Stunning four day backpack to multiple high mountain lakes in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness
Distance: 32 miles round trip (11.0 miles this segment)
Difficulty: difficult with 3,800′ total elevation gain (moderately difficult with 2,500′ loss)
Best season: July – October depending on snow melt
1:00 a.m. on day four of our Eagle Cap backpack (click here to read about days one, two, and three). We had to hang our bear bag closer to camp than we prefer. As a result, my sleep was fitful and nervous—I was hearing every little thing… even worse than usual. Half asleep, I heard something outside Jason’s side of the tent. I frantically tapped Jason and whispered, “WAKE UP, there’s something out there!!” “Is it by the bear bag?” “No, I think it is right outside your tent door.” I grabbed my headlamp and shined it outside Jason’s side of the tent. Nothing. I looked over at the bear bag off my side of the tent. Nothing. “Go back to sleep, you’re hearing things.” I closed my eyes and tried to relax… There it was again. “SEE, did you hear THAT?!?” “Yeah.” I turned my light on again. This time, the beam of light hit the eyes of a huge four point buck who was rooting around in the ground—his head not four feet from Jason’s head. The buck’s eyes widened as the light hit him and so did mine. I’m sure the look on both our faces were those of a exaggerated cartoon characters. He took off into the night, likely to escape the crazy lady in the tent.
Confident that we weren’t under attack, I finally drifted off into a good sleep for a few hours. Then, at about 4:00 a.m., we awoke to a huge clap of thunder that seemed to magnify as it echoed off the cliff walls behind the lake. We remained in our warm sleeping bags for about half an hour while lightning, thunder, and moderate rain rocked Frazier Lake. The forecast hadn’t called for rain on Sunday morning. Then again, we hadn’t seen a forecast for several days.
The worst of the storm seemed to pass by 4:30, so we grabbed our headlamps and headed outside for coffee and breakfast. The morning temperature was 46 degrees as we watched the first bit of daylight hitting dark grey clouds over the lake. We agreed that conditions looked threatening enough that we should break down camp and get to lower elevation as quick as we could in case more lightening hit.
We quickly went to work on breaking down camp. Nearly all our gear was packed and in the backpacks and we were about to take the tent down when round two of the storm suddenly hit. We threw rain flies on our packs and ducked into the tent just as hail started to pelt down on us. The hail was quickly followed by rain, thunder, lightning, and estimated 60-70mph wind gusts for about 45 minutes. For a while, the thunder and lightning were nearly simultaneous causing us to assume a crouched position with only our butts and heals touching the ground. We were very grateful for the shelter of our little tent.
After the worst of the storm passed, we hurriedly finished getting ready. The sky was still dark grey and we could hear thunder in the distance, but conditions above us were dry for the moment. We covered our packs, donned our rain gear and left camp at 8:00.
From Frazier down to the West Fork Wallowa River was a gorgeous one mile stretch with views of the river, a waterfall, and lots of wildflowers. The trail was rocky, but the descent wasn’t too steep. Despite the dark sky, we stayed dry. This was the crossing I had been nervous about. I had read that it could be very difficult to cross, but most hikers we had talked with said it wasn’t too difficult if you went downstream a short ways and were willing to get wet. Arriving at the river, the crossing looked swift and challenging. As recommended, we went down stream a short distance to a small island and crossed there without incident (although it was a wet crossing).
From the crossing, it was a scenic three miles down to Six Mile Meadow where we had branched off to Horseshoe lake three days prior. We had great valley views for most of this stretch and there was one particularly scenic stretch where the trail passed thru a narrow gorge right above the river. Otherwise, we saw lots of meadows that were full of wildflowers and even a few nearly ripe huckleberries! This would have been a much more stunning stretch if we’d had some sun and blue skies to lighten things up. Near Six Mile, we met group of about fifteen boy scouts. The leaders inquired where we had been camped and how the storm had been. They had been at Six Mile Meadow and said the storm hit them a bit, but nothing like what we described.
After Six Mile Meadow, we were in familiar territory, covering the same stretch we had come up on day one. Cloudy skies gave way to a beautiful sunny morning with temperatures in the upper 60s. Despite tired feet, it was an easy last bit of hiking with a gradual descent the entire way. Back at the Jeep, we cleaned up a little and enjoyed the cold drinks I had waiting for us. Day four came in at eleven miles with 2,500’ elevation loss.
It had been an incredible four days with 32 miles hiked and 3,800’ total elevation gain. We had visited several beautiful lakes including Horseshoe, Lee, Douglas, Crescent, Moccasin, Glacier, and Frazier. The mosquitoes were nearly non-existent (a relief after Big Fisher Lake the previous weekend). Before heading home, we stopped at the Embers Brewhouse in Joseph. We had never been there before, but our nephew Max highly recommended them. Jason had a burger and I had their calzone—both were delicious, especially after four days of trail food!