Day hike or backpack to a pretty alpine lake in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness

Distance: 11.5 miles round trip

Difficulty: moderate with 2,350’ elevation gain

Best season: July – October

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Mid-August 2015 found us searching for a place to backpack that wasn’t on fire.  The Pacific Northwest was experiencing one of its worst fire seasons since the infamous 1910 Big Burn.  It seemed all of our favorite local spots were on fire—Wenaha River, Selway River, Kettle Mountains, Clearwater River, Salmon River, and many more familiar names were plastered across the front page of the newspaper with the total number of acres burned growing by the day while the hot, dry summer kept its firm grip on the region.  The few places that weren’t on fire were choked with smoke from fires near and far.

The Wallowa Mountains of NE Oregon didn’t have any fires, but there was a large fire just to the west near Baker City and La Grande.  Smoke was so bad on Friday that officials shut I-84 down due to poor visibility.  On Friday, web cameras at Joseph showed smoky conditions with the nearby Wallowa peaks completely obscured from view.  We were on the fence, but Saturday morning made the decision to go for it.

We drove from our home in SE Washington to the little town of Lostine, OR.  From there we drove along the Lostine River to the Bowman Trailhead where we found about 20 vehicles, including a couple with horse trailers.  This trailhead serves as the jump off point for several trails.  We gathered our gear and hit the trail at 11:00 with temperatures in the low 60s and full sun.

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Bowman Trailhead

From the parking lot we walked back toward the road to the sign marking Bowman Trail #1651 off to the right.  The trail paralleled the road a short distance and then crossed the Lostine River on a good concrete footbridge.  From there the trail immediately began to climb in elevation—like pretty much every trail in the Wallowas, you’re going to work for your views!  The trail was well graded with switchbacks through forest that provided some shade.  This was the steepest portion of the trail.

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start of the trail
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At about 1.0 mile in, the trail came alongside Bowman Creek as it cascaded down a steep stretch of mountain.

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The trail continued to climb and slowly opened up to some nice views of the Lostine River canyon.  At 2.75 miles, the trail crossed Bowman Creek at a point where it was split into three smaller streams.  The crossings were very easy in mid-August on a dry year, but I could see where it would be difficult to keep dry feet during spring runoff.  There was a nice campsite here, but the forest was dense and there were no views.

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We met and talked with several nice backpackers coming down the trail.  They all indicated that the previous day had been horrible due to thick smoke from the nearby fire.   Visibility and air quality was very poor and ash covered their tents.  They all commented that we had picked the right day to hike in, but that we would be sharing the lake with many people.  We did have some smoke that day, but nothing to complain about given the area fires.

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cooling off in a side stream

At about 3.0 miles, the trail reached Brownie Basin with nice meadows and views.  There was a side trail to the left that appeared to lead down to several nice campsites.  We stayed on the main trail and at 3.8 miles reached the well-marked side trail #1659 to Chimney Lake (elevation 7,240’).

Shortly after turning off on the Chimney Lake trail, we came to a spot with magnificent views.  We took the opportunity to take a nice break on a large boulder and enjoy the scene.

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At 0.5 miles past the split, we reached Laverty Lakes (elev 7,450’).  A woman had told us that these lakes didn’t have anyone camped on them and that we should consider staying there for the night.  This pair of lakes was quite scenic and there were a couple decent spots.  While we were contemplating making camp there, another day hiker told us we really had to go on to Chimney Lake, that it was much nicer.

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one of the Laverty Lakes
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We continued 0.8 miles further to Chimney Lake (5.1 miles from the trailhead at elevation 7,604’).  This is a beautiful lake with a couple small islands in the middle and a backdrop of towering granite cliffs.  We did find quite a few people camped on the lake, but it appeared we had a few options left for campsites.  We dropped our packs and made a survey of the lake before deciding to set up camp at the outlet to the right of the trail.  We had a lovely spot just up from the lake.  We couldn’t see anyone from our camp, but we would hear other parties throughout the evening.

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Chimney Lake

We arrived at camp around 4:00 and got the tent set up.  We decided to go without the rain fly for the night.  This is always my preference, but something we don’t get to do very often.  We were both hungry, so we made our dinner of top ramen with dehydrated veggies and chicken right away.  We did our chores and then spent the evening hours relaxing around camp with our books.

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campsite at Chimney Lake
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view of outlet from camp
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long view from camp
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great dining views from Evans’ Lakeside Kitchen

We actually managed to sleep in until about 5:00 Sunday morning—late for us.  Temperatures were very mild in the 40s.  We got up and had coffee and breakfast (oatmeal for me and dehydrated egg meal for Jason).  No one else was up yet and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of the lake after a moderately noisy evening the night before.  We could smell some smoke from area fires, but fortunately I was able to get some decent reflection shots along the lake.  We picked up camp and hit the trail at 7:45.

