Hard Lessons: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness

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.

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Hiking to Horton Pass
Hiking to Horton Pass.

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.

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Wallowa Mountains

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.

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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.

Trail junction, Lakes Basin.
Trail junction, Lakes Basin.

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!”

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Sunset from camp above Lakes Basin
Sunset from camp above Lakes Basin.

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.

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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.

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Little Frazier Lake in Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Little Frazier Lake in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.

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.

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16 thoughts on “Hard Lessons: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness”

  1. I love this. Good writing. I’m an MFA student in creative writing at Eastern Oregon University and I attend the Fishtrap Writing Conference at Wallowa Lake each summer and gaze at those peaks all day. I’m always wiped at that conference, then I head to La Grande for a week of classes and I’m really toast. This year I decided to go back and hit up basically the same route you did, although I’ll continue down to 6 Meadows and hike the route back to Wallowa Lake where I’ll get my shuttle. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m going this Sunday through Tuesday.

    Your piece does a great job of preparing for august thunderstorms. I’m expecting to hit them at least one afternoon, hopefully when I’m past the basin. I’m double and triple checking my insulation after the story about your boy.

    Well done and thanks for writing it.

    Russell James
    Corvallis, OR

  2. I’m 70 something. Trudged up eagle cap some years ago. View from the top facing the lakes below was phenomenal. Best of all, though, was the view to the west from the backside was incredible. Love Oregon, love the Wallowas. Thank you for the reminiscence.

  3. My wife and I just returned from Eagle Cap. She’s training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in February of 2023. We only live three hours from Joseph and visited over 15 years ago. Not sure why it took us so long to get back. We attempted to do Ice lake in a day, but realized after a late start it wasn’t going to happen. We still managed to get ten miles in and saw some incredible scenery. We’re committed to going back next fall and do a few nights at Ice Lake.

  4. Doing some research for an upcoming trip here. Despite living in NE Oregon I still haven’t done this one. Thank you for the beautiful writeup and the stories from your family made me smile.

    The part about you running down the mountain to get your jacket to your son reminds me of the time my family was hiking in the backcountry in Alaska and I did what any good 14-year-old would do and ignored my mom’s stern warnings not to swing my backpack around as I walked. One swing too hard and it set off on a tumble down the side of the mountain and didn’t stop for at least 1/2 mile. It was so far that I couldn’t see where it landed. But my mom raced after it (a few stern words as she tore off) and brought it back up to the rest of us, and I can safely say I have not swung my backpack around on any of the many hikes since then.

    I’m not sure how she ran up and down that mountain so fast but I suspect it has to do with the way parents seem to develop super-human strength when it comes to their kiddos.

    • Thanks for sharing your entertaining story, Mckenzie. I suppose many of us as kids learn lessons only through doing dumb things. I’m glad my stories about my family make you smile because they have the same effect on me.

  5. I grew up backpacking in this wilderness as a kid. My dad spent almost every summer weekend in Eagle Cap. He had an organized system that got him out the door very quickly and on the road to the trailhead in less than 30 minutes. As my family and I cope with my father’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis, your beautiful story brought back many happy days. Thank you

  6. Hello, I very much enjoyed you sharing your family adventure and to see you are teaching your children to enjoy nature and all of it’s splendors. My only concern has to do with your: “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).”

    First of all, you’re teaching them to break one of the cardinal rules when you enter a wilderness area, that is as you probably already know, is “leave no trace.” How about teaching them to leave an area better than they found it, maybe undoing traces from others instead, ie.. dismantling rock dams. We all tend to think “oh what harm could a few rocks moved around in stream do?” Well, multiple that times the number of people visiting these treasures year after year and growing in numbers every year! My tip to your kids would have to be “leave it as you found it, if not better.” Thanks for sharing the adventures and thanks for listening.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the nice compliment about my story and your thoughts on the leave no trace wilderness ethic, which I certainly share with you. I’m sorry you read that interpretation in my brief account of our kids playing in the creek. When I wrote this story, I didn’t find it necessary to expound at length on ethics, but it has always been my practice to make sure we leave no trace as a family, and that includes making sure our kids’ efforts in a creek are not permanent, scattering their rocks when necessary.

      I trust you understand that I was letting my kids play and have fun, and I’m confident it was actually harmless. As young kids, they were not capable of moving heavier rocks than any mountain or canyon stream can move on its own when their waters rise; even adults would not have the strength to do that. Those creeks rearrange their rocks quite effectively on their own every year, and they move remarkably enormous rocks. I recall interviewing the longtime trails manager for Mount Rainier National Park a number of years ago, and he told me a detail I’ve been reminded of repeatedly in certain contexts, including while backpacking the Wonderland Trail around Rainier just a month ago: Mount Rainier National Park trail crews have to replace every single log bridge over creeks in the park (dozens of them) every summer, because all of those creeks get destroyed by high runoff every spring. Children playing in a stream cannot generate the kind of power that nature routinely generates.

      Still, I agree with the leave no trace ethic and follow it devoutly. Thanks again for your thoughts and please share your comments anytime.

      • The most perfect reply.
        I just ran across your article researching Hell’s Canyon as a possible add on to my Oregon trip this August. Have never traveled to Oregon, and have quite the general itinerary. Lol.
        Enjoyed your read, thanks for sharing and if you think of anything I should be considering, please reply. We are also running the coast, and Colombia River Gorge.