Stunning high mountain lake in a quiet corner of Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness
Distance: 18 miles round trip
Type: out and back
Difficulty: difficult with approximately 2,700′ elevation gain
Best season: July – September
It doesn’t get any better than the Eagle Cap Wilderness. When most people think of northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness, they picture the busy eastern side near Enterprise and Joseph. Trailheads like Two Pan can be packed to capacity during the short backpacking season. Camp sites at places like Mirror Lake are full on the weekends, leading us to sometimes wonder if the crowds are worth it (they are). Lucky for us, and those willing to make the long and winding drive to the more-remote southwestern corner of the range, lonely trailheads and high mountain lakes await.
Hidden Lake had been on my radar for a couple of years. At 18 miles round trip, it was an ideal distance for a weekend backpack; however, the eleven hour round trip drive had always put us off. July 2017 found me planning a last minute pack with our nephew Max. I looked for an Eagle Cap lake that none of us had seen before that could be done in a weekend. Despite the long drive, Hidden was the best choice.
We left our house at 4:00 Friday afternoon and made the nearly three and a half hour drive to Blackhorse Campground on the banks of the Imnaha River. This small campground along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway offers lovely well-spaced sites for $8 per night. We scored a site overlooking the river and set up our camp in the last bit of fading light.
Saturday morning we had breakfast, broke camp, and were on the road a little after 5:00. We still had a couple hour drive and it was going to be a warm day with a strenuous hike—the early start was good.
Arriving at the East Eagle Trailhead (elevation 4,560′), we found a trail register and only one other car. Nice! We obtained our free wilderness permit and were on the trail at 8:00. It was a cool and beautiful morning, but temperatures were quickly warming.
The trail began as a rough single track road with nice views of East Fork Eagle Creek and towering Granite Cliff. At about a quarter mile in, we reached a small gated bridge over East Eagle. It isn’t obvious, but the trail takes off here. Don’t cross the bridge. Instead, look for a faint trail that starts to the right and up the hill.
The first couple of miles were through relatively thick forest. We had an occasional view of East Eagle and Granite Cliff to our left. While this stretch was easy hiking and nicely shaded, it was rather pedestrian and I was filled with excitement for the views I knew were ahead.
At 2.5 miles, we came to Corkscrew Falls. Here the creek squeezed through a skinny corkscrew shaped slot. With the late snow runoff, we saw the first of many seasonal waterfalls in the form of a delicate little stream coming down off the western side of East Eagle. Ahead, we were beginning to get stunning views to the north.
For the next four miles, we alternated between sections of forest and flower filled meadows above East Eagle. We crossed several side streams, most with waterfalls above, and the occasional patch of snow. As we progressed, the views ahead of snow covered Eagle Cap peaks became more and more spectacular.
By six miles in, we had climbed 1,700 feet and were in full sun most of the time. Cooling off at the stream crossings and patches of snow was helping, but I was starting to drag butt in the warm mid-day sun. I could have easily made camp right there along East Eagle with stunning views up to Eagle Cap, but there hadn’t been any good sites and the guys provided good encouragement for continuing on.
At seven miles from the trailhead, we came to an unsigned trail to our left—this would take us up to Hidden Lake. My trail guide put this at 6.5 miles in and I was beginning to think we had missed it. But suddenly there it was and within a few minutes we had dropped to East Eagle. We crossed the swollen creek (nearly knee deep), topped off our water, and began the 1,000′ climb to Hidden Lake.
For the next half mile, we made a moderate climb through the forest. We could see snow covered mountains and granite peaks in all directions as we passed through small meadows carpeted by wildflowers in peak bloom. Most interesting to me was the view of the back side of Eagle Cap and Glacier Peak. It was crazy to think we’d spent several nights just on the other side. Those trails and lakes had been busy with backpackers—but so far we had only seen one couple.
We made a couple small stream crossings and enjoyed sections of shade for the first part of the climb. As we quickly gained in elevation, patches of snow became a more frequent sight. At half a mile above East Eagle, the trail steepened and became much rockier. Our pace slowed, but we made steady progress.
