Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

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leiavoia
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Joined: April 24th, 2015, 9:53 pm

Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by leiavoia » September 28th, 2019, 8:38 pm

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(I know there are many similar trip reports, so i will just relate the interesting parts for anyone in the future researching this trip.)
  • Days: 5
  • Dates: September 22-26, 2019
  • Weather: Overcast and rainy first night, followed by several days of sun(burn). Nightly lows in high 30's. Day highs around 60. Left a day early due to forecasted storm with snow at higher elevations.
  • Route: Wallowa River Loop, as described in Lorraine's "Backpacking Oregon". Wallowa Lake Trailhead > Anaroid Lake > Polaris Pass > Frazier Lake > Glacier Lake > Mirror Lake > Eagle Cap day night hike > Horseshoe Lake > out
  • Mileage: ~34 miles RT.
  • Camped At: Anaroid Lake, Frazier Lake outlet stream, Mirror Lake, Horseshoe Lake.
  • People: few. You could get your pick of spots at any of the popular lakes. There were no people at all some of them. Good time of year to plan this trip if you want to avoid crowds.
  • Wildlife sightings: Bald Eagle near Mirror Lake, Douglas Fir Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Rocky Mountain Woolly Bear Caterpillar, fearless chipmunks looking for handouts, so so many crickets, giant Mormon Crickets. Another hiker reported a Black Bear sighting 1 mile from trailhead.
  • Best Scenery: Anaroid Lake to Frazier Lake, Frazier Lake to Lakes Basin, Eagle Cap summit. (The forested valleys that lead into the interior of the Wallowas are relatively uninteresting. The fun stuff is in the middle.)
  • Hammock Camping: I was able to put a hammock up in every location i went to. You need to be a bit judicious in the Lakes Basin because the trees are more sparse and thin.
Tips for those planning to visit:
  • Weather changes fast here, so plan for anything.
  • Bring extra camera batteries. You will be compelled to take more photos every 100 yards. I took extra and still ran out early.
  • Hike Eagle Cap. It isn't difficult, but very rewarding. It is cold and windy, so dress appropriately.
  • Lakes were too cold for swimming this time of year.
  • Plan to do less mileage than you normally would want to tackle. There is a lot of scenery to see.
  • Polaris Pass will kick your butt both ways. Don't underestimate it. My descent took 3 hours just by itself.
  • Bring extra batteries.

Day 1: Wallowa Lake to Anaroid Lake
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Trail Time: 5 hours

Straight forward forest hike from trailhead to the lake. 3 other parties at the lake. If Anaroid is full, nearby Rogers Lake has many good camps as well (reached just before Anaroid). It rained several hours right after i got into camp. There are also many scenic camps with water access in the meadows on the way up to Anaroid Lake if you are looking for a shorter, simpler trip:

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Day 2: Anaroid Lake to Frazier Lake via Polaris Pass
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Trail Time: 8 hours (and no pussyfooting around either!)

Hiked out from the lake after morning fog burned off. The highlands around Tenderfoot Pass are very scenic. Long walk up to Polaris Pass and the disheartening thought of having to then go down the other side:

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It's steep, no kidding:

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Be sure to check out the interesting geology on the way down.

3 hours later, reached the bottom. A jaunt through the forest and up the river valley brought me to near Frazier Lake. You can camp a whole army here! One other party there besides myself. Additional camps along the stream leading up to the lake. Light drizzle overnight. Warmer overnight temps on this side of the mountain.

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Day 3: Frazier Lake to Mirror Lake, via Glacier Pass
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Trail Time: 6 hours

Extremely scenic the entire way. You'll feel like you're on the John Muir Trail! Plan to have lunch at Glacier Lake:

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I met a fellow hiker by himself that wanted to hike Eagle Cap but changed his mind because he was by himself and heard reports of snow. I invited him to go with me the next morning. I camped at Mirror Lake, the closest to the Eagle Cap Trail. 3 other parties camped there. Plenty of space left.

