I have to admit, the credit of dreaming up this route entirely goes to Kyle McCrohan; that said, this route is pretty amazing. Last year Kyle had thrown around the idea of visiting the Wallowa range on our way back from the Wind River Range, but the plans fell through and we earmarked it for a later trip.
A warm spell in the Cascades, coupled with a long weekend, had us looking for high routes, and naturally Kyle threw back out the idea of the Wallowas. He had drawn up a route that traversed high along ridgelines in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, from Wallowa Lake to Mount Howard to Aneroid Mountain, then across to Eagle Cap, and finally across the Hurwal Divide. For many reasons, the route struck me as having incredibly high potential.
- The logistics were extremely simple. No advance permits needed. Within driving distance from Seattle. No technical equipment required.
- Minimal bushwhacking. On the first day we would need to ascend up to the ridgelines through some brush, but other than that the route either was in the high country or along trails.
- A new range to explore! Ever since moving out to the PNW I have realized that my knowledge of the mountain west is lacking, compared to Kyle at least.
I was sold. Kyle, Steve, and I drove down on a Friday afternoon on a long 4th of July weekend. Most of the snow had melted out in the range, so we didn’t anticipate much, if any, snow travel. We could leave the ice axes, and skis (LOL) at home. No technical rock to deal with meant no need for ropes or harnesses or helmets. Just fast-packing.
We made the long drive down to the Wallowa Lake Trailhead from Seattle on Friday after all of us had finished work for the day. We rolled in after dark; as we were getting out our things for the night, Steve unearthed a funny “oops”…
As he was getting out the tent, he realized he had packed the 1 person tent he had at home, not the 3 person version. Both were Nemo tents with identical color stuff sacks (I think…or hope at least), but the 1 person had managed to find its way down to Oregon with us. OH NO…it was going to be a “sleep with your bug head net on” kind of trip for Kyle and I. HA! Kyle and I laughed it off (sort of), and I laid down my sleeping pad right next to the sidewalk. I am SURE I looked like a total bum, so I really wish I had a few photos of me, sleeping on the ground next to cars in a parking lot. It would have been quite the sight. Oh well…you’ll just have to imagine.
Day 1: Wallowa Lake Trailhead to Dollar Lake via Mt. Howard-East Peak-Aneroid Mountain ridgeline
We got started early in the day, as we had a hot climb up to the ridgeline between Mt. Howard and Aneroid Mountain. We would take the East Fork Wallowa trail for a few miles, before heading NE up a drainage towards Mt. Howard, where we would gain the ridgeline and go off trail the rest of the day. We hoped it wouldn’t be too much bushwhacking, and based on the satellite imagery it didn’t seem like it would.
Well…we were quite wrong. We turned off the trail at a dam with an old cabin, and from there the steep climb through brush began. The rock was LOOSE; scree, dirt, and thick desert shrubs remained until we finally hit ridgeline around 7,400′.
At around 7,400′ we traversed over to a creek which drained from the upper slopes of Mt. Howard. We knew this would likely be our last reliable water source for the day. From then on, we’d be riding the ridgeline all the way over East Peak and the Aneroid massif towards Dollar Lake, where we intended to camp. There were surprisingly many springs and water sources trickling out of the mountain; this range was quite lush!
We took a break atop Mt. Howard, where we intersected the top of the gondola; there were many day hikers that were utterly confused where we had come from. Uhhhh…yeah, we hiked up from Wallowa Lake. There were use trails that continued from Mt. Howard towards East Peak; overall, the ridgeline was incredibly simple, straightforward, and pure fun. With a good breeze to keep us cool, we were all smiles.
We were pretty amazed at the bio-diversity along the ridgeline; Steve found pockets of copper, there were tons of iron-rich rocks, and there were basalt columns. NEAT!
