Thursday, April 30, 2020

High Dune and Star Dune

Dunefield from High Dune
7 miles loop, 1800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance fee required

The Great Sand Dunes rise out of the flat San Luis Valley at the foot of Colorado's snowy Sangre de Cristo Range, a wondrous sea of silica that stand as the tallest dunes in North America. The massive dunefield is best appreciated while one is fully immersed within, making Star Dune and High Dune- two of the tallest dunes in the field- extraordinary vantage points to study this landscape. This is not a standard hike with a defined trail to follow; rather, it's a saunter, a voyage through an ocean of sand in which you more or less choose your own path and your own adventure. I'll give a general outline of the hike that I did, but know that there's many ways to reach Star Dune.

I hiked this trail on a blustery, cold February day after a major snowstorm the night before. Howling overnight winds had cleared most of the roads, but the northeast-facing aspects of hills had deep deposits of snow. From Alamosa, I followed US 160 east to its junction with Highway 150, which led along the base of the Sangre de Cristo Range to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I followed the road past the park entrance and the visitor center to a left turnoff for the dunes and a picnic area; I followed this spur road to its end at a parking lot along the wash of Medano Creek. While driving in, I had stupendous views of the dunes: Star Dune, the final destination of the day, was a particularly photogenic mountain of sand when set against the backdrop of the Crestone Needle, Kit Carson Peak, Cleveland Peak, and Mt. Herard.

Crestone Needle and Star Dune
I left the parking lot and crossed the sandy Medano Creek wash. In the morning, the wash was dry, with all nearby water locked up in ice by the below-freezing temperatures. By the time of my return that evening, snowmelt trickled through the wash. During the spring and summer during peak snowmelt, Medano Creek is filled with water and can exhibit a "surge flow" that resembles waves, making the area a popular inland beach destination.

Mount Herard and the dunes rise above Medano Creek
As I crossed the creekbed, I kept my eyes peeled on High Dune, the highest elevation dune in the dunefield and the sand pile directly across Medano Creek from the trailhead. Once across the creekbed, I wandered through a few of the shifting foothill dunes to reach the base of High Dune. I followed sand ridges uphill to ascend towards the summit of High Dune.

Ascending sand was less straightforward than I initially anticipated: for every step, my foot sank deep into the sand and my boots quickly filled with sand (gaiters are probably helpful!). Steep sand slopes were especially difficult to ascend: I simply slid down when trying to tackle dunes that were close to the angle of repose.

The climb up to High Dune
There was no trail: I simply followed what appeared to be the the clearest ridge towards High Dune and after a struggling over a mile I found myself atop the ridge of the dune. A short walk brought me to the summit of High Dune, where I had a sweeping view of the entire dunefield and of the Sangre de Cristo Range as well. To the north I could see all the way to the snow-covered Sawatch Range and to the west lay Star Dune, the San Luis Valley, and the San Juan Mountains.

Sangre de Cristo and the Great Sand Dunes, from High Dune
The Great Sand Dunes are born from the sandsheet in the San Luis Valley. Sandwiched between the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan Mountains, the San Luis Valley is home to both the Great Sand Dunes and the headwaters of the Rio Grande. In fact, the dunes are made largely of sediments eroded from the San Juans by the nascent Rio Grande, which once deposited those sands into Lake Alamosa, a large lake filling the current valley. A drier climate caused the lake to disappear, leaving behind the sabkha, sandy wetlands that today still occupy parts of the San Luis Valley. Once fully dried, a sand sheet was left in the valley; southwestern winds built small parabolic dunes, which migrated northeast across the valley until they reached the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Here, winds pouring out of Mosca and Medano Passes held the sand back, building the small parabolic dunes into great sand hills hundreds of feet high. The dunefield filled a small indentation in the Sangre de Cristos and became bound by Sand Creek and Medano Creek to the north and south.

The most straightforward route from High Dune to Star Dune- as I learned on my return- is to follow the outer dune crest, staying along the ridge of high dunes directly above Medano Creek and then ascending along Star Dune's south ridge. I was initially more adventurous, though, and chose to take an interior route, following the north ridge of High Dune out a little deeper into the dunes before turning west and making a cross-dunefield trek to Star Dune. While I generally tried to stick to ridges, I still had to drop into a few basins and climb back out; at times, this was extremely challenging due to the sinking sand.

