By Michael Lanza
Just as I reach the 9,572-foot summit of Eagle Cap, the first thunderclaps boom so close that I feel them in my ribs. The rain follows within minutes, catching me dashing down off the summit—and not just to avoid being charbroiled by a lightning bolt, though that prospect is on my mind. But mostly I’m thinking about the fact that my son forgot all of his outer layers—rain jacket, fleece jacket, and wool hat—on this backpacking trip. And somewhere below me, my family is hiking through this cold, windy downpour right now.
We had discovered Nate’s oversight only in the car, four hours from home. After some deliberation, we decided to go on with this five-day loop through Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, anyway. It would be sunny and dry most of the time. Maybe we’d get lucky and avoid any rain. Maybe our pre-teen would even absorb a lesson in personal responsibility from this. Most likely, of course, if we got caught on the trail in a thunderstorm like this one, I would be handing my rain jacket over to him.
I didn’t anticipate that a storm would hit during the only 90 minutes of the trip that I’m separated from my family for this side hike up Eagle Cap. Trotting down the stone-littered trail as fast as I can, as sheets of rain and black clouds make the afternoon look like dusk, I have a mental picture of my skinny son wet and shivering—and wonder whether the hardest lesson of this episode will be reserved for me.
I’m not sure what caused the question to pop into my head as we drove toward the East Eagle Trailhead in the Wallowa Mountains yesterday, but we were almost there when I got a bad feeling and said, “Nate, did you pack your rain jacket?”
He groaned and muttered, “No.”
I sighed, biting my tongue. After a pause, a related concern came to mind, and I asked, “Nate, did you pack your fleece jacket?”
Another groan, louder and more sustained that the first. “No-ooo,” he said painfully.
Then, going for the trifecta, I asked him, “How about your wool hat?”
This time he sounded like a contestant losing in the final round of a very close game show—frustrated but resigned. “No,” he repeated.
“Nate,” I said, indulging my paternal instinct to state the glaringly obvious, “We’re going backpacking for five days and you have no warm clothes.”
My son, to his credit not ignoring the gravity of the situation, responded, “Nobody’s more unhappy about this than I am.”
Penny, my wife, and I discussed our options. Do we turn around, change plans, or lose a day of hiking in exchange for another day of driving? Whatever it says about us as parents, we decide: no. Besides me handing over my jacket to Nate if it came down to that—the unspoken truth she and I both understood—we had other options that would preclude any dangerous scenario unfolding, though we didn’t discuss them just then. Maybe we would see whether Nate figures out what to do if and when circumstances demand it.
Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up now for my FREE email newsletter.
Although we live only about a four-hour drive from the closest trailheads in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, for various reasons, we had never before gone backpacking here as a family (though I’ve gone backcountry skiing). It seemed like a good choice for escaping the heat and wildfire smoke plaguing much of the West in recent weeks. But until we dove deep into these 9,000-foot mountains, we had no idea what we were missing.
Sprawling over more than 350,000 acres in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon, the Eagle Cap Wilderness has been protected as a primitive area since 1930 and was among the inaugural group of federal wilderness areas designated in The Wilderness Act of 1964. With granite peaks, wildlife including white-tailed deer, Rocky Mountain elk, black bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, abundant wildflowers, and a deep winter snowpack that lingers well into summer, the Eagle Cap feels like a cross between the High Sierra and the Rocky Mountains.
While a few spots are fairly popular, like the scenic Lakes Basin, the fact that these mountains sit a long day’s drive from any city means you can eat a pretty big slice of solitude here.
We’re hiking a roughly 40-mile loop from East Eagle Trailhead in the southeastern corner of the wilderness. I expect a nice balance between the range’s best scenery—including a tour through the Lakes Basin and the optional side trip up Eagle Cap—and some deep solitude.
Want a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best ultralight packs.
East Eagle Creek Trail
Setting out from the trailhead on our first afternoon, under a hot, August sun on a trail with only intermittent shade, Nate tells me the heat is “brutal and blistering.” He then adds, after a pause, “It doesn’t help that you got me up early.” We had awakened the kids at 8 a.m. at home for what turned out to be a four-and-a-half-hour drive to the trailhead. My son does not respond well to be woken up, and he can carry that grudge for hours. But as we all slip gradually into the unpressured, relaxing rhythm of being in the mountains, he shakes off his foul mood and starts bouncing down the trail.
Wildflowers carpet the valley of East Eagle Creek. Long ridges frame the valley in granite cliffs and rock bands. The shallow, fast creek tumbles over occasional cascades. At a tributary stream that we cross on a log, we all pour icy water over our heads and dunk our caps in. By late afternoon, a bit more than six miles in, we pitch tents in a dry, grassy meadow near East Eagle Creek. Evening brings salmon-colored alpenglow on the west faces of the peaks above us, followed by a sky riddled with white specks and painted thickly with the smear of the Milky Way.
