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McCully Basin Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Big Sheep Basin from McCully-Big Sheep Pass (bobcat)
Ford of McCully Creek, McCully Creek Trail (bobcat)
Hidden Peak from the McCully Basin (bobcat)
Columbian ground squirrel (Urocitellus columbianus), McCully Basin (bobcat)
The McCully Basin Trail is in red; off-trail routes are in black (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: National Geographic Topo
  • Start point: McCully Trailhead
  • Ending Point: McCully-Big Sheep Pass
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 15.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2360 feet
  • High Point: 8,705 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Summer into Fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No

Contents

Hike Description

This is not one of the Big 5 Wallowa destinations, so hikers can be assured of peace and solitude at any time except in the fall, when a few hunters come up here to harvest the large elk herd. In winter, telemark skiers enjoy the slopes around the basin. While the lower half of this hike is not very prepossessing, mostly dry formerly diseased forest dominated by Engelmann spruce with much blowdown, the trail is well-maintained up to the McCully Creek Ford. McCully’s jewels, its large meadows, are off the trail to the east and west. Take time to explore these and then hike the high ridge for a sampling of the expansive views.

After you sign in at the wilderness permit station, hike along a dusty trail in a ponderosa pine plantation. The trail drops to the maintenance road for the Mount Howard Tramway. Hike along the road for a short distance and then take the trail where it peels off to the left, also on an old road bed. Reach the former trailhead area, whence the real hiker’s trail begins. Walk past a No Snowmobiles sign and into a formerly diseased forest composed mainly of Engelmann spruce with western larch, lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, and an underbrush of Sitka alder, Labrador tea, and grouseberry among all the deadfall. The trail drops through another pine plantation and enters scrappy woods of spruce, lodgepole pine, and silver fir. Lupine blooms along the path.

Switchback up twice and make a traverse higher above the creek, which is on your left side. The trail approaches the creek and then rises past several small springs. Switchback up and then ascend gently in dry woods to McCully Creek, blooming with arrow-leaf groundsel, monkey flower, and aster. The McCully Creek Ford is an easy stepping stone exercise in late summer. Pass through a small meadow, and head gradually up. Look to your right for a sighting of the first big meadow. Here, there is a hunters’ camp, the only well-established campsite in the basin. Cross over a small creek and get a view of Hidden Peak to the west. The trail gradually rises through the parklands of the McCully Basin. To the left, the highest point on the ridge is Mount Melissa (9,128’).

Cross another small creek and come to a sharp increase in the gradient of the trail. If you are camping out in the basin, this is your cue to head off trail to the right. Leave the trail, cross over a creek, and then rise up a slope on an elk trail and through a screen of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir to the first large meadow, fringed by willow thickets, of the west side of the McCully Basin. You can find campsites in the trees here, or you can continue through this meadow to find a second meadow with seasonal ponds. (There is a third large meadow beyond this, but that one has no running water in summer). In the Basin, watch for plentiful mule deer and some of the large elk herd. Up on the ridges live mountain goats and the grassy benches support Columbian ground squirrels.

To continue up to the pass, continue up the McCully Creek Trail, which will now rise more steeply. The path winds up to a bench with a small meadow – the trail might be lost here momentarily. Cross a creek and then another meadow. A creek runs to your left next to the trail. Pass meadows fringed with whitebark and lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. Springs decorated by clumps of seep-spring arnica spout from the slope to your left. Monument plants jut strikingly from the fell fields. The trail, now traveled far more by elk than humans, is rubbly and loose. Mountain bluebirds flit about the fells and Clark’s nutcrackers swoosh among the pines. Switchback up to the 8,700’ pass and get a view into the beautiful Big Sheep Basin.

If you camp out in the McCully Basin, there are several day trips possible. One is to head over the pass into the Big Sheep Basin. Another would be to hike along Wing Ridge, east from the pass, and then up Mount Melissa. There’s a summit register here and views to the Seven Devils in Idaho and across the Wallowas to the south and west. A third option is to head across McCully’s western meadows and find a way up to the Aneroid Ridge. From here, you can scramble up to the top of Aneroid Mountain on mats of Arctic willow and then back down along the ridge over Hidden Peak and East Peak. Down the east ridge of Hidden Peak, you can find an old sheep trail that will take you back to the McCully Basin.

It should be noted that the Eagle Cap was not so pristine in former years as it seems now. In 1900, Wallowa County counted 300,000 sheep and most of these, as well as some cattle, were grazed in the high country in summer and fall. Land degradation was severe as the herd in some places exceeded the carrying capacity by as much as ten-fold. After World War II, the popularization of synthetic fabrics dealt an almost mortal blow to the wool industry, but sheep are still grazed in the Eagle Cap around Mt. Nebo. McCully Creek is named after a sheep rancher.


Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Northwest Forest Pass required
  • Sign in at the Wilderness Permit box at the trailhead
  • Keep dogs on leash around horses; step off the trail when they approach.

Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Wallowa Mountains: Eagle Cap Wilderness #475SX
  • Imus Geographics: Wallowa Mountains: Eagle Cap Wilderness
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Eagle Cap Wilderness
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • Oregon Favorites: Trails and Tales by William L. Sullivan
  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness by Fred Barstad
  • 50 Hikes in Hells Canyon & Oregon's Wallowas by Rhonda & George Ostertag
  • Hiking the High Wallowas and Hells Canyon by the Wallowa Resource Center
  • The Wallowa Mountains: A Natural History Guide by Keith Pohs

More Links


Page Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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