Wallowa River Loop
What’s the Point?
In a hypothetical college classroom—one where sounding Intellectual with a capital ‘i’ is beneficial (or at least you think it is at nineteen years of age), one at a liberal arts school like my alma mater (where We Teach You How To Think, Not What To Think)—if I was asked to describe the primary reason I enjoy hiking in the wilderness, I think I’d answer with something to the effect of, “The sense of being in a place.” I really, truly value the feeling of being removed from my day-to-day environments and being wholly in another, starkly different one. Not for “escape” or “therapy” or whatever, I mean I quite like my routine in Portland. Truthfully I’m not sure I could come back with a concise explanation/reasoning if you gave me a week. But there is without doubt a tremendous joy I get from the overwhelming presence of being in the mountains or woods or desert, alone or in a small group (I’ll get to this in a minute or two) and with little to do but wander around.
With so little going on in-brain the sensory experience can be next-level, and out of that comes said sense of being a place, of being totally cognizant and actively aware of your surroundings, and that’s cool.
Arriving at Wallowa Lake about two and a half hours late for reasons I won’t bore you with was pretty shitty punctuality, even for me, so I took off up the East Fork Wallowa River as soon as I could. In response to the delay, I hiked well above my normal pace in order to at least reach Aneroid Lake (Jewett Lake was my planned camp), which I arrived at just as the last ambient light from behind the valley walls faded away for the night. Already my concerns about smoke from the various fires burning across Oregon were proving to be well-founded, but I hoped for the best moving forward. Ate some Easy Mac, went to bed.
Looking back down the valley, with Aneroid Mountain in the distance (Just to the left Jewett Lake sits perhaps fifty feet below—don’t let my failure to get a good photo mislead you, I was sorry to have missed it the first night. It’s definitely nicer than Aneroid Lake), I reached Tenderfoot Pass quickly. The scenery here called to mind the Rockies of Colorado more than anything else, but the red-brown rock and conical shape of Aneroid stood out as especially interesting.
Across the pass lay a whole mess of undulating meadows, and after spooking some elk in a stand of trees I had the pleasure of seeing them charge across one of the openings. The trail is easy as it hugs the slope and winds over to the final few hundred feet of climbing to Polaris Pass.
Ascending this side of Polaris Pass is a cinch, the well-maintained trail efficiently moves up the slope and had me on top in a jiffy. My fears about the smoke were confirmed at the top, unfortunately; haze was settled basically everywhere. Still a more than magnificent view in every direction, in no small part due to the crazy variation in geology. Despite getting an A in Geology 114 (shoutout to Prof. Safran, one of the best at Lewis & Clark), my knowledge of the science lies somewhere just above “useless” and I’m not likely to sit here and research at 11:23 PM on a Wednesday a month and a half after the fact—but I do know that everything looked different, and I think that means everything is different.
Took a few selfies, too.
<Insert Cliché Like ‘It’s Not All Sunshine and Rainbows’ Here>
Earlier I talked about how I enjoy the sense of place while hiking. Needless to say that goes for the good and the bad, and by bad I don’t mean a “Type II Fun” kind of a way, I mean that in a “Why does the trail down from Polaris Pass descend 2000 feet via approximately 305 infuriatingly shallow switchbacks?” way. I’m pleased as punch that I didn’t go up this side, but still, I mean it really sucks. It’s boring and takes forever and yadda yadda yadda.
Taking the good with the bad increases that overall awareness in one’s state of mind though, and despite the frustrating suck in the moment, I’m still glad to be there and feeling present. And I’m sure somebody’s uncle once told them that the trail builds character. Or something. And in reality it was like at worst a whole hour of my life, and it was still better than like, weeding. Plus the stroll up the West Fork Wallowa River valley towards the Frazier lakes was pretty cool.
I poked around the upper section of Frazier Lake for a bit (not much to see honestly), then hit the climb up to Glacier Lake. It was a touch warm but man, what a splendid trail, looking down at the upper reaches of the West Fork from the east before cresting right at Glacier Lake’s waterfall-for-an-outlet. Glacier Lake itself is beyond outstanding and above reproach; I’d put it up there with just about any lake I’ve seen in the Sierra or wherever.
