Monday, May 4, 2020

East Peak Shoulder (Wallowas)

Pete's Point and Eagle Cap rise over Aneroid Lake
4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; hike largely unsigned
Access: Paved road to tram station, Wallowa Lake Tramway to trailhead

The Wallowas are a remote mountain range in Northeast Oregon, isolated from both the Cascades and the Rockies, that house many of Oregon's highest peaks. The range is deep and wild, with much of its alpine scenery only accessible to backpackers and strong day hikers, but there's one exception: the Wallowa Lake Tramway will zip anyone willing to shell out thirty-some dollars to the top of Mount Howard, allowing access to vistas at the very edge of the range. Hikers looking for a high elevation outing without expending too much energy should consider this hike exploring the ridge heading south from the tramway station. Although I did not complete the full hike to the summit of East Peak, I climbed up to a high shoulder on East Peak that gave splendid views of the Wallowas and Hells Canyon and enjoyed the hike a lot. The trail for this hike is unmarked and is quite steep at time but is easy to follow with a map and directions.

I took the Wallowa Lake Tramway and hiked to the shoulder of East Peak during a September road trip to the Wallowas. The Wallowas are a long way from any city; Enterprise and Joseph are the only two towns in the region to offer visitor services. After you've driven the hours to get to Enterprise from Boise, Spokane, Portland, or Seattle, take Highway 82 south from Enterprise to Joseph; Highway 82 becomes Main Street, which I followed through town until it curved to the east and became 8th St. This road then exited the town and rose over a grass-covered terminal moraine to reach the shores of Wallowa Lake; I stopped in the park with the boat launch to admire the sun rising over the lake. The tramway was a little further down: I drove the length of the lake and then took the left fork once I was past the lake, entering a spread-out resort town area. A sign pointed me into the parking lot on the east (left) side of the road for the Wallowa Lake Tramway.

Sunrise at Wallowa Lake
The Wallowa Lake Tramway lifts tourists 3700 feet from the valley bottom to a station just short of the summit of Mount Howard. The tramway operates with small four-person cabins; while most tramways and gondolas have a glossy, commercial feel to them, the Wallowa Lake Tramway feels much more like a local operation. From the upper tramway station, there are a little over a mile of trails maintained by the Wallowa Lake Tramway that allow for exploration around the summit of Mount Howard; the trail to East Peak is connected to that trail system but is unmarked. I arrived early, a half hour before tram operation started, to ensure that I could get an early start before the top got crowded. The tramway ride was scenic, offering beautiful views of Wallowa Lake at first and then improving views of the dramatic alpine peaks deeper within the range.

Wallowa Lake viewed from the tramway
Once at the summit, I decided to quickly explore the Tramway-operated loop trail around Mount Howard before departing for East Peak. Pick up a map and guide when you board the tramway to navigate the trails. I did the loop counterclockwise, first dropping by Royal Purple Overlook. Views here were already quite good, encompassing both granite Eagle Cap and limestone Matterhorn, two of the most famous peaks in the Wallowas.

Eagle Cap and Matterhorn viewed from atop Mount Howard
The loop trail then climbed slightly to reach the summit of Mount Howard from which there was a view to the south of East Peak and the ridge that I was about to hike along. There were nice views eastward towards Hells Canyon as well.

North ridge of East Peak
The next intersection was a four-way junction: the trail ahead continued the loop, the left turn abbreviated it, and the social path to the right was the trail towards East Peak. I chose to initially complete the loop before heading out towards East Peak, so I descended slighlty on the north side of the peak and took a spur trail to a large talus slope with a view out over Wallowa Lake and Wallowa Valley. Chief Joseph Mountain towered over the valley.

Chief Joseph Mountain and the Wallowas rising above Wallowa Lake and Joseph
A brief aside before the East Peak hike description: Wallowa Valley witnessed one of the tragic stories of the Indian Wars during the European American settlement of the West and was once the home of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce inhabited the Wallowa Valley for some generations before the arrival of Europeans and initially were friendly with white settlers arriving in the Northwest. An initial reservation set aside for the Nez Perce covered millions of acres in Oregon and Idaho, but as white settlement expanded, the US government forced a new treaty upon the Nez Perce restricting them to a small reservation in Idaho and evicting them from their ancestral lands in Wallowa Valley. In order to respect his ancestors' graves and his tribe's long-standing claim to the Wallowa Valley, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce refused to sign the treaty, instead firmly turning away settlers from the valley without violence to avoid war with the United States.

