It is surprising how many residents of southwestern Oregon have never heard of the Wallowa Mountains or heard of their moniker, “Alps of Oregon,” and among those who do know about them, some even have difficulty pronouncing the name correctly (Wah-LAO-wahs).
This majestic 40-mile-long mountain complex is neatly tucked between I-84 that passes through La Grande on the west side and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Snake River on the east. The Wallowas rise abruptly on all sides from an elevation of about 4,000 feet to nearly 10,000 feet, and are dissected with numerous deep, glacial-carved canyons.
The majority of the Wallowas are encompassed by the 360,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness, which is named for the 9,572-foot peak at the hub of the mountains and is the largest designated wilderness in Oregon. The area is a backpacker and fisherman’s paradise, with dozens of lakes and fast-flowing streams, hundreds of miles of well-maintained trails and stunning snow-clad peaks. The majority of the 100 inches of annual precipitation in the high country falls as snow, and often doesn’t entirely melt during the summer.
On July 31, my friend from Montana, Fred Friesz, and I embarked on a five-day, 46-mile loop hike into the heart of the Wallowas, starting at the trailhead at the south end of Wallowa Lake, near Joseph. Due to last winter’s heavy snow pack, we expected to encounter some deep snow, and we were not disappointed. In fact, at an elevation of 8,200 feet, Glacier Lake is still partially ice and snow covered in August.
While the trails in Eagle Cap are well-graded and maintained, one should not expect a “stroll in the park” experience. Walking poles are certainly helpful in this wilderness area. In our little five-day excursion, we climbed over 9,000 feet in elevation (and dropped the same amount), crossed fast, cold rivers without bridges, stepped over and around innumerable rocks, crossed dozens of small snowfields, and encountered a few patches of mud.
On the plus side, there is abundant drinking water on most every trail, and there was a tremendous display of alpine and subalpine wild flowers. We also saw one mountain goat and several deer, many small mammals and many species of birds. Except at one lake, mosquitoes were few.
Most of our hiking was between 7,000 and 9,500 feet in elevation, so temperatures were mostly in the 50s at night and 70s in the afternoon — and that is much better than the 108 degrees that Roseburg was enduring at the same moment.
The key to enjoying a magnificent wilderness like Eagle Cap is being physically fit, carrying a pack not over 25 pounds, drinking plenty of water, using sun screen and not hiking too many miles in a day. A good digital camera will get a lot of use in this pristine wilderness. The Wallowas must be considered one of the most scenic areas in the Northwest.
If you are not able to hike into the Eagle Cap, you can still enjoy the area by visiting the quaint, laid-back town of Joseph and beautiful Wallowa Lake, located 74 miles east of La Grande, and swim, boat, horseback ride and even ride the tramway to the top of 8,241-foot Mount Howard. Ample cabins, resorts and camping facilities are also available. You will soon discover why the Wallowas are called the “Alps of Oregon.”