I had big plans for summer 2020: a couple hundred miles in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in a big loop from edge to edge to edge to edge. But then… 2020 happened, and the resupply that trip would require became impossible, so it got pushed for a more modest, weeklong loop in the Wallowas.
I was a little sad at the start, but that faded quickly, as the unique beauty of the place pushed out my thoughts of other possible worlds.
Friday, August 14: Portland to Lostine, Lostine to Upper Lake
I don’t have much of a plan. My brother and cousin left early this morning, out to camp in the shadow of Eagle Cap, and I’d like to find them tonight. But, beyond that, the next week’s open.
As I drive past the Gorge through the hot smoky morning, I think through something like a route. The Eagle Cap Wilderness contains four Wild and Scenic Rivers—Lostine, Imnaha, Eagle Creek, and Minam—and I want to see all of them if I can. And maybe, in the process, I can find some of the wilderness’ lonelier corners.
I got a late start this morning, ate a late lunch in La Grande, and didn’t make it to the (packed!) Two Pan Trailhead on the Lostine until three or four. But no matter: I’m going six or seven miles up, up to Upper Lake at the western edge of the Lakes Basin.
It takes a bit of looking, but I eventually find my brother and cousin, filtering water and drinking bourbon on the eastern outlet of Upper Lake.
And we spend the most lovely evening there, wandering around and reminiscing. I somehow haven’t backpacked with my brother for half a decade, and we promise not to wait half as long for the next one. (As it happens, the next one will come in barely more than a month.)
Saturday, August 15: Upper Lake to Razz Lake, Razz Lake to Razz Pass, Razz Pass Down
I say a hurried goodbye the next morning, then scuttle east into the Lakes Basin. It’s still early, but then place is buzzing with people, camped in every possible—and, surprisingly, every impossible—place.
I follow the route of least resistance past Mirror, Moccasin, Douglas, and Lee Lakes. It’s funny: some are packed, some—just as pretty—are empty. I always wonder at what causes these clumps.
I was a little nervous about finding the way trail to Razz Lake, but it turns out the trail is well marked with an absolutely enormous cairn.
The way trail up braids and fades a bit, but is generally easy enough to follow, and soon I pop out on the southeast shore of Razz Lake.
My plan is to setup camp here, then dayhike over Razz Pass toward the Matterhorn and, if I can make it, maybe up the Matterhorn and back.
There’s a good way trial along the south side of Razz, then west up to Upper Razz and back northeast toward Razz Pass.
Getting to the pass itself takes a little doing: after climbing east from Upper Razz, the route seems to end at an enormous talus field. The easiest move here is to make an ascending traverse to the east, and end at a little dirt notch where a number of braided trails make their ways up through the trees.
The pass is beautiful, but there’s immediately an unexpected problem: goats. One bluff charges me essentially the moment I hit the divide, and another does so a few dozen feet later.
I think of a promise I made Krista as I was leaving yesterday. “I’m not good at anything, but I know how to turn back.” And it kinda kills me to do so, but I turn back at the divide, chased—legit: chased—by a goat—a mother goat, I realize, with several kids—back down to the talus field.
I eat lunch in the talus, and think through another plan. I could pack up, go back down, and make a few more miles, but it’s a Saturday, and I don’t really want to look for another camp. And anyway, it’s freaking gorgeous up here. So I decide to just bum around, exploring Upper Razz and the basins beyond.
It ends up being quietly wonderful. I take a swim, dry off on a big block of white granite, watch the sunset while eating freeze dried something in a tortilla, count a hundred stars before bed.
Sunday, August 16: Razz Lake to the North Fork / South Fork Imnaha confluence via the West Fork Wallowa, Polaris Pass, Tenderfoot Pass, Dollar Pass, Bonny Lakes, Imnaha Divide, and the North Fork Trail
I want a long day, so I wake up at sunrise, make coffee in my Smart Water bottle, and setoff down to Six Mile Meadow in the barely rising light.
I eat a quick breakfast at Six Mile, then start the climb up to Polaris Pass. I remember this pass being terrible, but, in the still cool morning, it feels like a moving sidewalk. Several times I laugh at the beauty and ease of it all.
I pause for a while on top, eat some peanut butter on a tortilla for lunch, then traverse around the headwaters of the North Fork Imnaha to Tenerfoot Pass, drop briefly into the East Fork Wallowa, and climb back out over Dollar Pass and into the Big Sheep Creek drainage.
After leaving the East Fork Wallowa Trail, there’s an almost comical shift: one moment the trail’s broad and dusty and easy; the next there’s barely and trail to speak of. Sometimes it’s overgrown, sometimes eroded, sometimes just fading back into the hillside. After the broad boulevards of the Lakes Basin, it feels like paradise.