Star Dune from afar
I noticed an interesting phenomenon as I hiked: the snow from the night before had been incorported into the sand dunes, with layers of snow deposited between layers of sand.

Snow and sand mixed
Another interesting feature: long dune features that resembled walls. These dunes had especially steep sides; I encountered a number of them on my dunefield traverse.

Wall-like dune
After trekking about 2 miles through the sand from High Dune, I arrived at the saddle marking the start of the east ridge of Star Dune. The ascent up this ridge was the toughest part of the hike: as I approached the top, the angle became ever steeper, so with each step the sliding sand carried my foot back to its starting point (quick note: while approaching via the south ridge is probably easier, you'll have to find some approach of ascending the steep east face of the dunes regardless of your path choice). A desparate push finally put me atop Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America.

Approaching Star Dune
On the slopes of Star Dune
A vast sweep of dunes filled the landscape between where I stood and the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range. A little farther removed from that range, I could now see more of its peaks than I could at High Dune: Mount Kit Carson and the Crestone Needle were now visible. I could also see farther north to the head of the San Luis Valley and the snowy Sawatch Range that rose beyond that. The Sawatch is the highest range in the Rocky Mountains, holding Mounts Elbert, Massive, and Harvard, the three tallest peaks in all of the Rockies. The fourth tallest, Blanca Peak, is in the Sangre de Cristo Range and rises just to the south of the dunes; the tip of part of the mountain is visible from atop Star Dune, sandwiched between Mount California and Twin Peaks. To the west, the dunes died down until flattening out into the sabhka and San Luis Valley.

The Sangre de Cristo rise over the dunes, as seen from Star Dune
I returned by following the outer dune crest, keeping Medano Creek in sight for the most part on my return to High Dune. After catching the dunefield in dramatic evening light, I made a quick descent to the trailhead to catch a beautiful sunset from near the entrance station.

Although this hike doesn't follow a standard trail, it's a wonderful routefinding adventure and a chance to explore one of the continent's most unique landscapes. Don't miss it.

Pete Lake

Pete Lake
9 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, due to length
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Pete Lake is a gorgeous subalpine lake at the foot of Lemah Mountain in Washington State's Alpine Lakes Wilderness and unlike most of the other lake gems in Washington State, this one takes minimal effort to reach: although the hike is 9 miles long, there's barely any elevation gain on the way there. The catch? In early summer, the trail is swarming with mosquitoes.

I hiked this trail on the July 4th holiday, when snow had long since melted from the trail but remained to decorate the high Cascade peaks. From Seattle, I took I-90 east to cross Snoqualmie Pass and took Bullfrog Road at exit 80 north towards Suncadia and Roslyn. Bullfrog Road ended at Highway 903; at the traffic circle, I took the far exit to head north towards Roslyn and Salmon La Sac. Highway 903 took me through downtown Roslyn, once the heart of coal mining in the eastern Cascades; 903 continued north through a few other small communities and then traced the east shore of Cle Elum Lake. I made a left turn at Forest Road 46, which took me across the Salmon La Sac River on a bridge with pretty mountain views. I continued another four miles until I got to Cooper Lake, where I took the right fork for the road to the Owhi Campground, which led across the Cooper River and then dead-ended at the Pete Lake Trailhead.

Cle Elum River
From the trailhead, I headed north on the Pete Lake Trail, which skirted the banks of the Cooper River and climbed over a small hill before coming to a trail junction with the Tired Creek Trail at 1.2 miles, where I followed the bottom of the valley and continued straight towards Pete Lake.

Cooper River
I passed a second junction after another mile of hiking; I continued straight on here as well. The trail crossed multiple streams along the way; in summer and fall, these will probably be easily manageable but I could see the crossings being more difficult with higher water in spring.

Dogwood bloomed in the underbrush around the trail during my July hike.

About three miles into the hike, the trail started to gain a bit of elevation, the only real bit of ascent on the trail. Two miles after passing the second trail junction, I arrived at a third. Here, the trail continuing straight led to Spectacle Lake and the PCT, so I took the spur to the left that led to Pete Lake. I followed this short spur through a camping area and past a toilet to the lakeshore, where I enjoyed views of the lake with Lemah Mountain and Chikamin Peak towering behind. Unfortunately, the swarms of mosquitoes here forced me to beat a retreat shortly afterwards and return to the trailhead. This is an easy hike to a lovely destination, but be sure to bring your bug spray if you want to have an enjoyable time here in the summer.