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Day 4: Eagle Cap and move to Horseshoe Lake
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Trail Time: 8 hours, plus an hour of picture taking on Eagle Cap.

At 4am, me and my new trail partner met in the dark and hiked up to see the sunrise on top of Eagle Cap. (For reference, the trip takes approximately 2.5 hours to the top from Mirror Lake). 28F and very window on top. Totally worth it.

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After a snack and break, i packed up and moved through the Lakes Basin until my energy and willpower gave out at Horseshoe Lake. There was no one else camped there, or at Lee Lake, or at Douglas Lake. Warnings to avoid the Lakes Basin area because of rowdy crowds were certainly overblown (at least for September).

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I watched the sunset from the lake looking up at Eagle Cap. Just 12 hours earlier i had been watching the sunrise looking down on the lake. Interesting.

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Day 5: Horseshoe to Trailhead

Trail time: 4.5 hours.

At this point, i ran out of batteries even though i had taken extra (I warned you!). The hike from the lake back to the trailhead is mostly uneventful. On the way down from the lake, be sure to look out over the valley. You can see where you came over Polaris Pass and hiked South down the valley to Frazier Lake. The rest of the hike is a gentle downhill cruise back to the car. A storm was gathering and rain began just as i left the parking lot. I had originally planned to camp at Ice Lake and tag the Matterhorn, but my energy was depleted and forecast had snow in it. I was glad to leave a day early as i saw the dark clouds swallow the mountain tops in the rearview mirror as i drove home.

Final Thoughts: one of the most scenic hikes i've ever done. Fear of crowds was overblown. There are many different routes you can take through this wilderness such that you can return many times and never have the same trip twice.

Thanks for reading. I hope this helps someone in the future.

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Last edited by leiavoia on September 30th, 2019, 12:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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drm
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Re: Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by drm » September 29th, 2019, 7:15 am

I did one late September trip in the Wallowas. The mornings were really cold and slow to warm up. It's just a different world than in August. Sounds like even if the weather had held for you, an extra day up at Ice Lake and above would have been without photos.

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Bosterson
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Re: Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by Bosterson » September 29th, 2019, 7:51 am

Nice panoramas! Glad to hear risk of crowds was "overblown" ;) that late in September (it hadn't been clear you were going so late in the month). I'm sure they thin after Labor Day, but I'm guessing the extra cold and wet September probably helped keep the hordes at bay. For comparison, there were 50-100 people staying just at Mirror Lake when I was there in August in both 2017 and 2019. This year was a shocker cause it was mid-week, but I may have just gotten a bad week when everyone took off from work and went to the Wallowas. Maybe next year I'll have to do a late September trip and have the place to myself! I think the Lakes Basin is sort of like the Eagle Creek of the Wallowas - not the most rarefied or rewarding destination, and horribly popular and overrun (a guy I talked to there this year thinks permits and quotas are in the Lakes Basin's future), but if you can get there at a time when it's not crowded, it's spectacular.

Ice Lake is worth a return trip. If you fancy scrambling, the ridge to Sacajawea is excellent.
Will hike off trail for fun.

leiavoia
Posts: 66
Joined: April 24th, 2015, 9:53 pm

Re: Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by leiavoia » September 29th, 2019, 4:54 pm

If I wanted to return next summer, are there parts of the range less frequented? Or is the entire region a zoo?

Aimless
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Re: Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by Aimless » September 29th, 2019, 7:28 pm

Or is the entire region a zoo?

Eagle Cap has been growing in popularity by leaps and bounds lately, but it is far from a zoo in all its many parts. The Lakes Basin is easily the most popular area, with Mirror Lake being the epicenter of that popularity. This has been true for decades. If you go to the Lakes Basin in August you will always be guaranteed plenty of company any day of the week.