Within 8 hours of hiking we had reached Dollar Lake, a beautiful spot tucked underneath Dollar Lake Peak that provided both shade and wind shelter. We opted to stop for the night and found a spot underneath a small pocket of trees. There were other hikers that had already made camp, but plenty of space to spread out. We took a dip in the lake, which was pleasantly warm (as compared to normal ice cold alpine lakes)!
We readied ourselves for sunset, getting cameras prepared. It was going to be an absolute gem. We could tell the clouds were rolling in perfectly and the sun was beginning to fall low into the sky, creating gentle light. Mmmmm…
The light was so pure, so good, that I felt like it was hard to take a BAD photo.
As the light show came to a close, we headed back to our camp…tentless. LOL. Kyle and I donned our mosquito head nuts amidst the buzzing of bugs around us; we weren’t too irked that Steve had a 1 person tent for himself. He promised us a good meal in town to compensate! For two nights I could manage some bugs for some free food!
Day 2: Dollar Lake to tarn beneath Matterhorn Peak
The bugs went away quickly after the sun set, so we managed to get a good night’s sleep. We rose just before sunrise around 5 AM, as we had a long day ahead of us. Our route would take us on trail for most of the day, on the Polaris Trail towards Polaris Pass, then down towards the valley below; from there, we would climb up to Eagle Cap, then descend down again into a different valley. Finally, we would climb up to Razz Lake and then up over what we called “Razz Pass” towards Matterhorn Peak. It would be a long-ish day…20 miles or so and 6-7,000′ of climbing. But with most of the terrain being on trail, we felt we could make good time cruising out some rhythmic miles.
The only off-trail sections would be from Glacier Lakes up to Eagle Cap, then up to Razz Lakes and over to Matterhorn Peak. We pounded out morning miles, making a lunch stop at Glacier Lakes, which reminded us a lot of the Enchantments in Washington. These lakes, though, weren’t overrun with people, and we had them all to ourselves.
We found our hardest travel of the day to be the climb up to Eagle Cap. Rather than traverse on loose scree slopes, we opted to climb up a series of gully systems on the east ridge; Steve managed to climb up a steep, loose gully, while Kyle and I found a lower angle gully to climber’s left. Ultimately both were Class 4, whereas if we had opted for the scree slopes we could have stuck with Class 2.
We took a break on top of Eagle Cap and admired the wilderness around us. WOW…this range has so much to offer! Loose scree, expansive ridgelines, glacial valleys…a true BUFFET!
We were back on trail and cruising in the early afternoon, as the heat truly started to set in. My feet were starting to develop some hot spots, so we took a few breaks here and there to take off our shoes and fill up on water. We turned off of the main trail towards Razz Lake after Douglas Lake, only to find that the “trail” that was marked on Caltopo was hardly a trail, at least unmaintained. We bushwhacked a bit and climbed steeply up to the bench where Razz Lake sat.
Once we reached Razz Lake, Steve vocalized that he was tired and done for the day. He had been struggling with altitude-related headaches the entire trip, and he didn’t feel he could push any further. Kyle, Steve, and I sat on the lakeshore and discussed our options. Kyle and I wanted to push on and continue towards our intended camp beneath Matterhorn Peak for 2 reasons:
1. We wanted to complete the ridge traverse along Hurwal Divide the next day, and camping as close to the ridge would put us in a good position to get an early start on the ridge, which would have no water sources.
2. We felt that the bugs would be better up higher, away from treeline and the lakeshore. We didn’t have a tent, and camping amongst mosquitoes would be a poor night’s sleep.
The ridge on Razz Pass did look a bit tricky from down below; we were worried about the steep slopes on the other side of the pass, as well as navigating the steep and loose rock on the ridgeline. Ultimately, Kyle and I opted to continue on for the day and try and climb up Razz Pass; if we couldn’t find easy passage, we would turn around and descend back to the lake, where Steve was going to stay put. We would have inReach communication with Steve the entire time. Steve would spend the night at the lake and based on what we reported back to him, would either just hike back down and out, or climb up and over Razz Pass and then descend to Ice Lakes and out to the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. He would beat us to the car but we would meet back up midday.
