backpack: Wallowa Mountains – Lakes Basin
Five day backpack trip in the Wallowa Mountains / Eagle Cap Wilderness
Day 1: hike in to Lostine Meadows (3.7 miles 1,700 ft gain)
This is my second backpacking trip to the Wallowas, and only my second time doing a five day backpack. I’d done the same trip four years ago when I was working on my second hiking book, “I Heart Oregon’s Seven Wonders“. The Wallowa Mountains are located in Eastern Oregon, and our destination was the Lakes Basin in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the largest designated wilderness in Oregon.
The drive to the trailhead from Portland is 6 hours, and after stopping several times and to have lunch, we arrived at the Two Pan trailhead at around 3pm. We loaded up our packs, filled out a wilderness permit at the trailhead, and began the hike in. We planned to camp in Lostine Meadows and hike in the rest of the way to the Lakes Basin in the morning.
The river winds its way through the meadows, and we had good access for filtering water for the night and next day. We were all exhausted from the long drive and the hike in, plus we had another day of hiking in with full backpacks, so we went to bed early. When I got up in the night to pee, I was headed to a spot away from my tent when I heard a large animal snort and stomp. That was enough of a warning for me, so I headed in the other direction. Surprisingly, I went right back to sleep when I got back to my tent. I’d heard the same sound before from a deer buck, so I figured it was nothing to worry about as long as I didn’t bother him.
Day 2: hike in to Mirror Lake (4 miles 600 ft gain)
In the morning, we packed up to hike in to Mirror Lake. Since it wasn’t very far, we took our time in the morning. After camping near the meadows, we all had condensation on our tents and wanted to allow enough time for them to dry. The hike to the Lakes Basin from here was easier than the first day’s hike, with far less elevation gain. We headed through the meadows, then crossed over the river on a defunct bridge before heading back into forest for a section of switchbacks.
As soon as you reach the Lakes Basin, granite is everywhere and there are views of the surrounding ridges.
After dinner, the light at dusk was starting to show color in the sky, so the photographers in our group got up to run around and shoot photos. This is my favorite time of the day for lighting. No more fighting the sun’s harsh shadows that make taking photos on hikes challenging! From our camp area, granite slabs stretched out in the direction of Mocassin Lake, making it easy to wander around and get good views.
Day 3: Glacier Lake day hike (5 miles 1,800 ft gain)
On the third day of our trip, we hiked to Glacier Lake. This was my first time there, and I would definitely repeat this hike again! From our campsite, we took the Lakes Basin trail to the Glacier Lake trail junction at Mocassin Lake. Rock hop across a small isthmus that separates two parts of the lake, then pass several campsites on a small peninsula.
Once we were past Mocassin Lake, the trail heads across a small meadow before beginning switchbacks to head up to Glacier Pass. The scenery kept changing throughout the hike, with panoramic views of the Lakes Basin that kept getting bigger and better. A small creek runs down a narrow drainage area next to the trail, providing a nice sound of water cascading as we hiked up.
Eventually, we crossed the creek and were next to a granite bowl with snowfields.
A large sign with a rock cairn to support it is at the official pass, and soon after, Glacier Lake and the peaks surrounding it come into view. From here, the trail heads down switchbacks for about 600 feet.
The lake is fairly large, with scenic islands dotting sections of it. We hung out at the edge of the lake for a bit, and while my friends were taking a dip in the frigid cold water, I explored the area. The trail continues to the outlet of the lake, which cascades down a rocky ravine and becomes the West Wallowa River. From there, I could see the Glacier Lake trail wind its way down towards the Wallowa River canyon.
After spending as much time as we could at Glacier Lake, we headed back to camp so we could cook dinner before it got dark.
Day 4: Lakes Basin day hike (5 miles 1,000 ft gain)
I’d been debating hiking to the summit of Eagle Cap, but after several days of backpacking and hiking at higher elevation, I was too tired to do a strenuous hike so I decided to repeat a loop around the Lakes Basin that I’d done four years ago. Two of my friends on this trip had their hearts set on Eagle Cap, so they started early in the day while the rest of our group took a leisurely approach to getting ready.
We headed back to Mocassin Lake on the Lakes Basin trail, then headed down several hundred feet to Douglas Lake.
A massive ridge looms high above Douglas lake, and two small peninsulas add drama to the scenery. The trail follows the contours of the lake, going around the end of it and then back along the other side.
The next lake we passed was Crescent Lake. Most of it looked inaccessible, surrounded by grasses and boggy meadows. We wondered how many mosquitoes would have been here a few weeks ago.
Now we must regain all of the elevation we lost so far on the trail, and we head up several sections of rocky switchbacks. At the Hurricane Creek trail junction, we ran into two women camping near us doing the hike in the opposite direction. We had planned to swim in the lakes, and at each one, we decide to continue to the next.
The final lake we passed was Sunshine Lake. It’s only 2/10 of a mile above our camp at Mirror Lake and it’s much smaller but still has a great view of Eagle Cap. We couldn’t find an easy walk-in spot at the shoreline, so we continued back to our camp to take a dip in Mirror Lake instead.
I thought that the water was super cold and could only go in to my waist, but several of my friends were much braver and waded much deeper and swam around a bit.
Day 5: hike out back to the trailhead (7.5 miles 2,000 ft loss)
We wanted to spend as much time as possible in the Lakes Basin, so instead of hiking back to camp at Lostine Meadows for the last night, we hiked out all the way on the last day. After four days of backpacking and hiking, it was tiring but the scenery made the effort much easier.