General Oliver Otis Howard- of Howard University fame and the namesake of the mountain upon which the Tramway is built- met with Chief Joseph in 1877 and issued an ultimatum demanding the withdrawl of the Nez Perce from Wallowa Valley. Faced with the prospect of war, Joseph reluctantly agreed to leave Wallowa Valley; but on the eve of his tribe's withdrawal, a few young warriors from his tribe killed a number of settlers in retribution. As the Army moved to retaliate, Chief Joseph had no choice but to flee with his people. Chased across the Rockies, they first sought refuge with the Crow; when turned away, they decided to retreat towards Canada. Along the way, his tribe of a couple hundred consistently fought off the US Army led by Howard and General Nelson Miles, until finally they were cornered in the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, just 40 miles from the Canadian border. After surrendering, Chief Joseph spent the rest of his life lobbying the US government through any channel he could find to return the Wallowa Valley to his people, stating "we only ask an even chance to live as other men live" and arguing for the rights of the Nez Perce based on the founding principles of the US. The Nez Perce never returned to Wallowa Valley and Chief Joseph later died on the Colville Reservation in Washington State.

As I gazed down into Wallowa Valley from the top of Mount Howard, I felt a tinge of sadness for the Nez Perce that once lived on the valley's fertile plains.

I also admired the remarkably well-preserved terminal moraine of Wallowa Lake. Although almost no glaciers remain in the Wallowas today, in ice ages past, the range was substantially glaciated; in recent periods of glaciation, a large glacier originating near Eagle Cap filled the entire mountain valley of the Wallowa River and flowed slightly out into the plains of Wallowa Valley, depositing a continuous terminal moraine just south of Joseph that today clearly defines the shape of Wallowa Lake.

After finishing the loop and returning to the tramway station, I started the actual East Peak hike by following the wide trail forming the middle connection of the figure 8 that headed east from the tramway station. This trail quickly intersected the other side of the loop; once there, I took the unmarked trail on the opposite side of the intersection, which began to descend steeply. After a quick 200-foot elevation drop, the trail swung to the south and leveled out. The trail followed the contours of Mount Howard until coming to a 8100-foot saddle between Mount Howard and East Peak; from here, the trail began climbing steeply on the lightly forested ridge, where there still some late season wildflowers blooming.

Flowers, valley
The trail wrapped around the west side of the first bump in the ridge before climbing up to the ridge itself and then began ascending a second, treeless knoll; part way through this ascent, the trail once again cut away to the east side of the mountain and began to circle around the knoll. The barren slopes near the top of the ridge provided stunning views over to the canyon of the Imnaha River and a little farther east the rim of Hells Canyon and the Seven Devil Mountains in Idaho.

Looking out to Hells Canyon and the Seven Devils
After rounding the second knoll, the trail continued following the east slopes of the ridge, passing just below a low saddle on the ridge. Here, while the main trail continued to contour along the slopes, an unmarked path veered off to the right, quickly climbing up to the ridge itself. I took this side trail, leaving the more defined principal trail. You don't miss much by skipping the rest of the defined trail, as that path peters out a half mile further. The ridge path, on the other hand, quickly delivered astonishing views over the East Fork Wallowa River Valley. It was extremely steep at parts and switchbacked a couple times to push through some rocky terrain and reach the top of the next false summit at about 1.5 miles after leaving the Tramway trails. Climbing atop this shoulder of East Peak at 8940 feet opened up views to the south: the true summit of East Peak was finally visible ahead of me while Aneroid Lake lay in a forested valley at the foot of Pete's Point in the distance.

East Peak
Many high peaks of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, which forms the heart of the Wallowas, were visible, including Eagle Cap itself, Matterhorn, and Sacajawea Peak. Sacajawea Peak is not the most remarkable looking mountain but it is the highest summit of the Wallowas and the highest point in Oregon outside the Cascade volcanoes. A sliver of Ice Lake was visible at the foot of Matterhorn.

Matterhorn and Sacajawea Peak from the shoulder of East Peak
The views to the east were expansive: the Imnaha and Snake Rivers had cut a maze of canyons into the Columbia River flood basalts. Seven Devils Mountains rose directly above the depths of Hells Canyon; the summit of He Devil Peak is almost 8000 feet above the Snake River at one point, making Hells Canyon the deepest canyon in North America (only Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada can dispute this title).

Seven Devils rising above Hells Canyon
The path continues along the ridge towards the summit of East Peak, but I chose to call it at this 8940-foot shoulder. The views were great and I needed to return down the mountain to drive out to Hat Point that evening, so I retraced my steps back to the tramway station. I did not see a single other hiker until returning to the tramway trail system.

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