I follow the trail—or what I’m generally pretty sure is the trail—over Dollar Pass down past the Bonny Lakes’ buggy marsh, then across Big Sheep Creek and up to the absolutely gorgeous Imnaha Divide.
It’s nearly golden hour by the time I start descending into the North Fork, and I figure that I’ll find camp as soon as I hit water. Only… there just aren’t a lot of camps along the river. Or: there are, but they’re all kinda wet and overgrown and buggy, and I end up too choosey, walking through sunset, then stars, then a little late evening rain, waiting for a spot big enough to put a tent.
It’s well past 11 by the time I finally make camp, at an enormous horse site just past the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Imnaha. I get sort of obstinate at times like this, and spend another hour and a half eating a long dinner, drinking some bourbon, and generally just enjoying the sort of stillness that only really comes at the end of an overlong day.
Monday, August 17: North Fork / South Fork Imnaha confluence to Glacier Lake via the South Fork, Hawkins Pass, off trail Route to Prospect Lake, and Prospect Pass
I let myself sleep in a bit, then eat a long breakfast by the river, watching deer or elk in the distance. It feels wild here, and I have to resist the temptation just to stay.
The South Fork trail is long and a little boring, but also beautiful in a quiet sort of way. I start singing to myself old country songs—The Flatlanders, Gram Parsons, the few Carter Family songs I remember—until I run almost headlong into the first person I’ve seen all day, a gruff local who does not seem impressed with my singing voice. He asks where I’m headed, where I’ve been, then spends a while thinking. “This is God’s country.” I’m from Portland, which I strongly suspect he does not think of as God’s country, and his assertion feels almost threatening. But I’ve misunderstood. “We’re all damn lucky to be here.” I tell him I couldn’t agree more.
The scenery opens considerably on the climb to Hawkins Pass, and all of a sudden I’m in possibly the prettiest place in the Wallowas I’ve ever been. I keep turning in circles, taking pictures from every angle, trying and failing to take it all in.
I want to get to Glacier Lake, and from the pass there are several options. One is to contour toward Glacier Peak (you know, the other Glacier Peak) between 8300’ and 8800’, drop down to Prospect Lake, and take Prospect Pass to Glacier Lake. Another is to drop down to Upper Frazier, then climb up the mellow-ish slope directly to Prospect Lake and Pass. And finally, I could just take the trail to Lower Frazier and back up.
As I’m eating lunch and filtering water at the pass, I notice a bunch of big clouds building in the southwest, towering cumulonimbus—the lightning kind. So I decide to drop down and see how things go.
By the time I hit Upper Frazier, the clouds seem to be caught over Cusick Mountain, so I decide ascend off trail to Prospect Lake and see things go.
The route is super straightforward: start climbing west of Upper Frazier, staying climber’s left of Prospect Lake’s outlet stream. If you pick the right route, it never goes above Class 2.
But as I’m climbing the clouds break past Cusick and start building over Glacier. It starts raining as I cross the outlet stream, and I hear the first thunder as I’m traversing around Prospect Lake’s rocky east side.
It’s beautiful, but I’m scared. Lightning’s striking somewhere past Hawkins Pass, and I try to remember how to tell how far away it is. I remember my dad teaching me when I was a kid: the speed of sound is a little under 800 miles per hour. Some division for distraction: that works out to 13 miles per minute, or a little over a fifth of a mile per second. Assuming light’s so fast it’s basically instant, that means that every second I can count between a flash and boom is a fifth of a mile.
A flash and I start counting. Three seconds. That’s not good.
The drop from Prospect Pass to Glacier Lake isn’t too bad. The only potentially tricky thing is a few hundred feet of talus between the pass and the small tarn south of Glacier (Upper Glacier?).
Another flash. Just two seconds this time.
I try to take the talus too fast and slip, jam my left ankle between two rocks. It immediately feels hot and weirdly loose. I tentatively put some weight on it. Electric waves of pain shoot up to my thigh. Huh.
I lightly sprained the same ankle a few years ago on the Loowit, and I’m worried I’ve done it again. But as I limp through the last of the talus, it starts to feel better. No one’s camped on the south side of Glacier, and I setup at the first site I see. It’s perfect: sheltered, and still a little dry despite the pounding rain.
I throw up my tent and spend the next hour babying my ankle as the storm rages outside. Simultaneous flashes and booms. Lightning’s hitting Eagle Cap.
But after a while the rain passes. I look out and see blue sky.
It’s windy and surprisingly warm. I hang up my rain stuff to dry a little before sunset, and have a long, luxurious dinner by the lake. My ankle still hurts, and it’s a little swollen, but I think it’ll be okay.
Tuesday, August 18: Glacier Lake to Minam River / Elk Creek confluence via Eagle Cap, Horton Pass, East Fork Eagle Creek, Frazier Pass, and the Minam River
The next morning breaks warm and clear, and I spend hours in camp, drying things out and watching long waves of hikers stream over Glacier Pass.
