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Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains

Join Regina WB for her annual family trek to Blue Lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa Mountains.

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by Regina WB | 2008-11-25 00:00:00-07

 - 1
We pass Minam on the way up to Blue Lake. Many hikers choose to stay here at Minam, as it has quite a few established camps around it.

When glaciers moved through Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness, they ripped apart the earth, leaving dramatic granite faces streaked and exposed, creating what is now the Wallowa Mountains, the state's premier backpacking location. As my father likes to say, "This is God's country," and I'll hand it to him that the Wallowas do provoke a sense of awe and perhaps even a spiritual feeling within me. Maybe it's the solitude or the openness of the landscape. Maybe it's the people I meet when I am on the trail, cowboys mostly, who shuffle by on horses and remind me that there is a simpler life happening not too far from where I stand, on the sloping ranches and golden farms of La Grande and Lostine.

My family is from Portland, Oregon, and the Wallowa Mountains are our tradition. From the time my three brothers and I could strap on a backpack, our father loaded us in the car for a six-hour drive east, followed by a two-day hike into the heart of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, where we'd explore for a week or so. Though our family is spread out now, we make an effort each year to come home and hike into those familiar alpine meadows. We do it for us, but we also do it for dad, as nothing makes him happier than seeing his children suffering under the weight of a pack or tenderly applying moleskin to enlarged blisters on our heels and toes. By the end of our trips to the Wallowas, we are sunburnt, mosquito-bitten, blister-covered, and physically exhausted. We are also happy. Some families have picnic reunions or vacations to Cancun; ours goes backpacking.

This summer, we came back together after a lapse of a couple of years. We loaded up the car with packs, sleeping bags, oatmeal, and a beat up map that no one ever looks at because there's no need. We know to take Highway 84 east from Portland through the windy Columbia River Gorge and then out onto the plains of the state's cattle country, eventually turning off in La Grande. We then head through Wallowa and Lostine, small farming and timber towns. Past Lostine, at the end of a forty-minute drive down a rocky road that can pop the toughest tire, we park at Two Pan trailhead and unload.

Wallowa Mountains Blue Lake Hike - 2
On the road up to Two Pan trailhead, there are a few leftovers from the years before the zone was deemed a National Wilderness area, such as this original log cabin.

This year, as usual, we've taken our time getting to Two Pan, and the sun is starting to go down. No matter. We take off down the trail with our headlamps handy for when darkness hits. My brother Jason is quickly ahead of us, disappearing up the path. We call him "the antelope" because of his long stride, which has had us eating his dust since he was fifteen years old. Each one of us has a different way of approaching the hike up. My father keeps a steady, sturdy pace far ahead of me, but way behind Jason. Greg, my "little" brother, is 6'5" and hikes like a pack mule. He can carry more weight than any of us, but is slower because of it. He also never complains. Chad is light and quick and keeps the mood upbeat. I am the slowest, the turtle to Jason's hare. I stop a lot to take photos and search the landscape for white mountain goats in rocky knolls and slide areas. We've seen goats a few times up here, bounding like ballerinas from boulder to boulder, sometimes with kids.

An hour and a half into the hike, and it's dark. We've turned on our headlamps, but only use them to watch for roots and complicated rocks on the trail, as the moon is just about full, lighting up the night forest around us in a magical blue shadow. The trail out of Two Pan up to Blue Lake, our destination, is the West Fork trail, which follows the Lostine River most of the way. There are fifty-two named alpine lakes in the Wallowas, and some are more secluded than others. Falcon Guide author on the Wallowas, Fred Barstad, rates the climb from Two Pan to Blue Lake as "moderately difficult" with an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. Tonight, we won't make it to Blue Lake, and instead decide to make camp near a trail split in a meadow. It's a good stopping spot because of the soft grass and fresh water nearby. The rest of us set up our tents, but Jason decides to sleep under the stars, which are thick and ablaze in the August sky, tainted only slightly by the light pollution coming from the white moon. At night he'll hear white-tailed deer nosing around the meadow, and in the morning he'll wake with dew on his face.

Wallowa Mountains Blue Lake Hike - 3
The trails in the Wallowas are rocky dirt paths with great views.

On day two, we take the hike more seriously. It's up, then up some more, which is how I love to hike first thing in the morning. This series of switchbacks makes for a dramatic climb in elevation on a slim, rocky, dirt path. Because it's Wednesday, we don't see many hikers. After a couple hours, a group of cowboys with saddle stock pass us. We stand off the path and let them go by, saying our "howdies" and smiling, but my father and brothers consider all these "horse people" to be traitors to the Wallowas. Unless you're wearing a pack, you're lazy in my father's eyes.

