Beautiful high mountain hike over two passes and along a ridgeline to multiple trout filled lakes.
Distance: 14.5 miles roundtrip
Type: out and back
Difficulty: moderate with 2,000′ gain
Best season: summer and early fall
It doesn’t get much better than a three day weekend over the 4th of July. Mountain trails are finally starting to open up and the weather is predictably warm. Near record highs were predicted at home, so the search was on for a destination at high elevation. Joining us would be our 18 year old nephew Max. I remember the summer he was born- how was it possible that he was 18 years old already?
We wanted to do the Seven Devils near Riggins, Idaho, but the worst tree blow downs in 25 years ruled that out. This would normally be too early for my bucket list items in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, but given the light snow year I thought it was worth a call. The rangers in Joseph stated it wasn’t out of the question, but trail crews had only cleared the first few miles of trail and it was questionable if we could negotiate the pass we’d have to cross due to lingering snows. I talked to the rangers in Baker City, Oregon and they confirmed we shouldn’t have any problems on the Elkhorn Crest Trail. Max had never been there and temperatures would be mild, so we finalized plans for the area.
The Elkhorn Mountains are located in northeastern Oregon in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, just to the west of the more popular Wallowa Mountains. The highest point in the range is Rock Creek Butte, elevation 9,106′. We had hiked this area in 2013. It isn’t as stunning as the neighboring Wallowas, but few places are. Still, the area has rugged beauty and is much less crowded than the Wallowas.
We drove from our home in southeastern Washington to La Grande, Oregon and then south along I-84 to the North Powder exit where we followed signs for Anthony Lakes. Just before Anthony Lakes, we turned into the Elkhorn Crest Trail parking lot located at elevation 7,160’. We made a few last minute adjustments to our gear and then hit the trail about 3:45. We enjoyed a one mile hike through the trees and up the well marked spur trail to Black Lake (N44°57.2184’ W118°13.3030’ elev 7,359’). We passed a few groups of day hikers on the trail, but we were the only backpackers.
We worked our way along the entire west side of Black Lake before settling on a campsite. It was a nice little lake, but despite being the only people to camp here, we couldn’t find an ideal and established spot for two tents. We set up camp on the flattest spots we could find. The following morning, we realized that there were likely some spots along the east side of the lake that are accessible from further up the main trail. Oh well, we were perfectly fine where we were at on the lake shore in a lovely spot with no neighbors.
“You only hiked a mile before setting up camp?” you might ask. Certainly this is not what we would normally plan, but there was a good reason for the slacker miles. We knew we would be arriving at the trailhead relatively late in the afternoon. Our choices were to car camp at Anthony Lakes (very busy on any summer weekend), hike one mile into Black Lake, or continue several more miles up and over a pass before finding another good camp opportunity. Our gamble paid off and we were the only people camped at Black on this holiday weekend.
Within seconds of our arrival at camp, the mosquitoes began swarming. Thus began a trip with some of the fiercest mosquitoes we have ever seen. Spray helped some , but never discouraged them to comfortable levels. They were relentless and would plague us for most of our trip… such is early season in the high country.
Jason did a little fishing while Max and I prepared dinner. Almost immediately, Jaosn pulled in the nicest high mountain brook trout we had ever seen. For dinner, we tried a new idea I had seen on the internet. We combined top ramen with dehydrated veggies and chicken. It worked pretty well. Half way through dinner, the mosquitoes caused me to make haste to the tent in order to finish my meal in peace. We turned into our tents early just to escape the blood sucking skeeters.
Near dark, we heard voices somewhere on the lake. We had been the only people camped, but perhaps company had arrived? The voices faded after dark.
For the first time, we tried camping without the rain fly. Usually, conditions are too breezy or the chance of rain too great to risk it. There was a full moon which lit the tent up and I loved being able to see the sky all night.
We were awake by around 4:00. The first hints of daylight were visible on the horizon. Overnight temperatures were cooler than predicted with lows dropping well into the 40s. With the warm weather predictions, Max had decided against bringing his heavy sleeping bag. He had grabbed our light Cougar fleece blanket and slept with that. He was up early with us and said he about froze all night. He’s not a complainer, so I knew he must have had a miserable night. After a quick breakfast, he made the short hike back to the trailhead and traded the blanket for his sleeping bag. That gave Jason and me time to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and breakfast. I didn’t see anyone else camped on the lake, so the voices we had heard the night before must have been late day hikers.
