Last year, my adventure hiking partner – Brad – and I did a partially on-trail, partially cross-country figure-8 loop (post) around the Three Sisters in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness (details). That was such a successful trip that we talked about doing something similar this year and, after some back-and-forth with ideas, settled on a similar on/off trail loop in Oregon’s largest wilderness area, the Eagle Cap Wilderness (details). This time around we would try to reach the three most promient summits in the wilderness: Sacajawea Peak (9,843 feet), its the highest point; Matterhorn (9,834 feet), and Eagle Cap (9,572 feet), the iconic centerpiece of this wilderness and the Wallowa Mountains (it might also be one of the most photographed peaks in the Wallowa Mountains if not in the entire state). Our basic plan was to start at the Hurricane Creek trailhead, go up Thorp Creek, then over Sacajawea and Matterhorn, then over the divide between Ice and Razz Lakes into the Lake Basin, then up Eagle Cap, and out via Hurricane Creek. The trip worked out almost as planned but there was still plenty of room for adventure to be a big part of what actually happened.
DAY 1: Hurricane Creek Trailhead to Upper Thorp Creek
We then got our first view of the north side of Sacajawea Peak.
After about 1.8 miles, we came to the unsigned junction with the now no longer official trail that ascends into the Upper Thorp Creek basin to just below the east ridge of Sacajawea Peak. To reach this trail, we had to cross Hurricane Creek. This far up-canyon at this time of year, the creek is shallower and slower flowing than lower down and not hard to cross, but it is still more than a stepping-stone exercise. There is a two-log “bridge” across it,
but we missed that and instead did a shallow wade between gravel islands to get across. Brad had brought wading shoes; I wrung out my socks. Some folks might actually prefer wading versus balancing on two wobbly logs over a rushing creek!
After crossing, we located the Thorp Creek trail in the meadow on the east side of the creek and followed it as it began to climb steeply – there are some token switchbacks – up the Twin Creek drainage. Even though this trail is no longer official, it seems to get a lot of use and some maintenance, so – once you’re past the lower meadow – it’s easy to follow all the way in to the basin at the headwaters of Thorp Creek.
We soon gained the refreshingly level and grassy ridge between Twin and Thorp Creeks,
and then turned the corner into the Thorp Creek drainage, where we were granted yet another expansive view of the north face of Sacajawea Peak.
About 5.5 miles from the trailhead, we entered the broad, meadow-covered basin at the head of Thorp Creek. Lots of wildflowers in bloom. And lots of rodents running around!
There are no lakes in this basin, but Thorp Creek arises from a spring at the head of the canyon and is a source of clear, fresh water.
We camped in the last grove of trees (at about 7,400 feet) before where the route up Sacajawea starts. Even if you’re not interested in climbing Sacajawea, this would be a great destination for an overnight, or longer, backpack. Plenty of water and level camping spots, protected from the crowds by a major creek crossing and a stiff climb. Just protect your food from the rodents!
This proved to be our “easy” day – only 6.6 miles with ~2,600 feet of elevation gain.
DAY 2: Upper Thorp Creek to Unit Lake
We left camp the next morning at 6:00AM for the 2,500 foot climb up Sacajawea’s east ridge. Almost immediately, we found the use trail that runs all the way up the ridge, over the false summit, to the true summit.
No hands-and-feet clawing up a boulder field; just a relentless upward plod on a use trail almost free of switchbacks.
Fortunately, the views got better and better as we gained altitude and this ever expanding view distracted us (or me at least) from the incessant plodding.
It took us about two hours of steady work to top out on the ridge and start along it for the final push to the summit.
And then we were on top!
From there, we could look due south along the narrow connecting ridge, over an intermediate summit (Point 9775), to our next objective, Matterhorn, with its western face dropping almost 3,500 near-vertical feet into Hurricane Creek Canyon.
The connecting ridge is not quite as narrow as it looks from afar,
but there are a few gendarmes that need to be gotten around. After climbing the Matterhorn from Ice Lake in 2013 (post), I started along this ridge toward Sacajawea but got turned back by these gendarmes. My mistake was to try to go around them by dropping off the top of the ridge – all this did was take me into a lot of loose, slippery terrain that was unnerving (and hard) to walk on. This time we stayed on the top and made just a few easy Class 3 moves to cross the gendarmes. No problem!
After that, there were no more objective difficulties on the ridge, and we just ambled along it,
and on to, Point 9775.