Wallowa Mountains Blue Lake Hike - 4
Dad comes down a typical Wallowa trail though a sunny clearing.

He also hates the way the horses tear up the stream banks and muddy the trails. I have often dreamed of having an alpaca or mule carry my pack come late in the afternoon on day two of the hike and so can't share my father's distaste for the horses. Plus, for the most part, the cowboys are laid back local guys who know and love the Wallowas. A couple years ago, on the hike out from Mirror Lake, one brother and I were stopped by a group of them riding enormous horses and trailing loaded up mules behind them. After some small talk they offered us a drink.

"A drink?" we asked.

"Yeah, how 'bout a Bud?" one of them said and opened up a large sack attached to a hazel-color mule. Inside was not only a case of beer, but ice. They gave us each a Budweiser, which is not my favorite beer, but was probably the best one I have ever had after spending six days in the wilderness. We emptied our cans, and they headed up the trail, while we carefully headed down. Since then, the "horse people" have made my good list.

This hot Wednesday, no one offers us drinks as they pass us by, leaving a dusty trail to tackle. As we continue, I stop and look west at 9,000-foot Elkhorn Peak in the distance. In the scree fields, there are pika chirping and bobbing in and out, doing whatever it is they do. The Wallowas are rich in flora and fauna, but they have a very short summertime growing period from June to September. As a result, in August everything is in full swing. Come earlier or later, and you'll be up against cold, difficult river crossings, rain, hail, and even possibly snow. Because of the harsh climate, the Ponderosa and lodgepole pines are sparse, and people are advised to protect the native plants, which do their best to reproduce in the summer. Wildfires are also a big concern, so campfires are limited in most places and required to be made 200 feet or more away from alpine lakes.

Wallowa Mountains Blue Lake Hike - 5
The terrain around the alpine lakes is mostly soft grassy meadows, full of wildflowers and green onions.

According to ranger Sweyn Wall, the alpine lakes are the most fragile ecosystems in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. With about 30,000 to 40,000 hikers and horses coming through the Wallowas each year, human impact is a significant issue. "Other areas of concern include invasive plants in the lower elevations, and the removal of natural fire from the ecosystem. We do actively inventory and manage invasive plants, but it is often difficult to locate populations when they are at a stage that is easily manageable," says Wall.

Working our way up the trail, we reach a meadow and stop for lunch along the Lostine River. By this time, we have crossed the river twice, using river rocks as makeshift bridges. Some years we've had to take off our boots and wade across, but this time the river is low enough to keep our shoes on. When the Lostine River is not criss-crossing the West Fork trail, it's meandering through meadows scattered with Indian paintbrush, yarrow flowers, and wild onion. These picture-perfect settings beg us to sit down and take a load off... so we do, using a fallen tree as a bench and keeping our eyes open for golden eagles and red digger squirrels.

We eat our cheese and salami lunch in almost total silence. It's not that we've got nothing to say, it's that the kind of peace these mountains evoke should not be disturbed. The other part is that one of my dad's Wallowas rules is "no useless chattering." Over the years, Dad has compiled an unofficial list of rules that his children know and abide by. A sampling:

  1. No electronics (leave iPods, phones, and GPS at home).
  2. No time (don't ask how long the hike will take or what time it is, because it doesn't matter anyway).
  3. Self sufficiency (you pack your own food, and you pump your own water).
  4. No whiners (unless you have a cougar attached to your leg, he doesn't want to hear about it).
  5. No mothers (um, let me explain).

That last rule may put some people off, but it is actually Dad's Rule Number One. When he first started coming up to the Eagle Cap Wilderness, he came with his buddies, who were all married with young children. They came up as a group of men probably trying to escape their families for a week. When their kids got older, they started bringing us along, but held fast to the idea that their wives couldn't come up. The Wallowas was always a trip for guys and eventually became a trip for dads and kids. The fathers feared that with wives in tow, their kids would be pampered (see #4 above), and that the ruggedness of the experience would be altered. Wives and mothers might want certain comforts that the fathers didn't care to bother with, and so moms were banned from the trip. Sexist? Perhaps. But it's been like this for twenty years, and only time will tell if grandchildren or other circumstances might eventually change Dad's mind. I doubt it.

Wallowa Mountains Blue Lake Hike - 6
Views from Blue: from Blue Lake, the views extend down glacier carved valleys.

Back on the trail, we cross more lush meadow and reach Minam Lake, circling around it. Many hikers stay at Minam, as it's a crystal-clear beauty with plenty of swimming, trout fishing, and a handful of established campsites along the perimeter. For us, the Wallowas is all about solitude, and we want to camp alone, so we keep going another 300 feet up to Blue Lake. Camp is in a boulder-clad clearing surrounded by shady lodgepole pine and fir trees, plus a mountainside backdrop which alternates between granite rock slides and patches of snowfields, leftovers from those glacial days.

