Ice Lake


Forest Service Trail #1808

Why? It’s one gorgeous spot.

Season: July through September

Ease: Difficult. It’s 5 miles and 2,360 feet up from the West Fork Wallowa River Trail #1820 to Ice Lake, or 7.7 miles and 3,250 feet up from the Wallowa River Trailhead.

I’m not sure that Ice Lake is the most beautiful spot I’ve ever been, but it’s right up there
if we’re talking lakes. Of course it helps that its surrounds were carpeted with wild flowers when I visited, flowers in a place with a condensed blooming season. Flowers that would be in bloom over several months elsewhere were in bloom at the same time at Ice Lake.

But even without the flowers, the lake is gorgeous. It’s clear turquoise in color, ringed with a pale-aqua shallow area along the shore. The rounded forms of the Hurwall Divide and Matterhorn dominate the background, their white marble and limestone tops dissected into geometric shapes by tan lines. There also are jagged ridges and peaks in various shades of gray around part of the lake, as well as straight-sided but angled slopes formed of glacial debris and dark brown basalt outcroppings.

Some areas around the lake are treed. Some are bright green from the snowmelt and spring water that pass through as they move toward the lake. On a clear day, the whole scene is topped with blue skies and white clouds, everything reflected on the lake’s surface.

Not surprisingly, it’ll take a bit of work to get there, especially if you start at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. But most of the uphill comes after the Ice Lake trail leaves the Wallowa River trail 2.8 miles in. It starts with gentle switchbacks for the first few miles, with one stretch of talus slope you’ll get tired of crossing again and again. Along the way there are grand larches, as well as sumac, aspen and vine maple.

Eventually there’s a break in the form of a relatively flat open area with scattered trees. Take advantage of it, for there are a half dozen or so long switchbacks looming ahead that will take you up that steep hillside to the west, almost all of the rest of the way to the top and the lake.

One section of those switchbacks is particularly nice. Two or three corners outline rock gardens with plants tucked into every available growing space between the rocks. Some places were damp and some were dry, so the plants were diverse. One 20 square foot area must have contained over 30 different species of flowers in bloom.

Along the climb from river to lake there are many views of Adam Creek and its multitude of unique waterfalls. One looked like the prototype for amusement park water slides as it dipped and dropped over smooth rock, alternately creating pools and slides as it fell.

Many people hike to Ice Lake to climb the Matterhorn, overnighting at one of several campsites around the lake and making the 2,000 foot climb on the next day. There’s no trail, but it’s easy to see the way.

Note: I haven’t been back to Ice Lake since I visited it on a day hike in the early 1990s. Fiends of mine have, and say it’s not nearly as pleasant now. It’s overused and crowded and quite dirty. I’m sorry to hear that, for it truly is a place of great natural beauty. If I were to visit the lake now, I probably would camp on the West Fork Wallowa or in the flat area that’s part way up to the lake.

Directions: The Ice Lake trail takes off to the right 2.7 miles up the West Fork Wallowa Trail.

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

Maps: USGS Eagle Cap and Aneroid Mountain, Oregon; Imus Geographics Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.