From there we had a big view north toward Sacajawea,
down to Ice Lake,
and south to Matterhorn, with Eagle Cap on the far horizon (directly above Matterhorn’s chocolate colored east ridge).
It was a quick transit from Point 9775 to Matterhorn’s summit. From there we looked south toward Eagle Cap which, from this distance, looked like it was fenced off by lingering snow fields. This was cause for some concern and discussion but there was little we could do at this point but push on to see what was possible.
Our original plan was to drop off Matterhorn’s summit and then either traverse directly over to “Bosterson Gap” or continue down to the lake and then climb back up to the gap. This gap is a direct route between Ice Lake and Razz Lake that a fellow hiker had found in 2012, but may have been know as early as 1983, if not earlier. A possible alternative route to Razz Lake, one that had been loosely described by other hikers (post), was over the “Low Saddle” between Points 9314 and 9204 on the ridge west of Craig Mountain, then across a steep subsidiary ridge, followed by a contour to Razz Lake.
From what we could see of Bosterson Gap from our vantage point, getting to it looked problemmatic, and then there was the issue of it still being mostly packed with snow of uncertain steepness and quality. So we decided to try the “Low Saddle” route and see if we could make that work. Another wrinkle was that although the day had started out clear and bright, clouds had started rolling in as we were going from Sacajawea to Matterhorn. While they didn’t look particularly threatening right then, we had to factor in them portending something significant (thunderstorms?) happening later in the day. So we decided to go on down to Ice Lake.
Once we got down to the lake, the clouds seemed to ease up a bit and (maybe) start dissipating. We had considered camping at the lake – camp sites were already starting to fill with weekend backpackers – but it was only noon at this point AND someone had left their dog tied to a tree in camp while they climbed Matterhorn. The continual howling and barking was just too much to bear, so we decided to continue on to the Low Saddle.
As we circled the lake to start the climb to the saddle, we could look back to the Matterhorn and see that the clouds were becoming less of an issue by the minute.
The climb up to the Low Saddle was an easy one on stable boulder fields and vegetated ground. It started out moderately steep and then the slope eased and stayed that way all the way to the top.
It took us about 30 minutes to reach the saddle, where we got a look north toward the Matterhorn, Sacajawea, and those pesky clouds,
and due south to the unnamed lake in the cirque below and to the intervening ridge between us and Razz Lake. The other hikers had reported climbing over this ridge on its right side but, from our vantage point, doing so looked like a pretty steep endeavor – plus we really had no idea of what we’d find on the other side. The fear of continuing on, getting headwalled, and having to backtrack was ever present (in my mind at least). However, in hindsight (which is wonderfully useless when you’re actually in the moment), I think that if we had arrived here earlier in the day (say straight from a restful night at Ice Lake), the ridge wouldn’t have looked so intimidating and we would have given it a go.
So Brad and I sat on the Saddle (so to speak) and pondered the situation,
and eventually decided we could drop down past the lake and keep on going down the lake drainage, angling right when possible around the end of the ridge toward Razz Lake. Brad was confident we’d make it; I worried. But, packing up the psychology, we dropped off the saddle on loose, sandy ground that became increasingly stable as we descended,
to the little unnamed lake which, despite (or maybe because of) its lack of easy access, looked like an ideal spot to camp for a few days of absolute solitude. There appeared to be some good campsites on its western shore; but whether there’s any fishing is unknown…
Beyond the lake, getting down and around the end of the ridge was neither heroically difficult or particularly dangerous, but there was a lot of sidehilling and downclimbing on loose, steep ground – where a slip could have meant a twisted ankle or knee or worse – so we had to be careful. At about 7,400 feet, the slope eased considerably and we picked up an amazingly robust game (goat) trail that we easily followed toward Razz Lake. But getting to Razz Lake from here would have meant regaining about 700 feet and, at this point in an already long day, we couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for yet another climb. So we diverted to Unit Lake – which proved to be an inspired choice, as it is a real gem of an alpine lake.
The trail that once ran from the main Lake Basin trail (USFS #1810) to Unit Lake gave rise to a great campsite at its end and that’s were we set up camp,
and called an end to a LONG day.
This was our moderate mileage (11.4 miles), high gain (~4,400 feet elevation gain) day, with most of it cross-country on uneven terrain. Again, looking back, it seems there are at least three practical ways across the Ice Lake – Razz Lake Divide: (1) Bosterson Gap, (2) Low Saddle and over the intervening ridge, or (3) Low Saddle and down and around the intervening ridge. Use of any of these routes assumes good off-trail travel skills, route-finding ability, and some nerve – they are not like backpacking along a trail.