Wallowa Mountains Blue Lake Hike - 7
We spend a few hours every day at the flat piece of granite we call Swim Rock, or just Swim for short. Here, there's a diving spot and plenty of room to dry off in the sun.

The next day, Jason and a friend climb up to the snow fields, scrambling and hopping over boulders. With them they've brought a poncho and a pot. I am laid out on Swim Rock, reading a David Sedaris book when I hear, "Whoop!! Ahhh! Hoo, hoo, hoo," coming from the snowfields. With the binoculars, I watch them zip down the snowfield using a rubber poncho as a sled. Later, they return with Jell-O, which they premixed and cooled in a titanium pot in the snow while sledding.

Around the campfire, there is talk of climbing Eagle Cap the next day, a strenuous hike from Minam Lake with an elevation gain of 1,972 feet. This is the central point of the Wallowa Wilderness, with unobstructed views reaching Idaho on a clear day, plus views of most of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Imnaha River headwaters. Another day hike option out of Blue Lake is the loop trail to Mirror Lake. From Blue Lake, the trail heads down to Minam, then crosses an 8,500-foot pass after a series of switchbacks, eventually dropping onto Mirror Lake. If a hiker didn't want to take the same West Fork trail back to Two Pan, he could hike over to Mirror Lake, then hike out on the East Fork trail.

There are many day hikes, many trails to traverse, and plenty of ridges to explore in the Wallowas. Jason and his friends will head out and try new trails, plus re-visit some old ones. Greg will fish for trout and cook them up late in the afternoon. Dad will hike too, fish a bit, and sit on boulders in the sun. Packing up and leaving Blue Lake at the end of the week is always hard. We drag our feet and take our time heading out on the trail. Leaving is difficult because the Wallowas are so perfect, but also because it means we're all going to go our separate ways. Not to worry, we'll get together next year at the same time and same place, on the edge of a different alpine lake with new campfire stories to tell under a starry sky that thankfully never changes.


"Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains," by Regina WB. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-11-25 00:00:00-07.


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Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains on 11/25/2008 15:02:48 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains

Patricia Combee
(Trailfrog) - F

Locale: Northeast/Southeast your call
Only one word needed to describe this article and photos on 11/27/2008 14:36:53 MST Print View


Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains on 11/27/2008 19:25:57 MST Print View

Looks beautiful! Great pics too...making jello is a neat idea.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
No electronics allowed? on 11/27/2008 22:35:33 MST Print View

You must have snuck the camera along then ;-)


While I think it is cool and all that you have a deep history of family outings I am sorry... the whole "wife stays at home" leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It doesn't set an example by any means that is good for the kids. It is sexist no matter how sugar coated it is.
So when the kids, now grown, marry and are wives themselves do they have to stay at home? Seriously!

Other wise very nice photos of an always pretty area.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains on 11/28/2008 00:57:13 MST Print View

It's stories like this that I personally like reading most on backpacking and why I go backpacking. Talking about gear is okay and can be interesting, but it gets SOOOOOOO boring after a while... the same thing over and over again.

I lived in Oregon for 10 years and fell deeply in love with it, espcially the Cascades. Unfortunately I never visited the Wallowas. My dream is to go back to Oregon one day and spend the rest of my remaining years exploring the wild places there. It is one place that forever stays in my heart.

I've never been able to understand why it is that it is perfectly fine for women to have a "women's night out" or even go on a women's-only backpacking trip, because these are times when the women feel they can relax and just be themselves without having to deal with the anomalies that men bring into the mix, but when men want to do the same thing, it is "sexist". So, does that mean that men should, under no circumstances, ever get together without women? Are men not allowed to just feel themselves and do things they way they feel comfortable with without the ever watching eyes of women? And is there nothing of value that men can teach children from a male perspective, that women cannot teach them? Women feel that they can teach children female values and ways of seeing things that men just cannot, but not men? That is grossly unfair, and to be honest, sexist thinking in its own right.

There are reasons why the number of men who go outdoors far outstrips the number of women. Upbringing and the social mores are, of course, significant in how women perceive their relationship to the outdoors, and the way a lot of the outdoor industry has been set up until now clearly favors the way men tend to look at and do things. But there is also the way a lot of women feel about being out there. Many don't want to deal with the dirt and the heavy packs and the fast pace that many men often want to impose on themselves. That's perfectly fine, and to each their own, but does that mean that men should then give up what makes them happy just to please women who don't want to do those things?

