Backpacking the Eagle Cap Wilderness: The West Lostine River Loop, Oregon
- Enjoy breathtaking mountain scenery
- Experience blue-ribbon trout fishing
- Camp in secluded lakeside sites alongside granite peaks
- Camping and permit fees
- Gourmet backcountry meals
- Group commissary, bear canisters, and cooking gear
|Dates||Aug 2–9, 2014|
|Difficulty||3 (out of 5)|
Join us as we backpack in one of Oregon’s “Best-kept Hiking Secrets,” the Eagle Cap Wilderness, an area located in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon in the heart of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Our trip takes place on the northern side of the Wallowa Mountains on the West Lostine River Loop. It includes a 32-mile route, two layover days, various side trips, granite peaks, high alpine passes, mountain lakes, National Wild and Scenic Rivers, clear streams, wildflower-filled meadows, blue-ribbon trout fishing waters, and beauty beyond words. As Douglas Lorain, author of “100 Classic Hikes in Oregon” says: “In fact, there is so much outstanding scenery here that a lifetime would be inadequate to see all of its glories.”
So dust off your hiking boots and get ready for an adventure into the Eagle Cap Wilderness!
The Eagle Cap Wilderness was established in 1940 and was included in the National Wilderness Preservation System by the Wilderness Act of 1964. The area is comprised of 361,446 acres of wilderness, including almost 600 miles of trails. It is the largest wilderness area in Oregon and is considered by many people to be one of the finest backpacking areas in the state.
The area is characterized by high alpine lakes and meadows, bare granite peaks and ridges, and U-shaped glacial valleys. Elevations in the Eagle Cap Wilderness range from approximately 3,000 feet in lower valleys to 9,845 feet at the summit of Sacajawea Peak, with 30 other summits exceeding 8,000 feet. The wilderness holds almost 60 alpine lakes and more than 37 miles of streams.
Additionally, it is home to an abundance of wildlife, including black bears, cougars, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pika, pine martens, badgers, red diggers (ground squirrels) and marmots. Birds include the peregrine falcon, golden eagle, bald eagle, Ferruginous hawk, Swainson's hawk, and the gray-crowned rosy finch. Many trout inhabit the lakes and streams of this area making it a fisherman’s dream! On our previous outing two years ago, we caught fish for dinner on every day that we camped near a lake!
The plants in the area vary from grasslands and ponderosa pine forest to alpine meadows. Engelmann spruce, larch, mountain hemlock, sub-alpine fir and whitebark pine are present at higher elevations. The meadows hold varieties of Indian paintbrush, sego lilies, elephanthead, larkspur, shooting star and bluebells. Tracts of old-growth forest can still be found in the area, too.
The Wallowa Mountains are the ancestral lands of the Nez Perce Indians. They used the area as summer hunting grounds and for gathering huckleberries.
The majority of our trip will be on maintained trails within the national forest, with two layover days and some occasional explorations (both on and off-trail). Our itinerary is tentative and subject to change based on weather and trail conditions and the ability, health, and fitness levels of participants in the group.
Day 1: Our group will meet in the afternoon at the Two Pan Camp (15 miles south of Lostine, OR) in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. After a poluck dinner, we will gather for a trip orientation, then socialize around the campfire before turning in for the night.
Day 2: After a hearty breakfast, we will distribute our group gear and food among the group, then leave a few of our vehicles at the Bowman trailhead (3.8 miles north of the campground) for the last day of the trip. When everyone arrives back at Two Pan Camp, we will start our hike on the West Fork of the Lostine River Trail (5,600 feet). We will follow the river as we climb up the valley until we reach the Cooper Creek Trail. Farther along, we'll reach some meadows with beautiful views of Elkhorn Peak to our right (9,233 feet). In the meadows, there should be plenty of wildflowers, along with ample campsites -- we'll make camp here for the night. The total mileage for the day will be around 5.2 miles with a 1,735-foot elevation gain.
