The Oregon Wallowas Part II – Getting High & Wild
I never pass up an opportunity to get high and wild, and here in the Oregon Wallowas there’s no end of that kind of stuff going on. It’s the kind of place where both of these are right around the corner, in your backyard, practically everywhere you look. Step out of your RV and you’re immersed in it, walk a few miles and you’ll be right in the midst of it. I’m talking about mountains & wilderness of course (what else?) and a big reason for their nearness is that NE Oregon is REMOTE and CRAZY WILD with much of it protected and no way to get into it other than by foot. If there ever was a place that spoke to the very essence of me, this is it.
To appreciate exactly what I’m talking about here it’s best to set to scene.
The NE corner of Oregon rises from a high desert valley to a stunning 60-mile mountain range known as the Wallowas. This is the largest subalpine/alpine range in Oregon and it encompasses no less than 31 peaks higher than 9,000 feet. At the very core of this mountain wonderland lies the 361,446 acre Eagle Cap Wilderness wherein hide the very highest of granite peaks and the very densest concentration of pristine alpine lakes. To the north the mountains give way to grassy prairies which are chock-full of wildflowers in early Summer. To the east they plunge into an impassable and impossibly deep canyon. There are only the vaguest sprinklings of roads out here and none at all that enter the Eagle Cap area, so if you want to explore you’ve either got to drive rough passages or get out the hiking poles and go by foot.
It’s been called America’s Little Switzerland, Oregon’s Alps, the Yosemite of the North and many other fetching names, but the only way to really experience it is to see it for yourself. This is an undiscovered beauty, wild and free.
I knew only little about this area before we came, but when I first saw those snow-capped peaks I knew two things right away. I wanted to get up into those mountains and I wanted to frame them with wildflowers. The problem we faced was that many of the hikes here are MAJOR ones. This trails into the Eagle Cap Wilderness are notoriously long and all the lakes are 6-12 miles one-way with elevation gains of 1500-2500 feet or more. If we didn’t have the cats we’d ditch the RV & go backpacking which is really the way to see things here (there are just tons of spectacular 20-60-mile backpack trips that take you deep into the wilderness), but alas the kitties keep us home. We’re not “hard-core” day-hikers anymore either and prefer 5-8 mile hikes where we can take our time, wandering along, smelling the flowers & photographing. Not many of those around here. Thankfully there are a few “easy ass” options for folks just like us…..
Wallowa Lake Tramway
No doubt the easiest way to get high around here is the Wallowa Lake Tramway. This swiss-made Gondola runs from just east of Wallowa Lake State Park campground to the top of Mt.Howard at ~8,150 feet. It takes less than 15 mins to get to the top, costs $28/person and voilà….just like that you’re in the mountains. It’s all rather civilized too. At the summit they have a Grill where you can eat/drink and even surf the free WiFi. More interesting for folks like us is that they also have several miles of hiking trails (from 1-5 miles, with ability to connect/expand to just about any length you wish) that meander around the mountain offering spectacular view after spectacular view in every direction. It’s hands down one of the best 360-panoramas in the area.
It’s a pricey trip, but it’s worth doing once especially if you’re not able to hike into the wilderness itself. I also recommend getting the first tram of the morning (10AM in early season, 9AM in main season), since in the AM the sun is behind you as you face the mountains giving the best photography light of the peaks (plus you’ll have less people in the way). Good way to get high!
Bring Doggie? NO. No dogs allowed on the tramway, sadly.
Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site
Located on the north side of Wallowa Lake, this hidden little gem of a park is part of the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce Tribe, who have deep roots in this area and whose most famous chieftain (Chief Joseph) is the namesake for the local town. Short 1-5 mile trails from the parking lot take you through rolling grasslands chock-filled with wildflowers and backed by sweeping views of the Wallowa mountains. Plus you can take a short side-trip from here to see the Old Chief Joseph Gravesite and Cemetery. It’s by far the easiest, most scenic place to get your Spring/Summer wildflower fix and, at least from our experience, it seems practically nobody comes here(?)
Bring Doggie? YES! Dogs are welcome on all the trails around the Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Area
Wallowa Lake Trails
There are several trailheads near the state park campground at the south end of Lake Wallowa which will take you up and into the mountains. The Little Alps Day Use Area, located just ~1 mile from the state park is one of main entrances into the Eagle Cap Wilderness, and there are two main forks that take you deep into the mountains. From here you can hike as few or as many miles as you wish, all uphill of course.
We did the short 3-mile roundtrip hike to Upper BC Falls and also took a longer trail up part of Chief Joseph mountain. We *may* still do one of the longer hikes before we leave (if we can squeeze it in), but for now the shorter out/backs are good enough for us. You can get as high and far as your little legs will take you here 🙂
Bring Doggie? YES! Dogs are welcome on all the trails within the State Park and the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
It may be just a whole bunch of grass, but it’s one of the very few left of it’s kind. Zumwalt Prairie Preserve is a 33,000 acre wilderness containing the largest remaining intact Pacific Northwest bunchgrass prairie in North America. At one point pretty much everything around here looked like this, but agriculture and development stripped the land of its natural grasses. So, if you want to see the past in it’s wildest form this is where you come.
It takes about 40 mins of twisting, dusty road to get out here, but if you make the effort you’ll be rewarded with rolling green hills, white-tipped mountains and endless wildflowers (in the right season). Plus the preserve has several easy 1-4 mile hikes amongst the grasses.
We went early morning to catch the light and found our grassy nirvana on Horned Lark Trail. Paul likened the area to entering the Kingdom of Gondor, possibly inspired by the Lord Of The Rings marathon we’d watched the day before (yes, we’re those kind of people), and I have to admit he wasn’t far off. From our grassy perch we enjoyed a completely solo view of the rolling hills and the white mountains beyond, and spent an easy hour in the flowers contemplating all that was and all that is to be (or maybe we just played around, but the former sounds more poetic, no?). The only bummer? No doggies allowed on the trail. A deep thanks to all FOUR (!!) blog readers who suggested we come out here in the comments of my last post.
Bring Doggie? NO. Dogs are allowed on the main road, but no doggies allowed on the trails and if you want to get in amongst the grasses & wildflowers you’ll want to get on the trails.
That’s the sum total of the wild and high stuff we’ve managed so far in our first week here. But fear not, more is coming as we chase down brews and barns and (maybe) even go to Hell and back. Stay tuned for the next episode…
- Wallowa Mountain Hiking -> Info HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE
- Eagle Cap Wilderness -> Click HERE for info
- Wallowa Lake State Park -> Click HERE for info & HERE for my review
- Wallowa Lake Tramway -> Click HERE for info
- Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Area -> Click HERE for map (PDF)
- Zumwalt Prairie -> Click HERE for map (PDF)
- 100 Hikes / Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon
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