High & Wild in Eastern Oregon

Eagle Cap: Into the Mountains
By Joy Cordell
  |  Gorp.com
Facts & Figures: The Wallowa Mountains

The Wallowa Mountains, most of which are comprised by the 580 square miles of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, extend 60 by 30 miles and contain 17 peaks over 9,000 feet high, including 9,838 Sacajawea Peak, sixth highest in Oregon. Although this part of Oregon has a fairly dry climate, the mountains receive significant snowfall in winter and some trails do not open until July. Expect to see evidence of a complex geological history, and four life zones with vegetation ranging from dry sage to alpine tundra. Wildlife includes plentiful elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, black bear, cougars, bighorn (Dall) sheep and mountain sheep. Smaller animals include coyotes, pikas, red diggers (ground squirrels), golden eagles, and grouse.

In terms of human history, the Nez Perce tribe occupied this area for thousands of years; outside contact came first from the Lewis and Clark expedition, trappers and fur traders, then cattlemen, miners, farmers, and merchants. The settlement pressure led to the Nez Perce War of 1877, after which the tribe was scattered to various reservations.

A recent movement toward reconciliation and bringing back a Nez Perce presence to the area has resulted in an annual festival — the Tamkaliks ("From Where you Can See the Mountains") Celebration — at a 160-acre site now owned by the Wallowa Tribe. The event features a symbolic Return to the Homeland on Horseback procession, social and contest dancing, and a friendship feast popular with the local community. It also raises money to carry out the long-term plans of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Interpretive Center Coalition, including a ceremonial bath house, a cultural center, and a long house. You can visit Chief Joseph's grave between the south end of Joseph and Wallowa Lake.

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It's difficult to see the magnitude of the Wallowa Mountains from the valley floor. You have to hike up into the wilderness, or take the Wallowa Lake Tramway gondola from the lake to the summit of Mount Howard (8,150 ft.). You can access three main trails — the Chief Joseph, Aneroid Lake, and West Fork — to hike into the Eagle Cap from the lower lake area. We chose instead to ride the gondola and do our hiking/trail running/viewing workout at 8,000-plus elevation. The four-person gondola costs about $15 per person and takes 15 minutes to get to the top. You can expect deli food and lattes on top, fearless (and fat) chipmunks and ground squirrels (please buy the bags of chipmunk food) and occasional shy deer as you venture out on the paths. The tram operates from late May through September, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Visitors of various physical abilities will find two miles of gentle paths on top with viewpoints not only into the Eagle Cap but also across Wallowa Lake into rangeland and over the Hells Canyon Recreational Area to the Seven Devils Peaks in Idaho.

We followed an unmarked but well-used trail south along the ridge, through meadows, alpine forest, tundra, and a final rock scramble to East Peak, at more than 9,000 feet. The view included 9,838-foot Sacajawea Peak and the 9,826-foot Matterhorn; McCully Basin to the east; and snowfields, meadows, high lakes, and stunning wild-water — either mile-long rushing waterfalls or Class VI rapids, we couldn't decide which. The hike was great preparation — mentally and physically — for the three-day trip we would embark on the next morning.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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