At 1.5 miles and 850′ above East Eagle, we arrived at pretty little Moon Lake. There were a couple nice campsites here, but I knew Hidden Lake would be much more spectacular. We took a short break then continued our climb.
It was about a quarter mile up to the pass between Moon and Hidden lakes at 7,271′. This stretch of trail was the steepest and rockiest of the day. It would be a knee-pounder going down the following day!
Topping out, we had climbed 1,051′ since the East Eagle crossing and 2,711′ from the trailhead. I was relieved the climbing was over and that we only had a quarter mile to go. Looking down from the pass, we couldn’t see Hidden Lake yet, but we did see snow. Lots of snow. We began to drop down into the basin and quickly lost the trail under massive drifts. Footing was precarious as we descended down over the drifts. I kicked my heels into the snow to make footholds. Just seconds after Jason said, “it might be easier to slide down this” I lost my footing, fell on my butt, and slid down the large drift I was negotiating. Hmm, he was right. It was easier! Getting up with a full pack? That was a different story. Thank goodness for the company of two strong men.
With trail lost and no lake in sight, I checked the gps to make sure we were headed in the right direction. Hidden Lake appeared to be just on the other side of a small rise. We descended down into a narrow meadow with a couple inches of free standing water from all of the snow melt. Crossing a small stream, we continued up the rise, around and through more areas of lingering snow, and finally we were looking down at gorgeous Hidden Lake.
Hidden Lake was an impressive and welcome sight after the long hike. With all of the snow and marshy areas, it appeared it would be difficult to navigate to the far right side of the lake and even harder to find a dry spot for camp. There was a maze of snow drifts to the left, but it looked more promising.
In trying to find a path through the drifts and around downed trees, I inadvertently dropped down into a campsite with a family of three. I apologized for disturbing their solitude and asked if they had seen any good campsites a good distance away so we wouldn’t disturb them. They were very nice and welcoming and shared what info they knew about the lake. The daughter was only ten years old and was on her first backpack. It was nice to know we would have a nice set of neighbors for the night. It was even nicer that they were the only other people at the lake.
We continued west along the south side of the lake looking for a flat dry spot for camp. After a little searching, we found the perfect spot near the lake shore (elevation 7,156′). It had been a strenuous 9.0 mile day with significant elevation gain. Our reward—a million dollar view of Hidden Lake with views of Glacier Point and Eagle Cap.
We enjoyed a quiet and peaceful night. We couldn’t see or hear our neighbors and the cloudless sky showcased millions of bright stars. Typical of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in late July, temperatures dropped into the 30s.
We were up and enjoying coffee and breakfast before 5:00. It was a beautiful morning at the lake with ideal conditions for some reflection shots. Still, we had a long hike and drive ahead of us, so we made pretty quick work of breaking down camp.
We were out of camp by 6:30 and had to use the gps to navigate our way through the snow and flooded meadows up to the trail. A quick quarter mile climb up the pass and it was downhill the rest of the day. The knee pounding rocky descent to Moon went by quickly and we took a quick break so I could get some nice morning reflection shots.
From Moon, we continued the steep descent to East Eagle Creek. The first mile was the worst and I was happy when the grade moderated a bit.
At East Eagle we had a cold water crossing in the shade. Back up on the main trail, sun was a welcome relief for ice cold feet and legs. From there it was an beautiful hike back to the Jeep. Aside from passing our neighbors from the night before, we only saw one other group on the trail. That made for just three groups encountered for the entire weekend. Now that’s a wilderness experience!
Directions to East Eagle Trailhead: from just west of Richland, Oregon on highway 86, turn north onto New Bridge County Road. Follow this paved, then good gravel road 13.5 miles and turn right on FR 7720 (note, New Bridge Co Rd becomes Eagle Creek Road and then FR 7735). Follow FR7720 1.5 miles to FR 77, turn left and climb up and over a saddle for 10 miles. Turn right on FR 7745 and continue 6.2 miles (0.8 miles past the sign for Eagle Creek Trailhead) to the loop turnaround at the end of the maintained road.