More and more there is a very troubling trend around the world, by women and the media, to completely render insignificant anything that smacks of being male. While I completely agree that the way women have been treated by men until now truly needed reform and men need to make a concerted effort to understand women's issues, I don't think it should be at the expense of men's identity and sense of dignity. Men are still people and have their own ways of seeing things. Not all of it is wrong or damaging. (just like not all of the way women see things is right and healing, either) I'm sure the children in this article learned a lot from the father's rules, including the girls. I'd love to read the rest of the rules!

One of my favorite quotes, "Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it!"

Edited by butuki on 11/28/2008 01:11:40 MST.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
men only on 11/28/2008 11:01:23 MST Print View

Some of the most impactive times in my relationships have come when I've spent dedicated time with "the boys" ("no women") - or my wife ("no kids") - or "the -----" ("no -----"). This theme opens up new dimensions in relationships that deepens them in ways that cannot be accomplished when "everyone's" around because unique opportunities for trust and vulnerability arise.

Combine that with a wilderness experience that declutters the mind and the results can be powerful.

Pete Sandrock
(petesandrock) - MLife
Wallowa, Hells Canyon, & Blue Mountain Ecosystems on 11/29/2008 21:33:30 MST Print View

The Wallowas are the centerpiece of three extraodinarily diverse and rich landscapes that connect the Northern Rockies, Northern Basin & Range, and Cascade ecoregions.

In a dozen miles the topography soars westward from the deepest gorge in the western hemisphere (Hells Canyon) to the nearly ten thousand foot peaks of the Wallowas. A dozen more miles to the north lies the Zumwalt Prairie, the largest intact native prairie in the U.S. and the home of one of the largest breeding raptor populations in North America. To the south lies the largely intact steppe and shrubland high deserts of the Basin and Range.

Oregon's northeastern corner is the home to bighorns, pronghorns, moose, lynx, bison, wolves, and nearly-extinct Snake River sockeye salmon. It is the mixing zone for plants and grasses from the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.

If you want to learn more, visit, the website of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains on 12/11/2008 02:06:21 MST Print View

I wanna go back to the Wallowas! Last time I was there, about 20 years ago, I found out all about tent site selection and just how non-insulating a soggy synthetic sleeping bag can be when we had a cloudburst starting about 8 pm, which sometime during the night turned to snow. The worst part of it was my then 14-year-old daughter saying smugly, "Mom, if you'd put the tent where I said, we wouldn't have been sleeping in a lake!."

Having learned a lot from this experience, the trip I plan next summer (Lord willing--gotta add that caveat at my age) should be a lot more pleasant but hopefully less exciting!

I do strenuously object to the non-inclusion of mothers. I fully understand the boys or the girls wanting an all-boy or all-girl outing, but to exclude a woman only because she has become a mother seems rather extreme. It makes as much sense as excluding a man only because he has become a father. In my family, I never could get the husband to backpack (one reason, though a minor one, why we divorced). It was I (Mom) who took the kids out backpacking to introduce them to the wilderness. Now I'm taking my grandkids out to give them the same life experience. Once the youngest grandkid is old enough (another year), their mommy is coming, too! We (the two older ones, their daddy and I) already do an annual outing to Washington's Olympic National Park coast. My son "Surfer Daddy" brings his surfboard (he's found a really lightweight one) and wetsuit (not lightweight, especially when wet) and does his surfing thing, while the kids and I play on the beach. Last summer we had a fantastic time exploring the tidepools around Point of the Arches during a minus tide.

Thanks, Pete, for reminding us how unique the Wallowas are! For those of us accustomed to hiking in the volcanic Cascades, the Wallowas are a quite different experience. Even though I've hiked and horsepacked extensively in the Rockies, I still find the Wallowas very different.

Edited by hikinggranny on 12/11/2008 02:26:17 MST.

Mark Hurd
(markhurd) - M

Locale: South Texas
Re: Wanderlust: Backcountry Meandering with My Family in the Wallowa Mountains on 01/06/2009 21:18:47 MST Print View

My wife and I moved to western Oregon in September. We have enjoyed much of what this amazing state has to offer. Hell's Canyon and environs are on our short list, but there is just too much to see and do. Truly a beautiful and diverse state. Most of our backpacking and hiking has been on the coast or the central Cascades so far. It was a treat to take at least a journalistic visit to the Wallowas.

As to the "No Mothers Rule", I will add a male voice to the disapprove column. I can understand going out with "the guys" and I can even see Dad taking the kids out for some quality time in the woods without Mom. But to ban her year after year seems a little much. My wife loves to backpack so to tell her she couldn't go on a trip with her own children would not go over well. I suppose if she disliked the idea of camping, then there would be a de facto banning if I took the kids backpacking. But, I suppose every family dynamic is different and so if this setup works for Regina's family and they are happy with it then that is what is important.