Frances Lake


Forest Service Trail #1663

Why? Fantastic, other-worldly basin.

Season: Mid-July through September

Ease: Strenuous. It’s 9.2 miles, 3,300 feet up and 905 feet down to the lake.

It took years for me to work up the courage to hike to Frances Lake, and all you need to do is look at the map to see the reason why. The distance and the elevation gain made it awfully long for a day hike, and I couldn’t imagine carrying a full backpack to it for an overnight, either.

Luckily, I finally bit the bullet and went with the backpack alternative. Luckily for me, it turned out to be not that bad a hike. Though the up is always up and the down is always down, it’s never steep. The views get better and better the farther up you hike, making rest stops a joy, and once you hit the pass you know it’s all been worth the effort. As I’ve heard said, “There’s no place like this place anywhere near this place so this must be the place.” It is. So much so, that I went back for a second visit a couple years later, then a third and a fourth.

What makes it outstanding are the rocks. Those you notice first belong to Marble Point, the huge rocky edifice just south of the trail. It’s in view most of the way up, white with those wonderful Wallowa brown streaks and spots and stripes. But as much as I love this rock mix, it’s what’s visible once you cross the pass and see Frances Lake with Twin Peaks above that makes the place unique. The peaks are brown with smears of red and yellow below, and they glow brown red as the sunlight fades, as if they’re dripping blood. The rest of the time they’re less macabre, looking only as if they’re rusting away. The talus below them is dotted with the yellow, some of which also is on the ground and looks like nothing as much as scattered, crumbly, messy bales of hay.

Hurricane Divide continues south from the peaks in purpley-brown, a ridge of steep talus with some layering visible in spots near the top. Toward the southern end, two white diagonal lines slash the brown, perhaps a connection to the ridge at the south end of the basin.

That ridge looks as if different colored light rocks were gently stirred as they neared solidifying, leaving swirls and globs of intermixed colors with just enough brown in it to tie it to the Divide. This end also has a three-dimensional aspect, big white blobs of rock that reach out into the basin at the southwest end.

The west side also is a wonderful mix of light colored rocks, with areas of red, grey, tan and many beiges, more and more green trees dotting the ridge as it dips to the north and heads into the Lake Creek drainage. The southern half of this side also features a series of high meadows, some of which would make fine camping areas if water was near, which it was in some. One even had a lake bubbling up from a spring.

The north or Lake Creek side of the basin is the least interesting. It has rocks, huge piles of them, and trees. And in September, a dry outlet for the lake.

Frances Lake is a wonderful spot, a spot that didn’t need the rainbow we saw, or the moon rising over the Divide and its shimmering reflection on the lake, or the mountain goats way up high on the Divide. It is so much a wonderful spot that I returned four more times.

Trail Notes: The trailhead has been moved to the front, south side of the parking lot. After the flat bit along the road, it’s another ¼ mile or so and the steepest part of the trail, to the trailhead sign. We crossed no running water on any trip to the lake.

Directions: Turn right on Highway 82 at the stop sign in Enterprise, then left 10 miles later in Lostine onto Road 8210 at the sign for Lostine River campgrounds. The trailhead is on the left at the parking area 15 miles down that road.

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

Maps: USGS Chief Joseph Mountain and North Minam Meadows, Oregon; Imus Geographics Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.