Pete Lake

Umtanum Ridge Crest

View of Manastash Ridge from Umtanum Ridge
6 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; some very steep sections
Access: Paved road to trailhead, BLM day use fee or America the Beautiful Pass required

Umtanum Ridge is one of many parallel ridges that separate Ellensburg from Yakima in Central Washington State. The ridge's open, sagebrush-covered slopes bloom with a profusion of wildflowers each spring, making it a good hike when the higher elevations of the Cascades are still snow-covered. The views from atop the ridge are some of the best of any hike in the Yakima Canyon area and some of the nearby trails offer opportunities for exploration; however, parts of this trail, including the final ascent up the ridge, are very steep.

I hiked this trail in late April, making a day drive out from Seattle to Yakima Canyon. From Seattle, I took I-90 west to Ellensburg, exiting onto Canyon Road at exit 109 and then following that road south into Yakima Canyon until coming to the Umtanum Creek Trailhead on the west side of the road. I parked at the lot at the end of the short gravel road, which required either a one-day $5 BLM day use fee that could be paid in cash onsite (Northwest Forest Pass is not valid here) or an America the Beautiful Pass.

From the trailhead, I crossed the suspension bridge over the Yakima River. Cliffs of columnar basalt rose directly above the Yakima River.

Yakima River
The trail led through tall brushy vegetation and under the railroad tracks before coming to a signboard indicating the trailhead for Umtanum Canyon. Here, the Umtanum Canyon Trail led to the right while the Umtanum Ridge Trail led left; I took the trail to the left, which led quickly across the canyon and then began ascending up a narrow side canyon. As the ascent began, there were good views of the cottonwoods and the aspens at the floor of the canyon; the canyon walls were green with the arrival of spring.

View over Umtanum Canyon
The rocky trail ascended along the side canyon, passing a number of small waterfalls along the way.

Waterfall in the canyon
About three-quarters of a mile up the Umtanum Ridge Trail, the canyon walls died down and I came to a grove of aspens near the confluence of two streams. During a previous autumn visit, the aspens were brilliantly golden; while the hike up to the crest of Umtanum Ridge is a good spring hike, hiking the length of Umtanum Canyon is nice during the autumn for the canyon's brilliant fall colors.

Aspen grove and Umtanum Ridge
Fall in the aspen grove
Part way through the aspen grove, an unmarked path broke off to the left, heading downhill and crossing the stream. I took a short detour here to check out a viewpoint over the Yakima River, following this path across the stream and then taking it north as it followed the contours of the mountain. The trail wrapped around the mountain for the next half mile, with fairly flat hiking and nice views over Umtanum Canyon. As the trail turned from Umtanum Canyon into the Yakima Canyon, huge views opened up of the Yakima River flowing through a bend below.

Yakima River Canyon
After enjoying this view, I backtracked to the aspen grove and returned to the main trail. Continuing my ascent, I passed another unmarked path heading off to the right, which I ignored, staying along the main trail that followed the creek.

As I continued on the ascent, I admired the widespread wildflowers in the grasslands surrounding the trail, which included spring blooms of showy balsamroot and phlox.

Spring wildflowers blooming
Balsamroot bloom
Phlox blooming
The trail followed the creek for another half mile after the aspen grove before heading up the slopes on the right bank of the creek to ascend to the ridge. The next three-quarters of a mile were brutally steep as the trail tackled the ridge, ascending with no switchbacks as it made a beeline for the Crest. The steep ascent was ameliorated somewhat by the wildflowers coating the hillsides and the improving views to the north, which soon encompassed Manastash Ridge and the snowcapped Wenatchee Mountains. I could clearly see I-82 cutting a gash across the landscape of desert ridges starting from its high pass over Manastash Ridge.

Trail up Umtanum Ridge
The climb finally ended as I gained the broad, flat ridge crest where the trail met up with a dirt service road running the length of Umtanum Ridge. I crossed the road and followed the last stretch of trail another hundred meters to a protruberance in the ridge that marked the high point of the hike. From here, there were sweeping views of the grassy ridges and canyons making up the Yakima Fold Belt. The green farms down below in Kittitas Valley contribute to Washington State's notable wheat harvest but most notably produce hay for export. Although the sun was shining east of the Cascades and I could see Wenatchee Mountains to the north of Ellensburg, clouds still engulfed the crest of the Cascades and hid the mighty Stuart Range, which can usually be seen from this vantage point.