Next in popularity seem to be a couple of loops that are mentioned in guidebooks and which get a lot of play. You just did the popular loop up East Fork Wallowa River, over Polaris Pass and back down via West Fork Wallowa River. The other popular loop I know about starts at East Eagle trailhead in the southern part of the wilderness, crosses Horton Pass, dips down past Mirror Lake, then up and over to Glacier Lake, crosses Hawkins Pass, descends the South Fork of Imnaha River to Cliff Creek, ascends Cliff Creek to Crater Lake and comes back down to East Eagle. When I've been in that neighborhood I always see several parties of hikers who are doing that particular loop. It's worth noting that both of these popular loops also visit the Lakes Basin as part of their itinerary.

The other trails all vary in popularity, but solitude is always available somewhere in that huge wilderness even in mid-August. You just have to dig a bit harder for it, go further from the trailheads, and bypass places that get Instagrammed to death. The best resource I know for trip planning there is Fred Barstad's comprehensive trail guidebook, Hiking Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness, Falcon Press. It describes every trail in the whole wilderness, plus some climbing routes. The rest is up to your sense of adventure and willingness to hike where it takes you.

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Bosterson
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Re: Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by Bosterson » September 29th, 2019, 9:00 pm

Aimless wrote:
September 29th, 2019, 7:28 pm
The other popular loop I know about starts at East Eagle trailhead in the southern part of the wilderness, crosses Horton Pass, dips down past Mirror Lake, then up and over to Glacier Lake, crosses Hawkins Pass, descends the South Fork of Imnaha River to Cliff Creek, ascends Cliff Creek to Crater Lake and comes back down to East Eagle. When I've been in that neighborhood I always see several parties of hikers who are doing that particular loop.
Gawd. I went to E Eagle for the first time last month (after previously doing W and Main Eagles a few years ago) and encountered multiple parties who, when asked where they were going, answered "the loop." As if there is only one loop that can be done... What guidebook is that from, so we can burn it in effigy?

To answer the OP's question, I would say that aside from E Eagle, the southern part of Eagle Cap is less frequented, though as you found, crowds depend on when you go. Ice Lake > Matterhorn > Sacajawea is pretty awesome, so if you wait till after Labor Day, maybe you will encounter fewer yahoos. (Ice Lake is less crowded than the Lakes Basin, though I've been there near with parties nearby who were loud...) There's some nice stuff on Hurricane Creek, though you're looking at out-n-back unless you go back into the Lakes Basin, or off trail. In the south, Main and West Eagles have good options, though I never went to the TH on West (I looped via Fake Creek from Main), and there were plenty of people at Echo Lake when I went by. If you start from Cornucopia and go in via the Pine Lakes, you probably won't see many people, and I thought the Norway Pass area east of that was very nice. The best option to avoid crowds though is to skip the guidebook loops, and instead consult a map, pick an area that looks interesting, and make up your own trip. Thankfully, the "zoo" crowd is the type to only do "the loop" and not realize you can go wherever you want. :)
Will hike off trail for fun.

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drm
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Re: Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by drm » September 30th, 2019, 7:45 am

The best advice for avoiding crowds in the popular season is don't do this:
leiavoia wrote:
September 28th, 2019, 8:38 pm
as described in Lorraine's "Backpacking Oregon"
Even better is don't camp at lakes. Nonetheless there are plenty of options. I camped at Jewett Lake at peak season in August and there were one or two other groups there each night, not crowded at all. It is 0.4 miles off of a popular trail, and not visible from the trail.

Of course you had a successful plan too - go in late September.

There are always plenty of ways to avoid crowds.

Aimless
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Re: Wallowa River Loop - September 2019

Post by Aimless » September 30th, 2019, 8:45 am

drm wrote:
September 30th, 2019, 7:45 am
Even better is don't camp at lakes.
Amen. This is one of my two Fundamental Tips for Avoiding Crowds. The other one is to hike further from the trailhead.

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