Eagle Cap Wilderness / Lakes Basin
There’s a lovely place called Six Mile Meadow, named for being six miles up the West Fork Trail in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, where sparse dirt paths crisscross a broad carpet of green grass and wildflowers. On the margins, pine trees spring up, accenting the granite peaks behind them. It’s like being in the middle of a Bob Ross painting, and it’s a great place to eat a sandwich. For some, this is the zenith of their day hike, a rest stop before heading back down to Joseph on foot or on horseback. Others carry on with camping gear into the mountains.
In a state flush with mountain ranges, the Wallowas are undoubtedly worth a visit. They have a unique geology, formed from granite during a magma upwelling between 160 million and 120 million years ago. Within the rock, slate, quartzite, limestone and marble are visible and make for some very interesting formations. We are not experts in geology, but even to the untrained eye there’s clearly a very broad cross section of our earth’s history on display. The Wallowas are unlike the any other mountain range in Oregon. It is a rare treat to hike through the granite basins and cliffs, with the colors, the textures, and the light evoking a faraway place. This is surely part of the reason the Wallowas get the nickname “the Alps of Oregon”
Continuing from Six Mile Meadow, hikers cross the headwaters of the Wallowa River via log jam or by gamely wading through bitingly cold water. Then it’s three more miles until reaching the Lakes Basin. Horseshoe, Lee, Douglas, Crescent, Moccasin, and Mirror lakes are all accessible by way of a five-mile looping trail, and all contain a variety of primitive campsites with stunning views.
We chose Horseshoe Lake as our base camp and had a great time on our lakefront property. There’s plenty of soft earth to stake your tent, and then the ground transitions to planes of smooth rock. You can almost imagine yourself in a multi-room villa with granite floors. The lake is clear and inviting. In August, the water temperature was not exactly warm, but we two delicate flowers were able to acclimate and went for daily swims.
There are two high peaks that are attainable day hikes. If you are camping in the Lakes Basin area, the eponymous Eagle Cap is a 9500 foot peak that gives you a stunning 360 degree view of the entire Wallow range. The other natural option is to add on a night at Ice Lake, and from there you can summit the Matterhorn which stands at 9800 feet and is only 12 feet shorter than its neighbor Sacajawea Peak. We did not make the time to climb either of these peaks. Eagle Cap was on the itinerary, but sleeping in late and lounging around our lake reading books was what we ended up doing. If you have the motivation, the steep climbs are rewarded with stunning panoramic views of Alpine mountains, lakes, and valleys festooned with wildflowers and patches of melting snow.
In the evenings, you can witness dazzling sunsets that cast the granite with a golden glow, their splendor mirrored in whichever lake you’re looking into. As the sun sets the stars begin to light up the sky. It is an amazing star show in the Wallowas. You are in the Northeast-most corner of the state, away from most of the light pollution of our cities. Add to that the extra elevation and being shielded by the towering peaks, and you have a spectacular array of stars.
For trails clear of snow, the best time to visit the Eagle Cap Wilderness is July through September. Trailheads are located on all sides of the wilderness, so you can tailor your trip to match your energy level or fitness. Lakes Basin and Ice Lake are very popular spots so plan accordingly, and know that you should not set up camp less than 100 feet from any lake or 200 feet from streams. Though it goes without saying, pack out EVERYTHING. In fact, pack out more than you brought in, and make the experience better for the next people up the trail. If you start where we did, on the West Fork Trail, we recommend starting your hike early after a night at the charming Wallowa Lake Lodge at the south end of Wallowa Lake. Lastly, there is a really good Thai food truck near the trailhead, next to the go cart track. Even accounting for a 10 mile hike out of the woods and 5 previous days of rehydrated meals, it was some of the best Thai food we’ve ever had.