5 days in the Wallowa Mountains
Last week, I set out with a group of 7 others, on the longest backpacking trip I have done. 5 days, 4 nights, and about 31 miles into the Eagle Cap Wilderness to explore the Wallowa Mountains. I’m pretty new to backpacking, having only done a few overnights in college, and not much since. Now that I’ve finally got the gear situation all figured out, found some people who like to get out in the woods, and feel more confident about my packing, water filtering, and backpack stove skills, it was time to get back to it. There’s still always more to learn, but I with each adventure outside, I gain so much knowledge and experience, and it only makes me want to do it more.
For this trip, I joined a backpack outing that a member of the outdoor club that I am a part of, the Chemeketans, organized as a club trip. The great thing about this was that all the logistics of where and when we would camp were already figured out for us and we just had to show up with our gear. The leader planned a route that started at the less popular East Eagle Trailhead on the south side of the Wallowa Mountains that would do a half-circle into the woods and connect back at West Eagle Trailhead five days later.
After a long 6 ½ hour east drive, we shuttled the cars, and then were ready to start hiking by about 1:30 in the afternoon. The trail started out pretty flat in the woods, but after the first few miles, we started to see more mountains in the distance, fresh bumbling creeks, and wildflowers. Our group consisted of several long-time hikers, one who plans to do the PCT next year, one who has been a part of the group for over 20 years, and a man in his 70’s who paints wildflowers and sings church hymns while he hikes. The leader’s wife joined us, as well as a couple who are retired and travel all over and just found out about the hike online. Everyone got along really well, but there was also quite a bit of solitude to be found, which I appreciated.
The first side trip adventure was a short hike to a little waterfall, lined with some wildflowers. We then got down to an open valley (Eagle Creek Meadow) where we would camp for the night. There was a group already camped in the spot we had hoped to be in, so we talked with the group and found out about a site about 15 minutes further up. We ended up at that spot, off the trail in a designated campsite in the woods right next to a creek after about 5 miles total at 6:00 p.m. There was time for water filtering and dinner before an early bedtime.
The next day, Wednesday, we headed out at 8 a.m. and took an extra one mile side trip up to Eagle Lake. It was crystal clear, greenish, and surrounded by rock. The water was a welcome cold dip for tired feet. We headed back down and then continued on the trail, ascending to Cache Lake, our campsite for the night. We arrived around 11:30, which gave us time to setup camp before lunch. I enjoyed some hummus and pita and treated myself to a much needed rest and nap. Carrying 30 pounds on my back was definitely an adjustment for the back, shoulders, and hips. By 1:30, we began to hear thunder in the distance and it wasn’t long before we had all retreated back to our tents for shelter from rain. It ended up raining light, then harder, before it started hailing pea sized hail. Luckily, our tents held, and after the sun made a return. We were blessed with warm days in the 80’s and cool nights in the 50’s, never really too hot or cold with minimal bugs.
I made a journey over to the other side of the lake and our group leader and his wife joined me on a scramble to an overlook and then back down the other side. I enjoyed the time to just explore off trail and take time to take some epic photos. Back at camp, I enjoyed the breakfast scramble freeze dried meal I had brought, as our group talked of the plan for the hike the next day. The campsite area was big enough that we all had our own space, but could gather near a square of logs near the lake. I slept well, exhausted by the day.
Thursday, we were all ready to head out by 7 a.m. and we hiked at our own pace to the top of a pass. I enjoyed the feeling of hiking alone, but also knowing there were others in front and behind. The terrain changed from a meadow of flowers to a dry sandy slope and we passed under a patch of snow still remaining on a slope by the trail. At the top of the pass around 2.5 miles, we could overlook mountains on each side.
Then it was time to go back down into the forest until we all met at a trail junction at 3.7 miles. A few of us ditched our packs and made the one mile ascent up 480 ft. to Arrow Lake. The lake was small but pretty and tiny Heart Lake could be seen down below. After we went back down, the group all continued together, down a rocky unmaintained trail that had probably over 30 downed trees to crawl over and navigate. I felt tired, hot, and frustrated by those long 2 miles. Finally, we met at a junction by a creek, which was deep enough to require us to change into our sandals to cross. Honestly, the water just felt amazing on my hot tired feet. After a lunch break, I felt rejuvenated and ready for the last one mile push to camp, up six switchbacks. We crossed another creek, hearing more thunder in the distance, and found camp amongst the trees in a valley surrounded by large blocks of granite. The rainstorm passed quickly and I watched the rain from the safety of my tent, resting after our longest mileage day of 9 miles. I later explored the area, got water, took photos, read a novel, and ate dinner on top of a rocky slab. We could see the pass in the distance, fractured by the setting sun, and knew that would be our challenge for the next day.
