We hiked in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and were absolutely astounded at how beautiful it is! We had not heard much about the Eagle Cap Wilderness or Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and could not believe how nice this area is. Read further to find all the information you need to hike in Eagle Cap Wilderness and Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
About the Eagle Cap Wilderness
Eagle Cap Wilderness was designated a wilderness in 1940 and is currently Oregon’s largest wilderness area. The first known humans to access the area that is today the Eagle Cap Wilderness were ancestors of the Nez Perce tribe in the 1400’s. Many different animals thrive in the Eagle Cap Wilderness including moose, wolves, and bighorn sheep. More than sixty alpine lakes dot the wilderness within the Wallowa Mountain range.
Where is Eagle Cap Wilderness?
The Eagle Cap Wilderness is located in northeast Oregon, within the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
The closest town to the main access point of Eagle Cap Wilderness is Joseph, Oregon. To truly access Eagle Cap Wilderness, you must hike into the wilderness.
Spokane, Washington to Eagle Cap Wilderness: 200 miles, 4 hours
Portland, Oregon to Eagle Cap Wilderness: 330 miles, 5.5 hours
Boise, Idaho to Eagle Cap Wilderness: 240 miles, 4 hours
Popular Trails in the Eagle Cap Wilderness
Ice Lake Trail
15.6 miles, 3,400 feet elevation gain
19.8 miles, 5,500 feet elevation gain
13.4 miles, 5,019 feet elevation gain
12.7 miles, 3,000 feet elevation gain
Hurricane Creek Trail
19.1 miles, 2,900 feet elevation gain
Our Experience of the Ice Lake Trail
The ascent to Ice Lake
The Ice Lake Trail begins from the Little Alps Picnic Area. At the trailhead, you can register for a self-service wilderness permit that you will attach to your backpack. (side note: our permit was checked on the trail by rangers, so definitely don’t skip getting a permit). Follow the signs for West Fork Trail when you come to some intersections early on in the trail.
For the first few miles of the trail, you will follow the West Fork Wallowa River for some time until you come to a wide log with a wooden railing for the main river crossing of the trail. Prior to the river crossing, the trail is relatively flat.
After the river crossing, the trail will become steeper with more switchbacks and elevation gain. The trail is gorgeous, weaving through wildflower meadows and past water tumbling down the side of the mountain.
There are three main sets of switchbacks up to ice lake. The first set has five switchbacks. The second set has 14 switchbacks. The third set has twelve switchbacks. The first and second sets of switchbacks are more in the forest.
Within the second set of switchbacks, you will pass a gorgeous waterfall to your left. After the second set of switchbacks you will reach a flat meadow with good views of Craig Mountain to the left. The last set of switchbacks was the hardest and will likely still have snow if hiking early in the season.
The top of the last set of switchbacks was definitely the most dangerous section on our hike, as snow covered the trails, and would have you plummet down the mountain if you happened to slip.
Even though we hiked the Ice Lake Trail in late June, around half of the switchbacks were covered in deep snow. Luckily, we could see footprints of people that had gone before us to help keep the trail. After you reach the last switchback, there will be a short flat section before you are able to see the lake. You can’t miss the lake, as the trail comes right up to the edge of the lake and skirts it all the way around.
Ice Lake is absolutely gorgeous and even though it was partially covered in ice when we visited, the lake water was crystal clear blue. We walked around part of the lake until we reached where the trail was covered in huge amounts of snow. We sat and had a picnic lunch along the lake, admiring the beautiful colors and reflection of the mountains.
Storm clouds began rolling in over the mountain peaks quickly, so we decided to descend to avoid getting soaked in a thunderstorm.
Descending from Ice Lake
Descend the way that you ascend. Even though this is an out and back trail, you get different views on the way back since you’re facing a different way. Soak in all the views as you head back to the trailhead.
Tips for Hiking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness
Be prepared for everything
Eagle Cap Wilderness is remote and depending on the trail you take and the time of year, you may not see anyone else on your trail. If you get hurt, run out of water, or become lost, you could be in a lot of danger and far from anyone that might be able to help you.
Have a plan for possible things that could go wrong, and be prepared to avoid bad situations. This is not to scare you, but to help you have the best time possible by avoiding negative situations!
Be aware of the weather
The weather can change very rapidly as in any mountainous area. The higher up into the mountains you ascend, the more temperamental the weather can be. Check the weather before you start your hike and be aware of weather changes as you hike.
Realize that the hikes are long
Most hikes into the Eagle Cap Wilderness are extremely long. There are few hikes that are doable in a single day (and those hikes are long for a day hike). Most of the hikes in the Eagle Cap Wilderness require backpacking one or more nights in order to complete the trail. With this in mind, completing hikes in the Eagle Cap Wilderness requires having good physical fitness.
Commonly Asked Questions
Do you need a permit to hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness?
You must have a permit to hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. However, the permits to hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness are self-issued at the trailhead. There is no limit to permits (as other parks have daily limits of wilderness permits to issue).
Before starting your hike, fill out a permit at the trailhead and follow the instructions to leave one portion in the wooden box there and put one portion on your backpack. The purpose of these permits are for your safety and for monitoring how many people visit the area.
Are there bears in the Eagle Cap Wilderness?
There have been reports of black bears living in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. However, it is not expected that you have bear spray with you on the hike. You will much more likely see mountain goats, deer, and small rodents on the hike.
Where can I camp in the Eagle Cap Wilderness?
Since it is a wilderness, there are no specific campgrounds within the wilderness. All camping here is backcountry camping. Follow current regulations on camping and campfires, which can be found at the trailhead and the wilderness permit you register for at the trailhead.
I hope you are able to visit this gorgeous part of Oregon sometime! Let me know if there’s anything I missed or if you have any questions!
Thanks for reading!