Day 3: Today, we will continue our hike, crossing Elkhorn Creek, passing Sky Lake, and climbing switchbacks up to a high plateau at 8,600 feet. From this high point, we will have views of Eagle Cap Peak, the Matterhorn, and other prominent peaks of the Wallowa Range. From there, we will be able to see our destination below us and to the right: the Swamp Lake basin. We will turn right along the North Minam River Trail and descend along switchbacks to the basin. We will continue past the lake and descend more switchbacks to Steamboat Lake. The lake’s name comes from a rock island that resembles a steamboat, according to early explorers. We will make our campsite along the eastern shore of the lake. Our mileage for the day will be 7.5 miles with an elevation gain of 1,280 feet and loss of 1,237 feet.
Day 4: Today is our first layover day, making it a good time to relax our aching muscles and recharge our batteries! Our options include staying at Steamboat Lake or exploring the two nearby lakes, Swamp Lake and Long Lake. All three lakes are good for fishing. If you are not a fisherman, some possible options include swimming in the lakes, searching for nearby wildlife, reading a good book, or hanging back to rest at camp.
Day 5: This will be our most challenging day of the trip! Even though this is categorized as a moderate trip, we will be hiking around 9.2 miles today, gaining 1,728 feet and losing 1,923 feet. From Steamboat Lake, we will make a brief climb before we descend along switchbacks into North Minam River’s canyon and continuing on to North Minam Meadows. At the north end of the meadow, we will turn right on the Bowman Trail and start climbing switchbacks up to some meadows, where we can set up camp. If we are still feeling strong, we can push on a bit farther and hike another mile until we reach a trail junction. From this point, we turn left and hike a half mile on a spur trail to some nice campsites at John Henry Lake.
Day 6: From John Henry Lake, we backtrack on the spur trail to reach the Bowman Trail again. As we head east, we climb switchbacks up to Wilson Pass (7,820 feet). From the pass, the trail heads down to a junction with the Chimney Lakes Trail, where we head left. Next, we climb up past Laverty Lake and on to make our camp near Chimney Lake. Our mileage today is 4.3 miles, with an elevation gain of 732 feet and loss of 296 feet.
Day 7: Today is our second layover day. Our options include staying at Chimney Lake or exploring nearby Hobo Lake. For the more ambitious participants, we can scramble up to the top of Lookout Mountain (8,831 feet) for some wonderful views of the Wallowa Mountains, and even on to Wood Lake. As before, there are ample opportunities for fishing and swimming in the lakes.
Day 8: Today is the last day of the outing. From our campsite, we return on the trail to the junction and join back up with the Bowman Trail. As we head east, the trail passes the scenic Brownie Basin and descends down switchbacks toward the Lostine River. After crossing a bridge over the river, the trail ends at the Bowman/Francis Lake Trailhead. Thankfully, we have a few of our vehicles in the parking area so that we can pick up our remaining vehicles that are parked 3.3 miles away at the Two Pan Trailhead. Our mileage for the day will be around 5.1 miles, with an elevation loss around 2,384 feet. The trip officially ends at the trailhead after everyone returns all the group gear and bear canisters back to the leaders. If any participants are interested, we will carpool to a local brew pub in Enterprise for optional drinks and a farewell dinner (at your own expense).
On the first day of the outing, we will meet at the Two Pan Camp in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest just outside of Lostine, Oregon.
Due to the possibility of unknown circumstances (such as flight delays or lost baggage), please plan to arrive in the area at least a day before the first day of the trip. The backpacking trip begins and ends at the trailhead near the Two Pan Camp in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. The leader will send out specific information about our meeting place and time after you have been approved for the trip.
The nearest airports to the area are Boise, ID (130 miles, 2.5 hours), Portland, OR (305 miles, 5 hours), or Spokane, WA (425 miles, 7 hours). All participants must make their own travel arrangements. Further, each person is responsible for getting themselves to the trailhead on his/her own. Individuals interested in ride-sharing should contact other trip members once the final roster is put together.
Accommodations and Food
Many lodging options are available in Baker City, La Grande, Enterprise, and Joseph, Oregon. Feel free to contact the trip leader for more information on pre- and post-trip lodging.