DAY 3: Unit Lake to Hurricane Creek Trailhead
The next morning, we packed up and made our way along the now abandoned Unit Lake trail (it’s pretty easy to find and follow but there are a lot of downed trees – some quite large – across the part closer to the lake) to Trail #1810 and then along to the #1810A. The clouds had vanished in the night and the day was shaping up to be one of those cerulean blue beauties that tourist bureaus drool over. We followed the #1810A past Douglas Lake,
to where we encountered a grouse hen squatting in the sun in the middle of the trail. She didn’t move as we approached, so I thought she might be injured. But as we got closer, I saw a chick poke its head out of her feathers. Suddenly four chicks erupted from under her wings and fled in four different directions – she had been warming her brood after a chilly night! After the chicks were away, she turned, fanned her tail, spread her wings, and started charging at my boot! The trail was hemmed in by the lake one side and some brush on the other, so escaping these attacks without stepping on her or a chick seemed impossible. But then a chick ran past and she took off in pursuit of it, opening a space to allow us to escape further grousing.
A little further along, we came to the iconic shot of Eagle Cap reflected in Moccasin Lake,
rejoined the #1810 and followed it to the East Eagle trail (#1910), which we followed over the drainage from Upper Lake,
up past Upper Lake, with what appeared to be a small tent city on its far shore,
and on up, over some snow, to Horton Pass. By now, our earlier concerns about snow blocking access to Eagle Cap had completely evaporated. What snow there was we either avoided or easily walked on (once it had warmed in the sun). The snow blocking the last bit of trail just below Horton Pass was easily circumvented via some open ground to its right.
From the pass, the #1805 trail goes directly to the top of Eagle Cap. This trail was completely free of snow and one of the best trails we encountered on the whole loop. After a short, steep start, it climbs gently until in sight of the summit, and then wends its way up the last 700 feet in a series of long switchbacks,
from where we could had a great view down the East Lostine River valley,
and of the East Fork Eagle Creek valley to the southwest.
And then we were there – three for three! No more up! Yeah!
The views in every direction were, as promised in the promotional literature, amazing! Glacier Lake below us to the east,
the Lostine River and Hurricane Creek valleys, presided over by the Matterhorn, to the north,
and our route from Ice Lake to Unit Lake to the east. Our actual route down past the unnamed lake is obscured by the ridge.
And then it was time to head back. We retraced our steps down to the #1810, followed it north to its junction with the #1807, catching one last look at Eagle Cap along the way,
and then headed north on the #1807 to where it starts down a series of switchbacks into Upper Hurricane Creek. From the top of the switchbacks we got a great view of the 3,500 foot west face of the Matterhorn.
The #1807 trail was in pretty good shape – there was some uncleared blowdown – but its “bridges” left something to be desired.
About 8 miles from the trailhead, we passed two old log cabins (used by early miners?),
and some large and lush meadows. There is a good, shaded campsite immediately behind the cabins, with access to the creek for water.
Our original plan was to camp somewhere along Hurricane Creek that night but we were moving along pretty good – certainly better than we’d expected. When I noted that we were within 6 miles of the trailhead, Brad’s homing instincts kicked-in and he suggested we just go for it and get out early. While my feet weren’t too keen on this idea, I over-ruled them and we went for it and were out by late afternoon. One thing that caught our attention on the way out was where Slick Rock Creek joins Hurricane Creek and then the latter cuts its way through the Martin Bridge Formation (which is the limestone rock that makes up the white cliffs on the east wall of the Lostine River valley at Lapover, Sacajawea Peak and the Matterhorn on Hurricane Creek, and Cusick and Marble Mountains on the Imnaha River). The narrow gorge, thundering waters, and water-polished limestone reminded me of some of the slot canyons in the Desert Southwest.
Thanks to the decision to push on, each of us got home a day early, which proved immensely popular on the home front. This was our high mileage (23.3 miles), moderate gain (~3,400 feet elevation gain) day, with almost all of it (fortunately) on good trail. Total distance: 41.3 miles. Total elevation gain: 10,500 feet.
Many, many better words then mine have been offered on the wonders awaiting the lucky outdoorsperson who has the wherewithal to venture into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. So sufficient to say that this was an amazing loop trip in a absolutely stunning locality with a great hiking partner!