Kittitas Valley and the Wenatchee Mountains
The deserted series of ridges and high valleys to the east constitute the Yakima Training Center, an Army installation affiliated with Joint Base Lewis McChord. This large tract of desert, principally used for military exercises, also once housed an NSA facility. The Seattle Times and other national publications have reported that the satellite facilities here may once have been involved in the NSA's secretive global surveillance programs, but the agency has since shuttered its program here in 2013.

Umtanum and Yakima Ridges
I enjoyed the views before backtracking to the trailhead. While not superlative, this is a nice hike for spring wildflowers or fall aspen colors and is a good rainy day alternative when it's pouring in the Cascades but sunny on the east side.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Loowit Falls

Loowit Falls
9 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but crumbling road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Loowit Falls plunges out of the unearthly crater of Mount St. Helens in a raw, unfinished world of crumbling rock, one of the most remarkable landscapes crafted by erosion following the volcano's cataclysmic 1980 eruption. This hike gets visitors as close to the off-limits crater of the volcano as possible short of summiting the volcano itself and provides an extraordinary look at both the extent of the volcano's devastation and the remarkable recovery that has occurred in the intervening four decades. Far from Seattle and Portland and a hefty drive from I-5, this hike sees a fraction of the visitors that pack the trails around other volcanoes in the Northwest.

I hiked Loowit Falls with a good friend visiting from San Francisco. From Seattle, we headed south past Puyallup, Eatonville, and Morton, following US 12 east from Morton to Randle and then taking the bumpy and pothole-filled Forest Service Road 25 south to Forest Service Road 99, which led towards the Windy Ridge area of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. NF-99 was an unpleasant drive: at points, parts of the downhill side of the road had slumped, creating somewhat dangerous driving conditions. We followed 99 to its end at the Windy Ridge parking area.

From the trailhead, we followed the gated road (Truman Trail, No. 207) south towards the mountain. The old road- built to access the plains at the base of Mount St. Helens shortly after the 1980 eruption and still used today by researchers- hugged the east side of the ridge. The devastated slopes, having recovered minimally, were populated only with bushes and wildflowers, meaning that the trail had open views of the surrounding valleys and peaks. Mount Adams was semi-visible to the east, floating in and out of the clouds as we hiked. We passed a small structure by the side of the road that turned out to be an earthquake monitoring station, part of a larger USGS system for monitoring seismic and volcanic activity at Mount St. Helens.

At about a mile, the road rounded a corner and Mount St. Helens came back into view. From this perspective, Dog's Head, the northeast corner of the crater rim, appeared particularly prominent and much of the rest of the crater was hidden behind the closer features of the mountain.

Mount St. Helens

We also had views out into the forested ridges of the South Cascades that filled the space between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. Notably, the degree of devastation experienced by any given area during the 1980 eruption could be determined by the degree to which that area had been revegetated.

Truman Trail View
Wildflowers have taken full advantage of the lack of foliage near Mount St. Helens: early each summer, the Devastated Area puts on one of the most spectacular flower shows in the state. We were lucky to catch numerous paintbrush blooming amidst fields of yellow and purple wildflowers on the otherwise barren slopes during our visit.

After the road cut across to the west side of the ridge, it descended down to the ashy plains created from the massive landslide at the start of Mount St. Helens' eruption in 1980. The once conical summit of St. Helens crumbled and slid down the north side of the volcano as the volcano erupted, resulting in the largest recorded landslide in history that filled in the valley of the Nork Fork Toutle River. The road ended here; two trails left from the parking lot. The Truman Trail headed in the direction of Spirit Lake, so instead we took the left fork for the Windy Trail.

The Windy Trail began heading across the volcanic moonscape. This was the heart of the most devastated landscape in the aftermath of St. Helens' eruption: the very soil beneath our feet had only been deposited in the eruption less than four decades before. After crossing a broad wash, the trail ascended onto a plateau and then wandered west across this surreal landscape for the next mile. But despite all the ravages of the volcano upon this landscape, life was renewing: in some areas, the ground was covered in sheets of paintbrush and lupine.

