Backpacking the Wallowa Mountains

By Jake Mitchell

© 2023 by Wild M Brands, LLC.  All rights reserved.

There is something exhilarating about donning a backpack, lacing up the boots, and immersing deep into nature.  In a world free from cellphones, tablets, laptops, or TV, the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon offer a unique and unforgettable journey for both seasoned backpackers and those embarking on their first adventure. This awe-inspiring experience promises to leave an indelible mark on your soul.

Day 1: Immersed in Natures Abundance

Few things are as daunting and invigorating as that first step onto the trail to begin the journey, leaving the comforts of modern life behind. The absence of easily accessible clean water, comfortable beds, roofs, and toilets may initially elicit a longing for those conveniences. However, as you pause, take a breath, and look around, the absence of highway noise and cityscape becomes a profound presence. Surrounded by a breathtaking tapestry of wildflowers, meadows, and mountains, each step inviting in the fresh, crisp mountain air. The melody of babbling streams from the glaciers fills you with a deep sense of tranquility. In this symphony of nature, you come alive.

As you journey further into the mountains and wilderness the day progresses. After covering 10 miles, you stop for lunch and at mile 13 you stop for a snack. As daylight fades you need to begin to consider the selection of a suitable campsite. While your plan may have been laid out in advance, looking at a map and physically being in the wilderness present two distinct experiences. As twilight approaches, you find yourself at the ideal spot – a slightly off-trail location, flat, and near Mirror Lake. At this point, it is a race to get your tent set up before it gets too dark. Although it is helpful with a partner there are still challenges that present themselves. Utilizing a low-light flashlight is key in the early night hours. Enough illumination to stake your tent, secure your rain fly, organize your gear, and navigate your campsite without disturbing wildlife or compromising your night vision for star gazing for a great cap to end the first day of backpacking.

Mirror Lake

Day 2: Nearing Eagle Cap Summit

Rarely does the day commence with first light, yet it is almost impossible to not awake with the sun.  As you exit the tent, you’re greeted by crisp mountain air accompanied by a thin layer of fog that hovers over the lake and between the trees. Beware of unexpected encounters, such as a mountain goat wandering into the campsite.  Keep an eye out for Mule Deer drinking from the lake.  Fuel up with breakfast and hit the trail early – it is a big day culminating in the summit of Eagle Cap Mountain at an elevation of 9,577 ft.  Although it is daytime, you may need to utilize a small task light to help repack your backpack for the day: Making sure it is packed with even weight distribution and not leaving anything behind.  Fill up Nalgene bottles at the nearest stream and place some water-purifying drops in the water to ensure purity and safety.  The summit will take about half the day, with the other half descending to look for the next campsite.

The beauty of the Wallowas is nothing short of breathtaking. As ascend irregular trails, the air thins with less oxygen, there are fewer trees and flowers, and even a remaining snowpack despite being July.

Nearing Summit of Eagle Cap

Encountering muscular mountain goat easing its way across the rugged terrain is a usual sight.  Approaching the summit, the trail is blanketed in snow, each step following the footprint of those who have preceded you.  With a focus on sure footing, you eventually reach level ground.  Looking upward, a wave of exhilaration washes over you – Eagle Cap conquered! The adrenaline surges and a sense of triumph fills your soul.  From the highest point in the National Park, you can survey the entire landscape.  Perched upon the mountain, the sight is truly awe-inspiring, leaving an indelible mark.  After capturing the moment with some photos, it is time to descend and camp for a second night. Despite the fatigue, setting camp, enjoying some mac n’ cheese and PB&J tortillas, another night of matchless stargazing await.

Eagle Cap Summit

Day 3: A Journey to Treasure 

The final day of backpacking proves to be the most challenging.  While a part of you longs to stay, another part feels weariness, painful blisters, and exhaustion. The beginning of the end starts with a steep incline, aptly named the “f*** you hill,” which takes about five minutes to defeat.  You might feel a sense of surrender once reaching the summit, but a breath of fresh air and a drink of water restore resolve to continue onward.  Taking one last gaze at the valley’s beauty, you revel in the harmonious display of wildflowers, butterflies, streams, meadows, trees, and lakes, which are all in harmony with each other, and you. Then you realized: We are just spectators, passing by, enjoying the beauty, each moment better than the next.

Descending Eagle Cap

Glacier Lake Overlook

As the journey winds down, the trail leads to where it began. Part of you is excited to be back to civilization, especially for a toilet, as you must dig a hole in the wilderness. The other part is saddened, as you may never see this area again.

Once returning to the parking lot and settling down, you reflect upon the past three days of backpacking.  The scenery, conquering Eagle Cap, and the vibrant wildlife will forever be etched into memory and provide an unparalleled experience for those willing to venture off the beaten path.

The Wallowas offer an adventure that is challenging and rewarding. The person you are when you take your first step on the trail is not the same one who takes the last step, concluding the journey.  From immersing in nature’s rich abundance, to summiting Eagle Cap and reflecting on the beauty that unfolds with each step, this journey captivates the senses and revives the soul.

So, if you are ready to embrace the wonders within the Wallowa Mountains and create memories to cherish for a lifetime, set aside the modern distractions and embark on a backpacking adventure like no other.

Wallowa Mountains : Climbing, Hiking & Mountaineering : SummitPost

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