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dawn at camp
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morning reflections at Chimney Lake

We had a lovely hike out in the cool morning temperatures.  Conditions were smokier than the previous day.  It didn’t make hiking difficult, but it definitely cut out any long views.  On our way past Laverty Lakes, we noticed that no one had camped there.  I was glad to see Chimney Lake, but if we ever returned I think Laverty would be a much more peaceful place to camp.

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smoky August morning
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Laverty Lakes
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Directions to Bowman Trailhead:  From Enterprise, Oregon travel north on highway 82 to the small town of Lostine.  Just as you are entering Lostine, the highway curves hard to the right.  Take a left here onto the Lostine River Road.  Travel 12.2 miles on this 2-lane road and then another 2.9 miles along a gravel road.  Turn left into the well signed Bowman Trailhead parking lot.  This is a moderate sized parking lot with pit toilets available.  A Northwest Trail Pass is required.  (N45°17.6338 W117°23.6703’, elev 5,220’)

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at Chimney Lake before hiking out

14 Replies to “Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness: Chimney Lake Backpack, August 2015”

  1. Thank you for such a wonderful and detailed presentation! The pictures are spectacular!!! I am going to be hiking this exact area in August to help with volunteer trail work and your information has been most helpful. I, as an east coaster, am a bit concerned about the altitude. I’ll be sure to acclimate prior to the project date!

    1. Thank you Bonnie. The Eagle Cap is spectacular- I have no doubt you will enjoy your time there. Thank you for your time and work to help with the trails! I’d love it if you checked back in after your visit and let me know what trails you worked on 🙂

  2. I hiked into Chimney Lake in the late summer of 1958. Very different then, same beautiful scenery, but was the only one camped there. Spent two days soaking in the views and catching golden trout. There was a 35 fish daily limit, seemed high even for those days, but was because the lake was over populated and little feed was available. Fish were small and very skinny. Would love to go back but fear the ridge one climbs over may have “grown” since then. Larry

    1. Hello Larry- thank you for stopping by and for the nice comment. How fortunate to have seen that beautiful area and have it all to yourself!! I can’t even fathom a 35 fish daily limit! LOL, I know what you mean about the ridge “growing”, I bet the climb would feel even stiffer to me now than it did two years ago 🙂
      Kind regards,

  3. My husband and my 12 year old daughter are hiking this today. I can’t wait to hear all of the stories! It’s tradition to do a summer hike into a beautiful wilderness. Stay tuned for updates from a 12 year old perspective!

    1. Jean,
      Thanks for stopping by! I hope that your husband and daughter had a great hike to Chimney. I would love to hear what your daughter thought of the hike. As the crow flies, we weren’t to far away from them on Saturday. We were on the western side of the wilderness at Hidden Lake. The Eagle Cap never disappoints.
      Happy trails,

  4. Hey, thanks for the great information. I have backpacked many areas in the eagle caps but am unsure where that first picture on this web page is from. Curiously, is that from the eagle caps? The first picture below evans outdoor adventures. Would love to find out where that is so I can place it on my list to pack. Thank you kindly for your time.

    1. Hi Josh,
      Thanks for stopping by and for your nice comments. The homepage photo is of Alice Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. Great backpacking and day hiking if you’ve never been. The area has a similar feel to the Eagle Cap. The nearby White Cloud wilderness is also spectacular. As for the Eagle Cap- hard to beat. We’ve done two packs there this year that I still need to blog about and are headed up for a four day pack next week if all this smoke can clear out of the area.
      Happy trails,

  5. thanks for posting this…i am thinkig in doing it this year…i was close in the 2001…Steamboat.Swamp.Long…Maxwell lakes…awesome places..wonderfull people i met either…you are lucky for having those places, been in different places in the wallowas…Hidden Lake.Dyamond lake.Sacajawea.Crater Lake…….such a awesome places…take good care of them….Iñigo from the Basque Country

    1. Thank you for sharing your adventures Inigo. Yes, we are very lucky to have such beautiful places so close to home! If you visit again this year, there are several lakes above Chimney Lake that we haven’t see yet. I think they would be worth the extra miles.
      Happy Trails,

  6. I found some slides I took of Laverty Lakes and Chimney Lake taken in June 1969. We had the lake to ourselves as I recall and we caught enough trout to feast upon for dinner and breakfast. The area was still covered in a lot of snow that year and in fact it snowed on us on the first morning. I worked for the USFS as an inventory forester and the weekends were spent hiking the Eagle Caps and Strawberry Mountains. Those summers were magical as a young man with the freedom to go anywhere in the wilderness. No passes were required back then and we rarely saw anyone else on our hikes. Your photos are much better quality than mine are. Thank you for your pictures and commentary. Brings back fond memories.

    1. Hi Jim,
      Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories with us! You were very fortunate to explore the Eagle Cap with few other people. It is a very busy place these days! We have yet to explore the Strawberry Mountains, but they are on our list of places to see. Do you have favorite trails/destinations you could recommend?
      Happy Trails,

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