Wildflower bloom and Spirit Lake
Wildflower bloom
After a mile, the Windy Trail met up with the Loowit Trail, a 30-mile trail which circumnavigates Mount St. Helens. At the junction, we took the right fork to head in the counterclockwise direction around the volcano. We were so close to the mountain now that Dog's Head, the northeast end of the crater rim, towered to the south and we could no longer make out the shape of the full crater rim.

The trail continued climbing in and out of shallow stream valleys as it traversed the northern base of Mount St. Helens; we rockhopped over multiple stream crossings. One particular stream valley was discordantly lush, one of the few breaks of dense vegetation in this otherwise harsh and sparse landscape. Here, a stream cascaded among blooming bunches of monkeyflower in a surreal oasis.

Monkeyflower blooming by a stream
After exiting our verdant interlude, we continued across this Cascadian Mordor until we reached a junction with the spur to Loowit Falls. We took this left fork, leaving the Loowit Trail and heading uphill towards a deep ravine cut into the mountain's slopes. As we first spotted Loowit Falls plunging into its stark gorge, the plumes of dust, the harshly lit clouds, and the raw rocky cut of the crater rim rising above made for a menacing scene.

Approaching Loowit Falls
We arrived at the rim of the gorge after about a half mile of hiking from the Loowit Trail. Here, we had an awesome view of the waterfall's 200-foot plunge into a canyon cut into layers of landslide debris and ash. There was just one other group at the falls as we lunched to this awesome view.

Loowit Falls
The waterfall is fed by the Crater Glacier, a new glacier that has formed since 1980 in the St. Helen's caldera around its lava dome.

Looking out, there were excellent views down the slopes of the volcano to Spirit Lake and Mount Margaret and Coldwater Peak. The fill from the landslide had created desolate plains at the bottom of the North Fork Toutle River valley. By raising the level of the valley, the landslide raised the level of Spirit Lake and created Coldwater and Castle Lakes further downstream; this buried Spirit Lake's former outlet into the Toutle River. In the aftermath of the eruption, the surface level of Spirit Lake rose steadily and threatened to cause catastrophic flooding in the Toutle River Valley were it to top the debris flow and quickly erode into it. In response, the US Army Corps of Engineers dug a 1.6-mile drainage tunnel to provide an outlet for the lake by letting it drain into the Coldwater Creek. Approaching four decades, the tunnel is now in need for repairs for the safety of downstream communities.

Spirit Lake
From our vantage point, we were just high enough to gaze over Windy Ridge to the Goat Rocks. The high, snowcapped ridge of Old Snowy, Ives Peak, and Mount Gilbert Custis was visible.

Goat Rocks
After sufficiently absorbing this desolate scene, we retraced our steps and returned to Seattle for some deep dish at Windy City Pie.

If you wish to see Mt. St. Helens up close and personal without climbing it, this is your hike. Hikes across the Toutle at Harry's Ridge and Mount Margaret provide beautiful views of the crater but for close-up views of the volcano and the raw landscape it has crafted, you should hike to Loowit Falls.

Eagle Cap

Glacier Lake, Glacier Peak, and the heart of the Wallowas viewed from atop Eagle Cap
19 miles round trip, 4100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; although grades are reasonable, it's a long hike
Access: Bumpy gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The Wallowas, an isolated mountain range in northeast Oregon, are deservedly nicknamed Oregon's Alps, featuring numerous alpine lakes set beneath the state's tallest non-volcanic peaks. Eagle Cap, although not the tallest peak in the range, sits at the heart of the Wallowas' Eagle Cap Wilderness, providing stunning views of the scenic and wild interior of these remote mountains. This hike ascends through forests and meadows on the East Fork Lostine River to reach Mirror Lake before embarking on a spectacular final ascent through the granite alpine to the glorious views atop Eagle Cap. This is a very long day hike, which many may choose to do as a backpack with an overnight (or longer) stop at Mirror Lake. The views and relative isolation of this area make this hike one of the highlights of the Pacific Northwest and a jewel in the crown of North American hiking.

