Copper Creek


Forest Service Trail #1656

Why? Two gorgeous basins and access to the high lakes country

Season: July through September

Ease: Moderate to difficult. It’s 2.3 miles and about 1,000 feet up to the Copper Basin from the West Fork Lostine River, and it’s another mile or so and 1,400 feet into the Elkhorn Basin from there.

Seeing the Copper and Elkhorn Basins is more than enough reason for me to recommend hiking up Copper Creek. Both are truly gorgeous subalpine meadows with meandering streams, flowers, high rocky surrounds and groups of dark green trees. Even if you stay on the trail, they’re quite enjoyable. If you venture off trail a bit, it’s even better.

Usually I’m not much for off the trail hiking. But both the Copper and Elkorn Basins are open country so you can see where you’re going and have been. If you exercise reasonable care, the worst that should happen is that you go down a slope that ends not where you want it to but in a steep drop-off. Then, you have to go back up and try again.

The Copper Creek Basin is a meadow with a meandering stream and a backdrop of white rock tipped with black. There are groups of green evergreens, many of them whitebark pines both live and skeletal. There are talus slopes and snow. And that’s just the lower basin.

We explored higher up, starting with a scramble up the boulder field that’s to the south at the head of the lower basin, continuing to the southeast to the base of a small glacial moraine. From there we headed down into a large upper basin that sits at the head of Copper Creek, then up again to a saddle that provided views not only of that upper basin, but also of lots of tiny basins tucked into corners here and there above it.

The small flat area on the other side of the saddle between Copper Creek and the Minam River brought views down into the Minam River and across it to the ridge that’s on the north side of the Echo and Traverse Lake Basin and the Wonker Pass area.

Our exploration of the Elkhorn Basin started as the trail neared its high point after the Sky Lake area. We headed to the right over what looked like sand dunes, a series of rounded rocky knolls heading north to a vantage point above Swamp Lake. We could see a lot more than just Swamp, however. There was Steamboat Lake plus the high ridges out above the North Fork Minam River and North Minam Meadows, plus Goat Ridge farther to the east and what I assume were the Blue Mountains in the distance.

Looking the other way there were views of the Hurricane Creek side of the Sacajawea-Matterhorn Ridge revealing an interestingly folded side to the latter. A bit more to the south were views of the ridge from Pete’s Point to Cusik Mountain, including Sentinal Peak and Polaris Pass. Almost directly to the south, the top of the Eagle Cap peeked over the Glacier Mountain ridge.

We never did see much wildlife on the trip, a few pica and some other rodents. The squirrel that lived in our camping area surely didn’t enjoy our visit if its pelting my tent with whitebark pine cones meant anything. They’re not cones I’ve seen often, so it wasn’t an entirely negative experience. They’re very dark in color and full of pitch. We saw some later on that had been processed, so to speak. The seeds were gone, leaving a series of pale hollows surrounding the core.

Getting to either basin and beyond is relatively easy. The trail up Copper from the West Fork Lostine River Trail is well graded with only a few steep sections, and those are short. There isn’t much scenery because the trail is largely in the trees, but Copper Basin more than makes up for that when you get there.

The trail from there to the Elkhorn Basin switchbacks up along the Elkhorn River. Along the way, near the entry into Elkhorn Basin, there’s one of those magical little spots you find when out hiking, on a bit of trail near the top where the hiking parallels the stream. It’s a pocket meadow with a lake-like swelling of the stream, and rocks, trees and flowers scattered about for decoration.

The Elkhorn Basin itself is quite open, and the trail switchbacks up out of it, then follows a long contour up to the Sky Lake area and beyond, to the ridge top and pass. The latter is marked with a rock cairn.

Trail Notes: There’s a user trail to the right to Sky Lake just before the last hutch up out of the Elkhorn Basin to the pass above it.

The most interesting area in the Elkhorn Basin is above the basin to the southeast, a relatively flat space full of interesting rock and interesting grooves, with little plant growth on it. You have to scramble to get there, up out of the basin, but if you’re comfortable with off-trail hiking, it’s well worth the work.

Directions: Turn right on Highway 82 at the stop sign in Enterprise, then left 10 miles later in Lostine at the sign for Lostine River campgrounds. The Lostine River trailhead is at the end of the road, 17½ miles later. Take the right or west fork when the trail divides and 2 ½ miles later, take the right to Copper Creek. You’ll have to cross the West Fork Lostine, not an issue in late August.

Information: U.S. Forest Service Wallowa Mountains Visitors Services, Joseph, OR, (541) 426-5546.

Maps: USGS Eagle Cap and Steamboat Lake, Oregon; Imus Geographics Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.

Connections: Swamp and Steamboat Lakes are 1 and 3 miles, respectively, down from the top of the trail near Sky Lake. It’s another 5+ miles down to the junction with the North Minam River Trail at North Minam Meadows. From there, you can take the Bowman Trail across Wilson Pass and down to the Brownie Basin, Chimney and Hobo Lakes and the Bowman Trailhead on the West Fork Lostine. A left at the pass above Elkhorn will take you 5 miles and almost 3,500 feet down to the Minam River Trail.