Although it's not the tallest peak in the Wallowas, Eagle Cap is certainly the centerpiece of the wilderness area that shares its name. Standing high above the Lake Basin, this iconic mountain is just beyond reach of most day hikers. Most visitors plan on at least one night of backpacking in order to visit the summit of Eagle Cap.
The Wallowa Mountains are situated in the Northeast corner of Oregon, and the range contains a significant number of peaks over 9,000 feet tall. Between the mountainous ridges are lush river valleys, sparkling lakes, and colorful alpine meadows. While the range is rather remote compared to more accessible places in the Cascades, many visitors arrive eager to experience the unique alpine feel of the Wallowas.
There are many ways to get into the heart of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, but none are shorter than 10 miles. Many people make the trek from the Two Pan Trailhead, hiking up the East Lostine River to Mirror Lake, then continuing to Horton Pass where a well-trodden hiking route leads to the summit of Eagle Cap. Others include the Eagle Cap summit as one of many destinations on a multi-night backpacking trek across the range. Since much of the route is designed for backpackers and equestrians, the trails are well-graded and well-maintained, which means easy walking. The distance may be long, but the difficulty is minimal.
Summer is the most popular time to visit the Eagle Cap Wilderness. At this time of year, the wildflowers put on quite a show. Look for several varieties of paintbrush, penstemon and lupine as well as false hellebore, buckwheat and yarrow. Notice how the flora changes as you walk from a dense forest, through riparian habitat, wet alpine meadows and rocky alpine terrain. As you climb higher and higher the vegetation becomes more rugged, low to the ground, and more sparse. During the rest of the year, access can be limited because of snow. Knowledge of backcountry conditions is essential in order to travel safely. Contact the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest at 541.523.6391 for up-to-date information.
If you choose to camp in the Lake Basin, note that there are special rules for this high-use area. Parties are limited to six people (and/or nine stock). Camping within 100 feet of a lake or wetland is prohibited, as is building a campfire there. Campfires are also prohibited within a quarter mile of most of these lakes. Please do your best to practice Leave No Trace and respect this beautiful area so that future visitors may also enjoy the landscape.
After reaching the summit of Eagle Cap, there's plenty more to see and do. If you like lakes, explore the Lake Basin. If you're itching for more summits, detour toward the Matterhorn and Sacajawea. For a loop trip, head west to Minam Lake and circle back to the Two Pan trailhead. And before heading home, wander through the lovely mountain town of Joseph, where you can enjoy world-class bronze sculptures, shopping, and great food all in the stunning backdrop of the Wallowa Mountains.