In terms of shit I don’t like out in the woods, crowds are pretty near the top of the list. Somewhat surprisingly to that point, given my understanding of the Wallowas’ popularity (especially from the trailhead at Wallowa Lake), I’d seen no more than two pairs of other folks. That luck came screeching to a halt at Glacier Lake though, where I found at least four or five groups camped along the trailside of the lake. I picked my way around the lake opposite the trail leading to Glacier Pass and, with the wind already picking up, found a quiet place to camp in one of the few well-protected spots available.
Then the sun started setting through the smoke and things got weird. I put a couple Snickers and a bunch of peanut butter in a tortilla for dinner. And by weird I mean the world look like it was having a graphical error, the colors weren’t right, the luminosity wasn’t right, I was in a science fiction movie.
Hits & Misses
Among the myriad of factors that affect my perception of a hike, visuals rank higher than the rest. Spectacular sunset notwithstanding, the smoke I found from Oregon’s myriad of fires sucked the life out of the Wallowas’ views. The next morning I was planning on hopping over Glacier Pass and heading up to the summit of Eagle Cap before moseying down to the Lake Basin for a final night of camping. I was up, over and down the pass in no time, but by the time I hit the valley floor I was no longer looking at the smoke—I was in it. I had hopes it would clear up a bit, but by the time I made it up to below Horton Pass I could barely see Matterhorn just four miles away, and it was no better in the other direction. It was nasty enough I just punted the summit and headed back down and was cruising through Lake Basin by lunchtime. I can’t say the area really blew me away, unfortunately. The trails were nasty, soft and sandy, I was coming across another person/group every fifteen minutes, and the scenery just didn’t blow me away (I found Moccasin and Mirror Lake across the way to be prettier). But I knew Unit Lake was a bit off the beaten path and might offer a bit of seclusion (less than half of the folks I crossed paths with even knew of it), so I made my way there.
I try to “get something” out of every trip I do. The most obvious and favoritest takeaways are scenery and some peace and quiet, neither of which were in excess (not that it wasn’t beautiful… but it was hard to not be disappointed with the circumstance). As I plowed through Lake Basin I tried to figure out how to get the most out of the remaining miles.
Unit Lake clearly doesn’t get a lot of love. The trail can’t have been maintained very recently as it’s covered in blowdown from start to “finish” (it basically just peters out). That said, the track is still there in bits and pieces and the most efficient route is fairly obvious; with a little bit of effort you find yourself at a phenomenal lake. There is one campsite right at the base of the trail on the north end of the lake, and a few other spots will reveal themselves as you make your way off-trail(ish) around, above and eventually along the east shore.
What’s the Point, II.?
My favorite part of backpacking is hiking. I do like spending a bit of time in camp—I’m not a dawn till dusk kind of a guy—but I prefer spending most of the day moving. I’ll leave the waxing on that subject for another day, and just focus on the fact that as I arrived at the south end of Unit Lake it was just past four and with several hours yet of smoke-filtered sunlight, I wanted to keep hiking. So, I did.
I worked my way cross-country around the ridge that hides Unit Lake and joined the trail that connects Lake Basin to the West Fork. It was around here that I had mostly cemented the idea that I would just push all the way out in one day. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of spending another night and day in the haze, and since the bulk of the miles left were relatively standard (but of high quality!) river/woods walking, there wasn’t a strong urge to draw them out over another day. And pushing for the parking lot would give me a really worthwhile takeaway: further feeling out a really long day on the feet.
So I walked the last miles out, making it to the parking lot with a bit of muted, gray luminescence to spare and about 20 mi / 2000 ft up / 5500 ft down to my name over the last twelve hours. With all of the descending and not a ton of trail miles this year my feet were cooked, but I had plenty of mustard left in the legs. It was pretty darn fun.
I slept in the back of my car at a rest stop outside Pendleton, then woke up early and enjoyed one of the most beautiful drives in the world with a clear sunrise behind me and a fresh summer rain ahead.