Distance: 45 miles*
Elevation Gain: 11,000 feet*
High Point: 8850 feet
Stunning Alpine Lakes: 8+
Dog-friendly; open to horses and stock***
*Miles and elevation gain are approximate | **See below for alternate itineraries
HIGHLIGHTS: Some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Oregon; pristine alpine lake after lake after lake; scenic snowpeaks in every direction; fascinating geology; an endless show of wildflowers. This hike has it all!
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Can get pretty crowded, especially on weekends; lots of horses and lots of horse poop; thunderstorms are common in the summer, although typically brief; mosquitos in July; only a couple of minor river crossings that might involve getting your feet wet.
BEST TIME TO GO: The trails are usually open from July through October. Go in late July to August for ALL OF THE WILDFLOWERS, although expect company (shoot to hit the Lakes Basin mid-week to avoid the worst crowds).
TRAILHEAD: Wallowa Lake Trailhead. A very accessible, large parking lot located at the end of Powerhouse Rd on the south end of Wallowa Lake (the east side of the road is reserved for trucks and trailers). There is potable water, a public restroom, and a picnic area at the trailhead. Closest town is Joseph, about 6 miles to the north.
PERMITS: Northwest Forest Pass required to park at the trailhead. Wilderness permit required (free) – fill one out at the information board at the start of the trail.
Note: This is a long trip in the wilderness with a significant amount of climbing. You should be in decent shape and of course come prepared with your “10 Essentials.”
***Caution: The trail up and over Polaris Pass is not maintained regularly and, while doable, may be narrow and somewhat sketchy in places, especially the long descent via a steep scree field on the west side of the pass (not recommended for younger children/animals or when there is still snow cover). Check out the alternate itineraries below for another option that does not involve going over this pass.
[TRAIL MAP COMING SOON!]
Itinerary for this trip (See end of post for alternate itineraries):
- Day 1: Aneroid Lake
- Day 2: Frazier Lake via Polaris Pass
- Day 3: Horseshoe Lake via Glacier Pass and the Lakes Basin
- Day 4: Junction with Ice Lake Trail (or Ice Lake itself if you have the time and are feeling ambitious)
- Day 5: Ice Lake, then back out to trailhead
HOW TO HIKE IT:
Begin your hike at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. Fill out a wilderness permit at the signboard at the south end of the parking lot, then head uphill to the left on the East Fork Wallowa River Trail #1804, following signs to Aneroid Lake.
For the first couple of miles, you will steadily climb a series of switchbacks through a mostly shaded forest. You will pass a small waterfall and a dam and be treated to intermittent views of Wallowa Lake below and more open slopes colored with wildflowers as you climb higher. After about 4 miles, you will cross the stream on a footbridge. Then you continue to climb more gradually until the trail starts to level out at a lovely alpine meadow with a clearer view of nearby peaks and small stream flowing through it. Continue just a bit farther and you will reach Aneroid Lake on your right.
Aneroid Lake is large and very scenic, surrounded by mountains and patches of lupine. Don’t miss the view from the north shore of the lake, where there is also a nice beach. There are quaint, rustic, privately owned cabins on the south end of the lake and a large wildflower meadow just west of them.
You will gain approximately 3200 feet of elevation over about 6 miles on this first section of your hike, so this is a good place to camp on your first night. Campsites are located mainly on the east and north sides of the lake, and there are plenty of potential day hikes and opportunities to explore nearby.
Continue south on the trail from Aneroid Lake. You will ascend a few long switchbacks and then climb up through a lovely lush green valley with a stream rolling through it (fill up on water here if you need to as you won’t hit another reliable water source until you come down on the other side of Polaris Pass). Just after you cross the stream, you will reach a trail junction – continue straight here, following signs to Polaris Pass. Keep climbing for about another 1 1/2 miles – a small rock cairn and sign will signify that you’ve made it to the top of open and exposed Tenderfoot Pass, with views of rolling hills and distant peaks in every direction.
Bear right at the next trail junction onto Trail #1831 toward Polaris Pass. Continue southeast on the trail over spectacular wildflower-covered slopes with constant and consistently fantastic views of layer upon layer of mountains in the distance and scenic valleys below. This section of trail up to Polaris Pass is incredibly scenic but is only irregularly maintained and is mostly on steep, exposed slopes, so be aware that it may get a bit sketchy if the trail is washed out or still covered in snow in places. The trail turns into a series of switchbacks in the final climb to the top of Polaris Pass, which is the highest point you’ll traverse on your hike, at 8850 feet.
The view from Polaris Pass is unparalleled and indescribable, with most of the Wallowa range and the Lakes Basin laid out before you to the west. From the top of this ridge, the trail leads off faintly to the right across a steep scree field. Use caution on this section of trail as it is narrow, steep, and consists of exposed, loose rock. Carefully follow the switchbacks down the slope until you emerge at a lovely meadow. Soon after, the trail turns into a very long series of switchbacks on wildflower-covered slopes with views of creeks on either side.
After descending almost 2000 feet on countless switchbacks, you will cross over a small creek and start to head south. Just before a second creek crossing, you will reach a trail junction. Turn left here to follow the West Fork Wallowa River Trail #1820 to the south. You will follow the stream along its east bank through a very scenic valley strewn with a backdrop striking white cliffs.