I hiked Eagle Cap during a six-day long road trip from Seattle to Hells Canyon and the Wallowas. I came in September, which was late enough in the season that all the snow from the previous winter had melted off the route but the first light snowfall of the coming winter had just dusted the mountains. August and September are likely the best times of year for this hike. The Wallowa Mountains are a long way from any city: Portland is 6 hours away and even Spokane and Boise are 4 hours driving from Joseph. Enterprise and Joseph are two small towns that are the primary populated areas near the range's more popular trailhead.

As the hike is quite long and September days in the Northwest don't have quite the same amount of daylight as midsummer days, I headed out early from Enterprise, starting my drive to the trailhead over an hour before sunrise. From Enterprise, I took Highway 82 west out of the town and followed it until I arrived at the small village of Lostine; when Highway 82 took a sharp turn to the right in the middle of town, I made a left turn at that point onto Lostine River Road, which led another 18 miles to Two Pan Trailhead, where the hike started. The first few miles of Lostine River Road were paved; after entering Forest Service land the road became gravel and the last stretch was quite narrow and bumpy. I parked at Two Pan Trailhead at the end of the road.

From the trailhead, I started out on the Lostine River Trail, which started in the forest with a gentle grade. The trail immediately entered Eagle Cap Wilderness, which encompasses much of the high country in the Wallowas and at over 360,000 acres is the largest wilderness area in Oregon. After a third of a mile, I came to a junction between trails that followed the East and West Forks of the Lostine River; I took the left fork here to follow the East Fork. From here, the trail began a steady climb through the forest, at times alongside the river and at times away from it, crossing the river at one point. A number of small, pretty waterfalls on the Lostine kept the ascent interesting.

Waterfall on the East Fork Lostine River
After about 2.5 miles and 1200 feet of uphill, the trail leveled out and the forest began to thin. After another 200 foot climb, the I entered a long, flat meadow valley and I caught my first glimpse of Eagle Cap rising far away at the head of the valley.

Eagle Cap rises above the meadows along the East Fork Lostine River
For the next nearly three miles, the hike was extremely pleasant. The grade was flat and rocky peaks rose from either side of the meadow; the sun was vaporizing morning dew and frost, creating sunlit swirls of mist rising from the grassy valley floor. The trail stuck to the west side of the valley meadows most of the time but provided frequent views of Eagle Cap.

Meadows in the valley of the East Fork Lostine
Approaching the head of the meadow, the trail crossed the East Fork Lostine on a falling apart log bridge. The East Fork Lostine Valley is remarkably flat and straight here: the terminus of the meadow valley is at a moraine that must at one point have formed from glaciers on Eagle Cap which today have left just remnant snowfields.

Eagle Cap and the East Fork Lostine
After crossing the East Fork Lostine, the trail cut through woods on the eastern side of the meadow and started to climb gently. About a half mile after the crossing, the trail began to ascend steadily again, switchbacking up the eastern side of the valley. Around 7 miles from the trailhead, the trees began to thin out and I entered an alpine landscape of granite and meadows.

Alpine terrain near Mirror Lake
Here, I arrived at a junction: the trail to the Lakes Basin broke off to the left, while the right fork led to Minam Lake and Eagle Cap. I took a quick detour on the trail to the left, which led to Mirror Lake in just a fifth of a mile. Mirror Lake is a shimmering gem at the base of Eagle Cap; I took a break by the lake before continuing the push to the summit. Mirror Lake is a more feasible day hike destination if you're not looking to cover 20 miles in a day, although Eagle Cap is a more impressive destination than the lake.

Mirror Lake and Eagle Cap
Mirror Lake
While this trail continues on to the rest of the Lakes Basin, I backtracked from the lakeside back to the junction with the trail to Eagle Cap and Minam Lake. This time, I took the other fork; almost immediately, I came to a second junction where the trail to Minam Lake led off to the right and the trail to Eagle Cap led to the left.

I took the left fork to head towards Eagle Cap. The trail crossed a wide, flat meadow with peeks of Mirror Lake in the distance and crossed a stream feeding into Mirror Lake. To the north, there were nice views of the meadows and mountains of the East Fork Lostine valley.

Mirror Lake in the distance
East Fork Lostine valley
The trail then embarked on a short climb along a tumbling stream, which brought me to the meadow-covered slopes just above Upper Lake. I took another short detour on a social trail down to Upper Lake to enjoy the tranquil lakeside scenery.

Upper Lake
The trail switchbacked as it ascended a rocky hill rising above Upper Lake; the views improved continuously as I got progressively higher up.