I think vaguely of zeroing here, but get a little antsy around eleven, and head out, up Eagle Cap. There’s a relatively easy off trail route from Glacier to Eagle Cap: just pick your way up the slope west of Glacier Lake to the obvious pass between Glacier Peak and Eagle Cap, then ascend through small trees up Eagle Cap’s southern slope.
My ankle’s bugging me a little, but it’s definitely not sprained, and the 1500’ climb goes quickly.
There’s a half dozen folks on top. “Where’d you come from?” I tell them. “There’s no trail there?”
From Eagle Cap, I follow the trail down to Horton Pass, then drop briefly into the East Fork Eagle Creek. It’s beautiful and the weather’s warm and my legs feel great. I eat lunch switchbacking down through big blocks of granite.
After Horton Pass, the trail through the East Fork fades a bit, and things get more faded still as I turn off up Frazier Pass. I love that: just a few miles from the Lakes Basin, the wilderness turns back to wilderness.
The trail fades a few times on the west side of Fraizer Pass and disappears entirely in meadows after crossing the Minam. But I just continue west and eventually run into the Minam Trail proper.
The Minam Trail’s beautiful and easy, and I follow it for miles down into warm, dry, sunny forest. After a while it passes into an old burn and braids a bit, but the going’s still easy, again like a moving sidewalk.
In the flats, as afternoon turns to evening, I start seeing large piles of cougar scat, then something big in the distance, running in front of me. A cougar! It’s far away, and jots up the hill almost as soon as I see it, but it still feels like magic. Magic and a little scary.
I start singing my cougar song:
I’m not for eating,
Or for meeting.
I’m just a mannnnnn!
I’m not sure if singing will do anything. I think vaguely of trying to alert it I’m there, trying to reassure it I’m not trying to sneak up or anything. I have no idea. But at least the song’s kinda catchy. I play drums with my trekking poles above my head.
I’m pretty sure no self-respecting cat would eat something this ridiculous.
I make camp at a massive old site near the Elk Creek confluence. There are still a few hours of light left, and I spend it on the water—soaking my feat, even swimming a little. I love it here.
As I’m drifting to sleep, I start seeing flashes of light. I haven’t seen anyone since leaving Eagle Cap, but I think maybe some later campers have shown up. I tumble out of the tent and shout a hearty hello. There’s enough space in my camp for several more tents if they want to stay here.
But there’s no one. Then a big boom, seemingly from nowhere in particular. And I notice the light’s not coming from the trail. It’s coming from lightning striking near Eagle Cap.
So this again.
I climb back in the tent, batten down the hatches a bit. It sounds like semitruck’s speeding down the Minam towards me. Then hard pounding rain and close lightning striking China Cap and the ridges to my west.
It goes on for hours, and by the time it’s done—around two—there are several standing inches of water around camp.
Wednesday, August 19: Minam River / Elk Creek confluence to Two Pan Trailhead via Granite Gulch, Sky Lake, Copper Creek, and the West Fork Lostine
I sleep strangely in the dripping night, dreaming that I’m asleep in the river. When I wake, everything’s soaked with some combination of leaked rain and condensation. There’s still standing water in camp.
I breakfast by the river, looking through my map. I’ve got a couple more days planned, but I don’t know if I’ll have time to dry everything out today, and anyway I’ve started to dream of home, of Krista and our cats.
So I decide to hike out today, up Granite Gulch to the unnamed pass between here and the West Fork Lostine, then out to the car.
The trail’s burned badly for the first few miles up Granite Gulch, but the tread’s generally pretty good—or, at least, the tread generally exists (the Gorge has lowered my standards)—and I follow it easily to the open basins below the pass.
The pass itself—or complex of passes—is beautiful. I think again: maybe the prettiest place I’ve seen in the Wallowas. But more clouds are forming to the south, and I just don’t have more weather in me, so I hurry through the high country on my way to Sky Lake and Copper Creek.
When I reach trees again, at the far side of Sky Lake as Elkhorn Creek flows into Copper, I feel weirdly relieved, then more so when I meet the first folks I’ve seen since Eagle Cap yesterday.
The last few miles, out Copper Creek and down the West Fork Lostine, are easy and wonderful. I skip lunch, eat a few days worth of snacks, stop to filter a little water for the drive home.
The bumpy road out from Two Pan’s somehow both dusty and wet, but the town of Lostine’s just straight sunny, and it gets sunnier still as I follow the Wallowa River toward the Minam confluence. I stop at a State Park along the river, swim, and change into my clean town clothes. Then further west. The sun sets as I descend along slow semis to Pendleton, and stars appear as I enter the Gorge. I stop to make a little coffee outside of The Dalles, then make it home just before Krista’s going to bed. She’s saved me some dinner. The cats are entranced by the weird smells I’ve brought home. They ask if I caught the cougar’s name.