Friday, we set out at 7 a.m. and started up the 36 switchbacks that would get us to the top of Wonker Pass, at 8500 ft. We crawled over about 25 trees in the first mile and a half until we got above the tree line when the trail become filled with rocks, sand and boulders. The switchbacks shortened, and the pass was visible.
It was beautiful, with wildflowers, streams, and snowy patches overlooking the entire green valley below. We hiked at our own pace and I enjoyed pausing to take in the views (and rest). Once we were on the final two switchbacks, the trail turned to snow, and the first person in our group, went across without realizing that the snow had just covered the corner of the switchback. I found the trail just above the 2nd to last switchback and the person who was out in some scree, found his way, thankfully back across the snow. From the top of Wonker Pass, we were treated with views of Traverse Lake in the valley below us, which would be our campsite for the night. Another 2 miles downhill, and then we were at the lake, which was the most scenic of our trip. The lake has a man-made cavern that flows water downhill, creating some fun little waterfalls which made for great water filtering.
I found a fantastic spot just by the water with lake views from my tent. There wasn’t much earth to put stakes in, but I found some nice rocks to use as stakes. It was hot, and I enjoyed dipping my legs and head into the cold snow fed alpine lake. After lunch, more thunder began, slowly moving in. I expected a short rain storm like the day before, but the storm actually lasted almost 3 hours. It rained awhile and then big wind gusts came across the lake straight towards my exposed tent. Waves lapped at the shore and rain slowed as the wind continued without any trees to offer shelter. I put down my book, braced myself and had to lean against the tent wall while holding on the top to try to keep the tent together. I began to worry about how bad the wind or storm would be and if my tent would tear. Then, a big gust came and loosened the shorter half of my rain fly, which came whipping off the top side. I knew if I got out, my tent would blow down the hillside. It wasn’t currently raining, but I knew if it started, all of my gear would get soaked without any protection. I was also worried my entire tent would become dislodged and blow down the hillside with me still in it. I managed to wiggle out the door, half in and half out, and grab my rain fly, holding on to it, not sure what to do. Then, just as suddenly as the wind started, it stopped as if a switch had been flipped. Everything was calm, and I got out of my tent, still rattled, and managed to start putting the fly back on and re-staking everything with bigger rocks. The others in my area had rode out the storm unscathed. The sky was still dark but the worst was over.
The night was spent finishing the novel I was reading, adventuring downstream by the creek, and over the rocks to look at Echo Lake below before dinner. I missed my dog and pillow, and felt glad it was the last night, despite how happy I was to be there. I reflected on the trip on that last night, about how much we had seen, and how at peace I felt. I felt reinvigorated to come back after my time in the woods and write about the experience, and other experiences, and then go back and explore more. Maybe through exploring, I would find my true voice as a writer. I felt inspired and grateful to be in such a beautiful grand place.
Saturday we woke to another sunny day as we set out by 7 a.m., down almost 2300 ft. in 6.5 miles to the West Eagle Trailhead. I was definitely happy to get back to the trailhead, change into some clean clothes, and eat a snack while waiting for the car shuttle to pick us up.
Some things I learned: It’s best to try out a recipe before just cooking something new on the trail, as I learned from trying to make curry by throwing in a bit too much curry paste on the first night. It is important to double check your packing. I forgot to bring any soap to clean a dish, and I nearly ran out of toilet paper. Backpacking shorter miles a day and arriving to camp site early in the day allows for time to recover, explore nearby, and just take in the quiet calmness of nature.
Backpacking allows you to get out further and see more than you ever could on a day hike. It lets you truly tune out the noise of the culture and society you start the hike with and lets you begin to hear the sounds of the stream, the birds, and the sway of the trees. Your senses reawaken and you fill inspired and whole again. Moody, indecisive and full of grandeur, in the wilderness you never know what is just around the bend.
The day after I got home, after showering, cooking some hash browns and eggs, hugging my dog, and sleeping in my own bed, I couldn’t help longing to be out backpacking again and am already planning my next trip.