This plan would give Kyle and I the opportunity to finish the trip we had planned for, since we still had the energy left in our legs. We made the 800′ climb up to Razz Pass, where we found a series of notches that gave us passage to the other side easily. Kyle opted for a low 5th class downclimb, whereas I found a Class 1 ramp just to climber’s right along the ridge. LOL!
Once we were past the ridge, we found a good boot ski down to the valley floor!
We turned left at the valley bottom before descending further to Ice Lakes, instead traversing benches to climb up to beneath Matterhorn Peak.
We thought about descending all the way down to Ice Lakes and taking the trail up towards Matterhorn Peak, but the mood of going off-trail really enticed us. It was late in the day and the light was softening; we walked through alpine meadows with golden light shining down on us. It was truly a special feeling.
From our camp we watched the sun set on Hurwal Divide, lighting up our path for the next day. We couldn’t wait for the 5 miles of ridgeline!
Day 3: Tarn beneath Matterhorn Peak to Chief Joseph Mountain via Hurwal Divide
The final day…best for last. The Hurwal Divide, a 5 mile long ridgeline extending from Matterhorn Peak all the way to Chief Joseph Mountain. Such a striking feature! We grabbed water at the tarn before climbing up to Matterhorn, knowing there wouldn’t be any water sources throughout the day. On our climb up the granite slabs we spotted a family of mountain goats, basking in the morning light.
We topped out on Matterhorn just in time for sunrise; the lighting was amazing. We began our ride along the ridge with the sun poking its head just above the skyline.
The skyline of Hurwal Divide mapped out our path; only one way to go! For the most part, the travel was all Class 2, with a few Class 3 moves for a short section near what is called the “Bell Tower.” The rock was surprisingly stable, chunks of hard scree that were large enough to have some semblance of stability.
The ridges of Hurwal Divide just never ended! It was so aesthetic to be able to look forwards and backwards at where we had been and where we were going.
We made good time along the ridgeline; we started the day at 4:30 AM, and by 9:30 AM we had made it to the summit of Chief Joseph Mountain. Now to go down! We descended the ridgeline of Chief Joseph all the way to the SW until we reached treeline, from where we then turned north down the slope and began scree boot skiing. Once we reached the treeline below we found old trail that took us to the Chief Joseph Trail.
We opted to take a spur trail that headed down to the marina parking lot, rather than follow the Chief Joseph Trail all the way back to the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. We were ready to be done. Our knees hurt a bit more, since the trail was much steeper on the way down than the flat, horse-graded descent, but we were done much faster.
- At the time we went, there were tons of springs and water sources along the ridgeline between Mt. Howard and Aneroid Mountain. We were surprised at how lush the range was. We only saw a few places were burns were evident, but other than that it was oddly green for Oregon.
- Other than a few moves on Hurwal Divide and the unnecessary section on the ridge to Eagle Cap, the route was entirely Class 1, or 2. It certainly was a good mix of on and off trail.
- We felt that the loop we did was a good mix of alpine ridges, lakes, some bushwhacking, and trail miles. The variety was pretty world-class. We had a hard time thinking of a more “bang for your buck” kind of route.
- At the time of year we went, snow travel equipment like microspikes, ice axe, etc. were not necessary. Earlier in the season the snow coverage would certainly be more full. Just make sure to check satellite imagery before you head out.
- The descent off of Chief Joseph is best done as far down the ridgeline as possible. There are a few cairns that are “red herrings” further up the ridgeline, but they appeared steeper than the way we went.
- Be prepared for mosquitoes; we got lucky in that the nights we slept there was a slight breeze. Don’t forget a tent/bug net.
- The logistics of the trip are amazingly simple: no parking pass is required, you can self-issue permits at the trailhead, and you aren’t required to have any particular food carry system like a bear can. Please be respectful of camping regulations in terms of fire bans and distance from water sources. They are listed on the self-issue permit. We did encounter a party that was having an illegal fire, which irked us a bit.