This three-day, 18-mile loop through the eastern portion of the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area delivers scenic lakes, craggy mountains, and epic viewpoints. It’s a perfect backpacking trip for the family.
The Eagle Cap Wilderness Area sits within the Wallowa National Forest and is best accessed from the quaint little town of Joseph, Oregon. The Eagle Caps are not as renowned as the Cascades to the west, but they’re more intimate and provide scenery that’s every bit as impressive. There are a number of trips you could plan, but this three-day trip climbs into scenic lakes with craggy mountains and delivers some fantastic viewpoints.
Day 1: Wallowa Lake to Aneroid Lake
The six miles to Aneroid Lake is challenging but totally worth the effort. There’s waterfalls, a beautiful stream, and a stunning high mountain lake surrounded by jagged peaks.
From the trailhead, take the East Fork Trail #1804 a short distance to the scenic overlook along the East Fork of the Wallowa River and peer across to the impressive waterfall cascading down a narrow, rocky canyon. Now tighten those hip belts, you’ll spend the next few hours climbing into the high country. You know what they say, “big effort, big reward.”
During the first couple miles, you’ll enjoy some “peek-a-boo” views of Wallowa Lake, which offers some evidence for the kids they’re actually making progress. Take advantage of the stream crossings to grab a snack and top-off those water bottles. The cold water will taste great.
At just about five miles, you’ll encounter Roger Lake. There is a campsite visible from the trail with views of the lake. After the effort you just put in, your kids might be tempted to their drop your packs and set up the tent at the first campsite they lay eyes on. But press on a few more minutes to very scenic Aneroid Lake.
When you arrive at Aneroid Lake, you’ll be perched high on a rocky bank where the trail splits. The main trail moves left toward the inlet where several nice campsites are situated along the bank. If you have a larger party, these campsites are ideal. They offer easy access to the water and great views. The spur trail leading right meanders along the high bank with smaller campsites tucked into the rocks. The views from these campsites are fantastic, but access to the lake can be difficult. The “primo” spot is about halfway along this spur trail toward the outlet on a little jet of land that pokes out into the lake. There is also a good spot on the other side of the lake, which offers great privacy but requires some additional time and effort to reach.
After you set up camp, consider taking a swim or hiking around the lake, there’s plenty to explore. In the early afternoon, head over to the outlet and cook dinner along the shore. It’s a perfect location to watch sunset over the lake.
2: Aneroid Lake to Frazier Lake
The six miles from Aneroid Lake to Frazier Lake is freakin’ awesome! You’ll enjoy long ridgeline walks above treeline, fields of wildflowers (depending on the season), and gorgeous summits with big views in every direction. Oh, and switchbacks…lots and lots of switchbacks.
From Aneroid Lake, continue following East Fork Trail #1804 and begin the steady climb into those beautiful mountains you’ve been photographing in the distance. The banks of the East Fork of the Wallowa River has lush green vegetation and you’ll enjoy expanding mountain views as you approach tree line. You’ll want to stop frequently to snap pictures, at least that’s what I tell the kids when I need to catch my breath.
You’ll soon leave the river and follow a series of long switchbacks to a saddle near Pete’s Point. This is the last reliable water source until you descend into the West Fork of the Wallowa River, so carry plenty of water. The views along this section are insane looking back toward Aneroid Mountain. As you approach the saddle, find the spur trail leading north and drop your packs. Take the well-defined trail a short distance for outstanding views of Tenderfoot Pass and the surrounding granite rock formations.
Back on the trail, head for the saddle and get rewarded with still better views looking toward Sentinel Peak. Now continue a short distance to the junction with Polaris Trail #9831. This section meanders through beautiful meadows and traverses a hillside offering eye-popping vistas. If you’re here in early summer, the views are accentuated by purple wildflowers that blanket the hillside.
The trail climbs steadily over a series of switchbacks leading to a rocky ridgeline where you’ll be treated to a panorama of the Eagle Caps. This is the high point for the trip, both literally and figuratively. Plan to drop the packs and snap a few pictures with your best victory pose, you’ve earned it.
The descent from the ridgeline can be intimidating for kids (and adults). The trail is steep with an entire hillside of loose shale. Take it slow and they’ll gain confidence moving across this terrain. The seemingly endless number of switchbacks zig-zag across the hillside dropping several thousand vertical feet to the valley floor. There is water available at several points along the trail, but getting water may require some off-trail travel to access.
At the trail junction, turn left along the West Fork Trail #1820 toward Frazier Lake. If you have the energy, continue another mile to little Frazier Lake, which offers more privacy and amazing scenery.
Day 3 Frazier Lake to Wallowa Lake
The six-miles from Frazier Lake to Wallowa Lake moves through dense forest before descending into a steep canyon with cascading waterfalls.
From Frazier Lake, retrace your steps from the day before until you reach the junction with Polaris Trail #1831. From here, continue following the West Fork Trail #1820 as you move through dense forest. This section is somewhat unimpressive with no views or access to the river. I used this time to tell stories to the kids and we daydreamed about the burgers we’d eventually eat for lunch in Joseph.
From here, the trail drops steadily and the canyon walls begin to draw closer. The sounds of rushing water fill the air and slight openings in the canopy revealed dramatic views of cascading waterfalls. Continue descending until you reach the junction with Chief Joseph trail. Turn right and return to the trailhead at Wallowa Lake. Now do your celebratory dance in the parking lot because this was a kick-ass trip.
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