Upper Lake
The grade leveled out and straightened out as the slope of the hill became gentler, and the route ahead became more clear as views of Eagle Cap returned. The mountain was now quite close: up ahead, I could see the trail aiming for the northwest ridge of the mountain. The remnant snowfields on the north face of the mountain were now clearly visible. There is (was?) a single named glacier in the Wallowas, the Benson Glacier, but it's not clear for which body of ice that name was initially intended; some maps mark it as being on the north face of Eagle Cap, while other maps indicate that it is the body of ice on Glacier Peak to the south. While the north face of Eagle Cap was at one point glaciated, the snowfields there are stagnant and are certainly no longer glaciers.

Approaching Eagle Cap
The views to the back also improved during the climb: most notably, the magnificent west face and white limestone cap of Matterhorn rose above the Hurricane Creek valley, while Moccasin Lake came into view. Although Matterhorn is the second tallest peak in the Wallowas- Sacajawea Peak just to the north along the same ridge is 12 feet taller- along with Eagle Cap, it's one of the most remarkable looking peaks in the range.

Matterhorn and Moccasin Lake
A mile from Mirror Lake, I came to a junction: the trail over Horton Pass and down into the Eagle Creek valley broke off to the right. I took the left fork, which kept put me on the summit trail to Eagle Cap. The trail switchbacked up rocky talus slopes to gain the northwest ridge of Eagle Cap. Upon reaching the ridge, huge views opened to the southwest.

The trail stayed on the southwest side of the ridge and was quite narrow in places as it cut across the steep slopes of the ridge. At the far end of a bump on the ridge, I came to a saddle: from here, the ridge led directly up Eagle Cap. From the saddle, there were remarkable views down to the craggy landscape of rock and snow below on the north face of Eagle Cap as well as of Matterhorn and the East Fork Lostine valley in the distance. The massif of Eagle Cap rose straight ahead.

Eagle Cap Summit
From the saddle, the trail began its final ascent, climbing the last 600 feet through broad switchbacks on the the peak's western slopes. As I climbed higher, the viewshed expanded and soon I could see out of the Wallowas to the Elkhorn Mountains and Baker Valley.

Hidden Lake peeping out, Baker Valley in the distance
When the trail finally leveled out, I found myself at the 9572-foot summit of Eagle Cap. Due to my early start, I had the summit to myself for a while, allowing me to peacefully enjoy the majestic views of the surrounding Wallowas. And what views! I could of course see the many peaks and landforms that I spotted along the way up- Matterhorn, the East Fork Lostine Valley, Mirror Lake, Moccasin Lake, Hidden Lake cradled in a basin in the Eagle Creek Valley, and the Elkhorn Mountains. But the 360-degree view from the summit encompassed so much more: closer in, I saw the azul waters of Glacier Lake below. Glacier Peak, robed in snowfields, rose commandingly above the lake. This snowfield is the most likely candidate for the Benson Glacier- the snowfields on Glacier Peak are among the most extensive remaining ice features in the Wallowas and were confirmed to be live glaciers from observations in the early 20th century.

The impressive limestone and shale wall of Cusick Mountain, Sentinel Peak, Pete's Point, and Aneroid Mountain rose beyond Glacier Lake, forming a formidable divide from the Imnaha watershed and Hells Canyon. Although Hells Canyon was blocked from view, the Seven Devils were visible behind Sentinel Peak. Other peaks of the Idaho Rockies lined the horizon.

Glacier Lake
Mirror and Moccasin Lakes, Matterhorn
To the east, I spotted Blue Lake filling a cozy alpine cirque. China Cap Butte and the buttes of the basaltic Wallowas rising above the Minam River were visible beyond that and even further back I could see the hazy plateau of the Blue Mountains.

View towards the basaltic western Wallowas
I stayed at the summit for a whole hour- eventually, more hikers started coming up, mainly backpackers who were camping in the Lakes Basin. On my way down, I stopped at the first switchback to enjoy the views to the south of Glacier Peak, Red Mountain, and the Eagle Creek valley.

Glacier Peak and Benson Glacier remnants, Eagle Creek Valley
This is an extraordinarily beautiful hike; I highly recommend both the the hike itself and the Wallowas themselves to hikers who haven't glanced at this corner of the Northwest before.