Backpacking the Wallowas

I have been so excited to go backpacking since we started our travels and finally got my wish. 😀 We knew bad weather was coming, so we set out early in the week to try and minimize risk of rain or snowfall during our trip.  Even so, it was cold at night in the mountains. 

Here is a breakdown by day of our time in the Wallowa Whitman National Forest:

Day 1:

Having hiked the Wallowas before, we decided to cover some different ground and drove to Wallowa Lake just south of Joseph, OR to hike on West Fork Trail.  We had a bit of a rocky start…I forgot my hiking shoes back in Wallowa, so that wasted an hour and a half and meant we had a later start. 😫 However, we got on the trail by noon and the weather was sunny and warm, so that worked out just fine.  

Our first day was the biggest push with 9 miles and about 2500 feet of elevation gain to get to our destination: Horseshoe Lake, 7150 feet in elevation.  During our trek we saw some grouse on the trail, California Tortoiseshell butterflies blanketing the banks of the Wallowa River crossing, and lots of ducks on Horseshoe Lake upon our arrival.  With most of the elevation gain coming at the end of our hike, we were definitely exhausted, but our campsite was stellar, and having no neighbors close by was a plus.

Day 2:  

It was a frosty morning, so we got going a little late as we were trying to dry out the tent before packing it and also because we just weren’t moving very fast.  One really neat phenomenon we experienced was seeing a flock of ducks gliding down to the water and noticing that they sounded like little mechanical glider planes!  I thought for sure these were manmade objects and not birds as I have never heard them make a sound like that before, but Matt was convinced they were ducks. It was so odd and yet so amazing that it was quiet enough for us to hear this.  And, when we left for our second destination we saw both a blue heron on the lake and a large toad in a nearby stream, both of which were delightful discoveries.

The last time we were in the Wallowas we stayed at Mirror Lake, and with limited time we decided to hike up to Eagle Cap instead of going to Glacier Lake, which are both nearby attractions and worth seeing as a day hike option.  As such, this time we decided to hike up to and stay the night at Glacier Lake, which is situated at around 8150 feet.  However, the elevation gain was a lot more than we initially anticipated…a bit of a gross miscalculation on my part. 😳 We hiked by Lee, Douglas and Moccasin Lakes, at which point you take a land bridge across Moccasin Lake to get to Glacier Lake Trail.  Once you get past Moccasin, it is a fairly steep, unrelenting climb up for about 3 miles.  We were spent by the time we got to the top of the pass, which was around 8500 feet in elevation. 🥵 

The second day ended up being around 6 miles and 1700 feet of elevation gain and it felt just as hard as the first day!  Nevertheless, Glacier Lake is stunning and absolutely worth the trip.  It is a more popular destination, so finding a camping spot with a little privacy was challenging.  In addition to other backpackers, we had chipmunks and ground squirrels keeping us company. 😛 As such, we hung our food every night more so because of these little critters than the risk of bears, but you will need to bring a bear-resistant pack for food if you camp in the Wallowas.

Day 3:

Despite a night of constant wind, it was a lot warmer at Glacier Lake than our stay at Horseshoe.  We were fortunate to have clear, sunny skies for the entire trip, and watching the sun rise on the mountain peaks was quite spectacular.  We got an early start for the trek back down to Horseshoe Lake, which made the small climb from Glacier Lake to Glacier Pass a little easier and we arrived back at Horseshoe by noon, just in time for lunch.  We had easy pickings for campsites and chose to set up on the west side of the lake so we would get sun first thing in the morning to dry off the tent and get going early for the hike out.

Arriving with so much daylight remaining also meant that Matt had time to fish and I had time to explore the area.  While Matt didn’t get any bites, I found a separate little pond filled with lily pads and our duck friends enjoying the warmer daytime temps.  I think they were female mallard ducks…they were speckled brown with a little hint of blue revealed when they would flap their wings and resettle in the water.  I also saw what I think were rainbow trout in the nearby stream where I saw the toad on day 2. 🏕

Overall, it was a more relaxing day and a pleasant way to end our time in the mountains.  We did end up with more neighbors as the night wore on, so we were glad to get situated and relax while we still had warm temps and quietude.  

Day 4:

The hike out!  As Matt liked to put it, we knew we were in for a foot pounding with a mostly downhill plodding along the Lakes Basin and West Fork trails, so we set out as quickly as we could to get back to Wallowa Lake by lunchtime.  Before we set out, we saw vapor rising from the lake, moving in wispy swaths like smoke just above the water.  It was mesmerizing watching the wind whip the vapor quickly from one direction to another.  

We saw our grouse friends on the trail again on the way out and a surprising number of hikers coming up despite the impending bad weather in the next couple of days.  I hope most were staying for just two nights or they were going to be in for a world of cold and likely also snow.  Overall, we made good time and got out to the trailhead by 1:30, motivated by the idea of a burger and a beer to celebrate our trip.  Fortunately for us, there was a place just a half mile down the road called Glacier Ridge Grill and General Store.  Their burgers and beers did not disappoint, so come on by if you are in the neighborhood. 🍔🍺

Before we set out on our backpacking trip, one of our neighbors in the RV park shared that if we went a little further down the road toward the Wallowa State Park, we could see the kokanee salmon river run, which are descendants of sockeye salmon and bright red in color.  With food in our stomachs and rays of sunshine to welcome us, we walked to the bridge and joined the onlookers as we watched the salmon wriggle their way up the stream.  I have never seen such brightly colored freshwater fish nor a salmon run in action, so it was really a treat to observe!  For more information, check out this article that discusses the history of the salmon run and the efforts made to bring it back to the area. 

Sockeye (kokanee) salmon run, Wallowa River

Overall, we were glad to get a backpacking trip in before it was too late to do so comfortably and to revisit this area of eastern Oregon.  It truly is a gem.  Not only that, but the towns around it (Wallowa, Lostine, Enterprise, and Joseph) are great little towns to visit and as picturesque as you can imagine with cattle and horse pastureland in the valley and a backdrop of breathtaking sawtooth mountain tops.  Come visit this area if you get the chance.  It is one of our favorites from our travels so far. 😍

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