Wednesday, April 29, 2020

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.

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