By early afternoon on our second day, we are following East Eagle Creek Trail 1910 up the broad valley to the creek’s headwaters in a starkly beautiful granite-scape with small, scattered copses of conifers, below walls of granite and vast fans of talus. The smoke from distant wildfires spreads a thin haze across the sky.
At one switchback, Alex, my nine-year-old daughter, seeing the path we’ve hiked far below us, says with amazement at how far we’ve come, “Dad, look at the trail way down there.”
At Horton Pass, just over 8,400 feet, we have a family meeting about hiking the spur trail to the 9,572-foot summit of Eagle Cap, about three miles and 1,100 feet up and back. The kids turn thumbs down; they’re ready to find a campsite in the Lakes Basin just downhill from us. Penny’s content to join them. But it cuts against the grain of my constitution to pass up a summit that’s so close within reach. Watching my family head downhill, I drop my pack and head up Eagle Cap.
The trail to the summit is a delight—at times traversing a narrow, spine-like ridge, and frequently offering long mountains views. At the summit, I stand atop dizzying cliffs overlooking the blue-green gems of the Lakes Basin far below. But I pause to enjoy the view for only a few seconds; lightning has that effect on me.
Hustling down the rocky trail, pelted by rain, I see one of our tents pitched just ahead. Reaching the camp, I pull our other tent from my pack and quickly pitch it. Once we’re all warm and dry inside, Alex and Nate breathlessly regale me with their story about the storm’s onset. When the rain hit, they immediately found a campsite. Nate—wearing a T-shirt—issued instructions to his mother and sister about holding the rainfly over the interior canopy to avoid getting it wet while pitching it.
So maybe Nate did glean a valuable lesson from forgetting his jackets: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. I tell Nate he handled the situation well—doing exactly what I’d have done without a rain jacket and insulation: get inside a tent and sleeping bag.
The sunset paints the western sky orange. Alex bounces around, taking photos with her point-and-shoot camera, burbling about the storm. Nate paces, saying, “Wow, we had quite an exciting day today!”
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.
Lakes Basin to Little Frazier Lake
Shortly after dawn on our third morning, while my family sleeps, I walk five minutes down to Mirror Lake with my camera. The storm has blown away the wildfire smoke. The glassy, absolutely still lake offers a crisp reflection of Eagle Cap and the cliffs and conifers ringing the shore as the sun throws horizontal, red light across the lake.
By 9:30 a.m., we hit the trail on a glorious day that will reach into the 60s, with blue skies and a comfortable breeze. From Lakes Basin, we climb 1,150 feet to 8,500-foot Glacier Pass, overlooking the gray, rocky basin holding island-studded Glacier Lake, below 9,595-foot Glacier Peak. Soaking up the view as we eat lunch at the pass, Penny says to me, “I feel kind of stupid that we’ve lived in Boise for 14 years and I’ve never been in these mountains. It’s beautiful.”
I’ve found that the best trips keep hitting you with surprises and gradually exceed your expectations of the place, and the Eagle Cap Wilderness starts having that effect on all of us.
Like this story? You may also like my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You”
and my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”
By mid-afternoon, we park at a campsite near the outlet of Little Frazier Lake, which sits at 7,488 feet in a cirque almost entirely enclosed by cliffs and mountainsides dappled with pockets of snow. A short walk from our tents, the swift but shallow creek drops through a series of cascades—meeting our kids’ primary standard for a campsite: that it has a nearby stream they can wade into and try to dam up with rocks (a project they have undertaken in countless small waterways from the Grand Canyon to the North Cascades without lasting environmental consequences). I spot a deep pool on the creek’s edge and lie down in it in my underwear and T-shirt, the latter carrying three days of trail funk, lingering until the frigid water has me close to shivering. It feels luxurious.
We saw several parties of backpackers in the Lakes Basin. But we’re the only people here, and we have what appears to be the only campsite on this lake.
After dinner, Alex asks me to scramble with her up the ledges above camp. We end up climbing several hundred feet, high enough that our tents shrink to colorful little dots, while alpenglow paints the rocky peaks and pinnacles surrounding Little Frazier Lake.
Read all of this story and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!
Hawkins Pass, Crater Lake
Our fourth morning begins partly cloudy, with mild temps and a breeze that takes the edge off, so I’m not even breaking a sweat as we hike the long switchbacks up to Hawkins Pass. Ascending through another almost treeless, rocky cirque, we gaze down over the dramatic basin holding Little Frazier Lake and out over an arc of mountains stretching to a far horizon.
Reaching Hawkins Pass, around 8,500 feet, the view stops us. Tall, sheer rock walls rise about the green, forested valley of the South Fork Imnaha River. Nate says, “Dad, it looks like the City of Rocks”—one of our favorite spots in Idaho, where hundreds of granite monoliths populate the high desert. It reminds me of valleys I’ve seen in the Swiss Alps. There’s not another backpacker in sight; in fact, we’ll see only a few over these last three days of our trek.
See all of my stories about Family Adventures and my story “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself.”
Tell me what you think.
I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.