The North Catherine Creek Trail offers a remote backpacking experience in the beautiful Eagle Cap Wilderness of Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. The trail leads through intimate drainages, robust forests, and high ridges. Water sources are easy to find, as are campsites and spectacular scenery. Expect to see an abundant wildflower display if you hike in the early summer, and watch for wildlife such as elk, big horn sheep, and Rocky Mountain goats. The North Catherine Creek Trail receives much less use than other more popular routes in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
From the North Fork Catherine Creek Trailhead the route ascends steadily along the North Fork of Catherine Creek for approximately 5 miles before reaching North Catherine Meadow. This is a great stop for camp, and an excellent, level campsite sits at the north end of the meadow just across the creek. From the meadow the trail moves toward the ridge and reaches a fork; the right fork is an interesting quarter-mile diversion that leads to a hunting cabin, but stay left if you want to continue on the North Fork Catherine Creek Trail.
A creek crossing after this fork is a good opportunity to resupply your water if you are filtering as the next opportunity is the Rock Creek crossing near the Minam River. The trail meets a sign for North Catherine Creek and Ambush Point, offering an alternative route up to Cartwheel Ridge. The left route leads to Ambush Point and eventually Cartwheel Ridge, but it is steep and narrow. Keep right to remain on the North Catherine Creek Trail through another meadow as it climbs more steadily to the top of a ridge that provides magnificent views of the Minam River Valley and the Wallowa Mountains. By this time you will have climbed 1,895 vertical feet from the trailhead, and the views are remarkable.
The trail follows the ridge before descending into dense trees and the Minam River Valley. Stay right at another junction to cross Rock Creek and the Minam River, another excellent spot for an overnight. A level site is just about a half mile from the Rock Creek crossing along the Minam River. To continue up to Cartwheel Ridge, return to the junction across Rock Creek and head right and uphill. This route becomes steeper as it switchbacks up toward Cartwheel Ridge. You'll pass through a few clearings that offer views of the ridge before you, and after approximately 2.5 miles from the river you'll encounter Lackeys Lake at 7,100 feet. The trail crests the ridge in another half mile, and amazing views open up in all directions.
To loop back to the North Catherine Creek Trailhead, continue through a harrowing section of trail that is carved into the side of the ridge. A three-way junction awaits once you leave the ridge, and the left trail descends stepply down Ambush Point to the North Catherine Meadow. Note that the trail becomes less well marked here, so proceed carefully and watch for navigational aids. Continue down the North Catherine Creek Trail to return to the trailhead.