We were packed and on the trail by about 7:00. After hiking a short distance along the lake, we came upon two fisherman and chatted for a short while. They were the voices we had heard the night before. They were camped over at Anthony Lakes where they reported conditions were busy and much less peaceful with holiday campers crowding the lake shore. They didn’t know what kind of fish they had caught the night before, but they had been so impressed with the fishing that they came back at first light. With their description we were able to confirm they were brook trout.
We dropped down the spur trail from Black Lake and turned right onto the Elkhorn Crest trail. The morning temperatures were nice and cool, but it was warming up quickly.
We enjoyed the climb to Angell Pass at 8,200’ elevation. The mile leading up to the pass is my favorite part of this hike. The climb is relatively steady and the trail is easy to follow.
We stopped for a snack break at the pass.
After Angell Pass, we hiked about 2.5 relatively flat miles across the Crest Trail to Nip and Tuck Pass.
Shortly after the pass we took the side trail 1.3 miles down to Lost Lake. It was a pretty good descent and temperatures were warming up. I was happy we were going down!
We arrived at the lake around 10:30. Lost Lake was prettier than I had thought it might be. There were some interesting cliffs rising above it and some nice looking marsh areas that looked like good moose habitat. There was a good campsite right down on the lake (N44*54.1540’ W118*13.6101’ elev 7,464’), but we thought mosquitoes might be a little bit better off the lake where it was a little drier. Camping off the lake did no good- the mosquitoes were just as voracious. To add to the misery, some biting black flies joined the party.
We set up camp, had a snack, and then headed down to the lake were the fellas cooled off. While there we saw a large family who had apparently ridden their ATVs to within a mile or two of the lake. They were on the loud side, but fortunately did not stay long.
After a refreshing swim, Jason grabbed his fishing gear and we set off for him to try his luck. At the lake inlet, he stalked a large brook trout, but wasn’t able to get him to bite. We worked our way all around the lake which was pretty marshy is most areas. We did find a couple nice camp spots on the far side of the lake.
The afternoon was warm and we were all pretty lethargic. Our shaded tent was inviting, if for no other reason than to shield us from the mosquitoes. We spent a lazy afternoon around camp with Max napping and Jason and I reading. Later that afternoon, a man came down to the lake with his dog to do a little fishing. He had also come most of the way on an ATV. He, the fisherman at Black Lake, and the large family were the only people we saw all day.
After another top ramen dinner, Jason went back to try his luck at that book trout. I went down to the lake with him, but I sat on the shore and watched him from a distance (I didn’t feel like trudging through the marsh area again). After some patience, he caught the trout that had been taunting him all afternoon. With evening, the mosquitoes were once again relentless. We turned into our tents early to escape and read. For the second night, we slept with the rain fly off and the weather didn’t disappoint. We slept by the light of the full moon with temperatures around 50.
Sunday morning we were once again up by 4:00. I grabbed some sunrise shots over the lake, but struck out on seeing any moose. We had coffee and breakfast and then packed up camp to get an early start on the climb out of Lost Lake before it could warm up.
We were on the trail by 6:30 and enjoyed a nice cool hike up to Nip and Tuck Pass. By 9:00 we had worked our way over to Angell Pass where we met the first of the few day hikers we would see- a father and son who were looking to summit the tallest peak off the pass.
Jason and Max decided they wanted to take the shorter route back to the car (I think a big burger was calling them), so instead of returning to the trailhead via Hoffer Lakes we backtracked the same way we had hiked in. We arrived back at the car by 10:30- happy for cold drinks and snacks in our cooler.
It had been a short, but sweet backpack of 14.5 miles to a couple of beautiful mountain lakes and a great escape from the triple digit temperatures at home. We drove to the tiny town of Lostine where stopped for a burger at the Lostine Tavern which Jason had spotted during our Bear Creek hike a couple weeks earlier. It was early afternoon and they were packed. Service was slow, but reasonable given the holiday crowds. We felt prices were high for what we got and that the burgers were on the dry side. To be fair, we should probably give them a try sometime when they aren’t so busy.
On our drive across the Anatone Flats, we could see a big column of smoke coming up from the Snake River Canyon. This was the start of the Gilmore Gulch Fire. High winds that afternoon spread the fire quickly and by the next afternoon it was burning directly behind my parent’s home on the Snake River between Asotin and Heller Bar. Fortunately, forces were quickly mobilized and they were able to stop the fire directly behind their house. A close call indeed and the beginning of a historic fire year in Washington and Idaho.
Directions to Elkhorn Crest Trailhead: From our home in southeastern Washington we drove south on WA-129 then OR-3 to Enterprise, Oregon. Here we turned right onto OR-82 and drove to La Grande, Oregon. We caught I-84 south to the North Powder exit 285 and followed signs for Anthony Lakes.