After about a mile from the trail junction, you come to an icy, bridge-less stream crossing (you’ll have to get your feet wet here). Continue to follow the trail uphill for another mile until you finally reach shallow but scenic Frazier Lake on your left. There are some good camps on the north shore of Frazier Lake, which will be a welcome sight after this long but highly scenic day.
From Frazier Lake, the mostly exposed trail ascends quickly above the cascading West Fork Wallowa River through a gorgeous valley that will treat you to sweeping views and wildflowers throughout. After climbing just over 2 miles through this valley, the trail pops over the ridge onto the shores of breathtakingly beautiful Glacier Lake, with Glacier Peak to the southwest and Eagle Cap to the west. Take some time to explore this incredibly scenic, icy alpine lake before you continue on the trail to the north on the short but steep climb up to the top of Glacier Pass.
From Glacier Pass, the trail descends about 2 miles and 1200 feet down drier slopes laced with streams and dotted with wildflowers. When you finally enter the Lakes Basin, you will be treated to one pretty alpine lake after another, with numerous opportunities to take side trips and explore as you make your way through. However, expect company, as this is the most popular region you’ll pass through on your hike.
The first lake you’ll hit as you enter the Lakes Basin is lovely Moccasin Lake, which has some excellent rocks on the shore for jumping in. Consider also making the short side-trip to Mirror Lake to the west, which will only add about a mile to your hike.
From Moccasin Lake, turn right onto Trail #1810A, which follows the shore of Moccasin Lake to the northeast before turning north past Douglas Lake, with a potential short side trip to Crescent Lake. When you reach the trail junction, continue straight downhill on Trail #1821 following the sign to Lee Lake. Not long after passing by Lee Lake, you will see a couple of small lily-covered lakes on your left and, shortly after, come up on Horseshoe Lake to your right. While all of the lakes in the Lakes Basin have good places to set up camp nearby, the sites at Horseshoe Lake are both numerous and quite nice. Most of the campsites are on the west end of Horseshoe Lake, and this is a lovely place to spend a leisurely evening or morning or even just take a snack break while you dip your feet.
Continuing onto Trail #1810 from Horseshoe Lake, you will head southeast for a bit before you begin the long, dusty, forested descent down from the Lakes Basin. After about 3 miles, the trail will level out and come to a stream crossing just before Six Mile Meadow, which also has numerous good camps. From here, continue north as you gradually descend another 3 miles above the West Fork Wallowa River, until you reach the junction with the Ice Lake Trail #1808.
If you don’t have your heart set on camping up at Ice Lake, you can make the trek up a lot easier on yourself by camping here on the river and heading up to Ice Lake in the morning without all your gear. It’s certainly doable even with a heavy pack but it’s a long uphill slog without any easy water access and no good spots to camp on the way up, so make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to get up to the lake if you’re hiking this trail in the second half of the day.
The trail crosses over the river on a large and impressive footbridge, after which you begin the long climb up to Ice Lake. This trail is consistently steep and somewhat tedious, but redeems itself with plentiful wildflowers along the way, a good look at a waterfall on Adams Creek, and views that keep improving the higher you climb. And when you finally reach the top, Ice Lake is a reward that is well worth the effort, situated in a large basin underneath the two tallest peaks in all of the Wallowas. Spend some time here soaking up the views, cooling tired muscles in the icy water, or exploring the trail around the lake.
If you’re ever ready to leave, go back down the trail the same way you came, all the way down to the river. From the trail junction on the other side of the river, take a left on the West Fork Wallowa River Trail #1820 for the easy, approximately 3-mile descent back to your car at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead.
*Cut out 14 miles and most of the really tough climbing by saving Aneroid Lake for another day and coming out and back on the West Fork Wallowa River Trail. You can still make this a loop by taking the trail south from Six Mile Meadow directly to Frazier Lake and continuing on as described. This option avoids the sketchier sections around Polaris Pass.
*Need to cut out yet another day of hiking? Ice Lake is another one you could come back to as a day trip. Skipping it would save you over 10 miles and another big chunk of climbing.
*Have an extra day or two?
- Take off from Aneroid Lake for the day to scramble to the top of one of the nearby peaks or check out some of the smaller lakes in the vicinity.
- Head out onto all the little side trails once you hit the Lakes Basin to explore EVEN MORE lakes. (Jump in them all!)
- Set up camp at Ice Lake and challenge yourself to summit either the Matterhorn or Sacajawea Peak, the two highest peaks in the Wallowas and the sixth and seventh highest in all of Oregon. (Note: Matterhorn is easier to climb, but there is no official trail to either of these peaks – you’ll have to scramble up on a faint boot path sporadically marked by small rock cairns.)
- Or just hang out at a lake for a whole day soaking it all in…
- Write your own adventure – the possibilities are endless!
Backpacking Oregon (2nd Edition) by Douglas Lorain. Wilderness Press, 2007.
Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness (3rd Edition) by Fred Barstad. Falcon Guides, 2014.
Atlas of Oregon Wilderness by William L. Sullivan. Navillus Press, 2009.
WANDER. ADVENTURE. EXPLORE.
BE SAFE, TREAD LIGHTLY, AND LEAVE NO TRACE.
See the recap of my experience backpacking this trail on my blog, in which I share my impressions of all of the lakes (they sure left an impression), share more photos from this hike, and kick off my bucket list goal of jumping in 100 lakes!
Check out my wilderness guide for a more thorough description of the Eagle Cap Wilderness as well as some other hikes in the area.