure #27: Wallowa River(s) / Lakes Basin Loop

  1. Great story you have here. I really am inspired by your writing and adventuring!
    Just moved to Portland a few months ago and planning a trip to the Wallowas in September. I’m so pleased to see fall colors coming in right around the same time we’re going!

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your stories!
    – Crystal Frankenbery

    1. Just saw this – thank you so much! I really appreciate it. And I hope you have a lovely trip in September! Let me know if you have any questions.

  2. Hello! Our family is doing this loop starting on Friday. Two of us (my 13 year old daughter and I) are scared of heights, so I’m a bit concerned about Polaris Pass. My husband and 15 year old son are fine. Anyhow, is the trail right along the crest at Polaris Pass, and how wide is it? I can keep my eyes down and gut my way through if it’s wide enough. I’ve gutted my way through exposed trails before with sharp drops offs. So long as I have a trail to glue my eyes to, I can get through it. If I have to walk along the crest of an exposed pass, I’m more concerned about my ability to do that safely. Your take on this would be much appreciated.

    1. Hello! You don’t really have to go along the crest, but the trail is definitely pretty narrow in spots. I take it that this varies from year to year, and I haven’t been there since 2014, but, when we were there, there were spots of tread only 8″ to 12″ wide – doable, if a little scary. If you keep your head down and go, though, I’m sure you’ll do great!

  3. If you did this again, would you do it the same direction, or switch for counterclockwise? I have heard Polaris Pass can be “more difficult” from the East, but wondering if either way is much of a difference.

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