During the trip, we will be preparing some vegetarian meals, but a few of them may contain beef, chicken or fish. However, we can easily accommodate vegetarians when a meal includes meat. On most nights, our dinners will include hot soup, a main entree, and a dessert. We will provide instant coffee, tea, and hot chocolate during every breakfast and dinner. All participants are expected to assist with camp chores, including preparing and cleaning up after a meal, on a rotating basis.
Our first meal will be dinner at the Two Pan Camp on the first day of the outing. Our last meal will be lunch on the trail on the final day of the trip. At the conclusion of the outing, participants are invited to join the leaders for optional drinks and a farewell dinner at a local brew pub (at your own expense).
This is a moderate trip, covering about 32 trail miles (excluding side trips on layover days) with a range between four to nine miles per day. Keep in mind that the trail will follow creeks, rivers, lake basins, meadows, forests, and high ridges, including a climb over two passes. Because we will be hiking in mountainous terrain, there will be sections of the trail that will have steep drop offs. Further, the route will include some significant elevation gains & losses, stream and snowfield crossings, and the possibility of unpredictable weather. As previously stated on the trip itinerary, we will be hiking approximately 9.2 miles on day five with some significant elevation gains and losses. Even though this trip is rated as moderate, please take this information into consideration when determining whether you are fit enough to participate on this trip.
In summer, temperatures can potentially soar into the 90s and then dip to lows in the 40s (depending on the elevation). Participants should come well prepared for sudden changes in the weather and potential afternoon thunderstorms.
This outing is suitable for experienced backpackers or advanced beginners who are fit and have recent backpacking experience. A physical fitness regimen, especially cardiovascular training (beginning at least three months prior to the trip), is highly recommended. Your enjoyment of this backpacking trip will depend on your preparedness, physical conditioning, flexibility, and most importantly, your enthusiasm.
Equipment and Clothing
All group cooking equipment, water purification tablets, bear canisters, group first-aid kit, and food will be provided. Each participant will need to bring his or her own personal mess kit that should include an insulated mug, bowl, and spoon.
Summer temperatures are generally warm in the Wallowa Mountains, but the weather can still be unpredictable so you will need to bring warm layers, good-quality rain gear, and a tent with a waterproof rain fly. Be sure to bring your swimsuit (lots of great lakes for swimming), fishing gear (fantastic stream and lake fishing), binoculars (to search for wildlife), and your camera (the scenery is breathtaking). A complete list of required equipment will be sent to all participants once the leader approves them for the trip.
Please try to limit your personal gear to around 25 pounds. Group gear and food will add an additional 10 to 15 pounds of weight to your packs. Your pack will need to hold your personal gear and a bear canister, which is about the size of two one-gallon milk jugs. We highly encourage tent sharing whenever possible since it reduces our impact to the camping areas, and most importantly, it decreases the amount of weight that you will be carrying in your backpack.
- Wallowa Mountains – Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon, Imus Geo-Graphics
- USGS 7.5 minute quad topographic maps – Eagle Cap, Jim White Ridge, North Minam Meadows, and Steam Boat Lake
- Lorain, Douglas, Backpacking Oregon. Wilderness Press.
- Lorain, Douglas, 100 Classic Hikes in Oregon: Oregon Coast, Columbia Gorge, Cascades, Eastern Oregon, Wallowas. Mountaineers Books.
- Barstad, Fred, Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. Falcon Guides.
- Landers, Rich and Ida Rowe Dolphin, 100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest. The Mountaineers.
- Pohs, Keith, Wallowa Mountains, A Natural History Guide. Far West Book Service.
- Johnson Jr, Charles Grier, Alpine and Subalpine Vegetation of the Wallowa, Seven Devils and Blue Mountains. USDA-Forest Service.
- Williams, Mark, The Backpacking Flyfisher. Menasha Ridge Press.
- Nerburn, Kent, Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy. HarperOne.
- US Forest Service website for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest: http://www.fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman/
The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, and encourages grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club. During the trip, we will discuss issues impacting the areas in and around the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Further, we will follow Leave No Trace practices on this outing.
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Wallowa Whitman National Forest.