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Elkhorn Crest Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Lower Twin Lake from the Elkhorn Ridge (bobcat)
View to the Marble Pass Trailhead, Elkhorn Ridge (bobcat)
Ascending Elkhorn Peak (bobcat)
Milbert's tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti), Elkhorn Ridge (bobcat)
Rock Creek Butte from the Elkhorn Ridge (bobcat)
Cusick's corydalis (Corydalis caseana cusickii), Twin Lakes (bobcat)
The hike along the Elkhorn Crest; off-trail routes are dotted (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Marble Pass Trailhead
  • Ending Point: Rock Creek Butte
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 12.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3600 feet
  • High Point: 9,106 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: Mid-summer into Fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No

Contents

Hike Description

The stunning Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail takes a high ridge along the length of the Elkhorn Range past some of the highest peaks in Oregon's Blue Mountains. The trail itself is a 23-mile one-way backpack, but the two highest peaks in the range, Rock Creek Butte and Elkhorn Peak can be reached in a day hike. Mountain goats are often seen in these parts and in summer, there's a wildflower bonanza. Needless to say the views are far-reaching, extending north over the North Powder River valley to the Wallowa Mountains and west to the Strawberry Mountains. The easiest and most scenic way to do this is from the Marble Pass Trailhead, at the eastern terminus of the Elkhorn Crest Trail: you will need to have a vehicle with good clearance to reach the pass, however (This is the hike described below). Otherwise, you can reach the crest from below via the Twin Lakes Trail, beginning at the Twin Lakes Trailhead.

If you decide not to summit the two high peaks, you relinquish 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and (from the Marble Pass Trailhead) this becomes a moderate hike suitable for families with older children.

From the trailhead at Marble Pass, hike west on the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail #1611. The trail ascends very gently on an open slope, with Marble Point the peak on the ridge to the south. Pass below a prominence, getting expansive views down the Alder Creek valley to the Sumpter Valley and Phillips Lake. Reach a saddle and then make an ascending traverse around an 8,000 foot peak, passing by scattered copses of subalpine fir and whitebark pine. Lupine, penstemon, paintbrush, arnica, buckwheat, and alpine knotweed bloom along the ridge in summer. Small bushes of big mountain sagebrush are also typical of the landscape. Pass below another saddle above the Baboon Creek drainage and keep to an almost level contour before the path ascends to a third saddle above a rock-rimmed cirque on the east slope of the crest. Now traverse again through open country before coming to the saddle at the eastern point of the Elkhorn Peak prominence. The scramble to the top of the 8,931-foot peak, second-highest in the range, is an easy 900-foot ascent from here. Keep to the crest as much as possible as you weave between rock outcroppings and whitebark pines. A family of mountain goats may gape at you with some small astonishment before they make themselves scarce. The summit of Elkhorn Peak looms over Goodrich Lake below and just to the east; Pine Creek Reservoir is directly north; and the secluded Twin Lakes lie nestled in their cirque down to the west.

Descend Elkhorn Peak via its steeper west ridge, making your way around a couple of rocky outcrops. There may be some leftover snow patches here; in addition, be forewarned that it can occasionally snow at these heights in July and August. Reach the Elkhorn Crest Trail and then the Elkhorn Crest-Twin Lakes Trail Junction: it's a half mile of switchbacks down to the Twin Lakes from here, but save this diversion for the trip back if you're planning on summiting Rock Creek Butte. The east-facing wall of Peak 8569, with a more-or-less permanent snowfield, looms above the rugged headwater cirque of the South Prong Pine Creek.

Continue along the Elkhorn Crest Trail, getting open views of the Twin Lakes and their northwest-facing headwall (You may be able to spot goats there,too). The trail keeps well below the ridge crest here before dropping slightly to a saddle and then reaching the southeast ridge of Rock Creek Butte, the Elkhorns' highest peak. Go off trail and keep to the ridge crest up a somewhat open slope with scattered whitebark pines. The rubbly east side drops steeply on your right. It's half a mile from the trail and a 1,000-foot elevation gain to the highest viewpoint for miles. From the 9,106-foot summit, you'll see Rock Creek Lake directly below. More expansive vistas extend across the broad, agricultural North Powder valley to the north and east and the Sumpter Valley to the south.

Descend the same route and return to the Elkhorn Crest-Twin Lakes Trail Junction. If you're spending the night, Twin Lakes will be your campsite, but they're well-worth the one-mile in-and-out diversion if you have the time and energy. There are five very long and lazy switchbacks, passing patches of horsemint, to the two main lakes although there's also a tarn that you'll pass first. Look for clumps of Cusack's corydalis in the lush meadows above the larger lower lake. You can find campsites in the trees above the northwest shore of the lower lake, but also visit the upper lake, whose feeder streams from snowmelt pass through a lush meadow that attracts mountain goats. From the lower lake, it's about a 2,300-foot drop in 3 1/4 miles through the lush meadows and montane forest of the Lake Creek valley to the Twin Lakes Trailhead.

Note: If you have a passenger car, the crest can be reached via the Twin Lakes Trailhead. This adds more elevation to the hike and may tempt you to spend an overnight at Twin Lakes. From the lakes, ascend to Elkhorn Crest-Twin Lakes Trail Junction. Elkhorn Peak is attained using the ridge to your right. For Rock Creek Butte, walk left about one mile as per the directions above.


Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • The road to Marble Pass is for AWD, high clearance only.
  • Be prepared for weather changes at all times of the year.

Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • Note that some of the guidebooks below describe the entire Elkhorn Crest Trail:
  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • 75 Scrambles in Oregon by Barbara I. Bond
  • Oregon: The Creaky Knees Guide by Seabury Blair, Jr.
  • 100 Classic Hikes in Oregon by Douglas Lorain
  • Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill
  • Pacific Northwest Hiking by Scott Leonard & Sean Patrick Hill
  • Hiking Oregon's Geology by Ellen Morris Bishop
  • Best Hikes With Dogs: Oregon by Ellen Morris Bishop
  • Canine Oregon by Lizann Dunegan

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.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.