North Minam River


From the Pass above Elkhorn Basin to North Minam Meadows
Forest Service Trail #1675

Why? Fine alpine lakes and a huge meadow

Season: Mid-July through September

Ease: Moderate to difficult. Swamp Lake is just 1.4 miles and 600 feet down from the pass, Steamboat another 1.6 miles with 100+ feet up and 600 down. But it’s 8.5 miles and a bit over 3,000 feet down from the pass to North Minam Meadows. And none of these mileages includes getting to the pass.

Swamp and Steamboat Lakes, when seen from above, have to be two of the prettiest lakes around. Of course, it is unusual to see alpine lakes from above, and of course, the color really shows more from above than from ground level.

But even before you see the lakes, there are fine views to be had from the pass above the Elkhorn Basin. Before you start downhill to the lakes, there are views of the Sacajawea to Matterhorn ridge, of the Eagle Cap, and a bunch of other ridges and peaks to the north and west and south.

Swamp Lake has a particularly nice southern end, with what look like a series of oblong pools set in bright green and accented with small hummocks of the same color. But Swamp also proved to be a fooler. We were planning to camp there, and from the ridge above and on the way down, we saw no one else at the lake. However, once we got there, we found that it was full – more than full, it was overflowing. A quick snack and look at the map showed another possibility – hiking up maybe a half mile and 100 feet or so to the saddle between Swamp and Steamboat. We did that hike and were rewarded with a lovely spot next to one of three small ponds surrounded by numerous rocky bumps. It was one of those “on top of the world” kinds of places and a great camping spot.

Steamboat is set in a deeper bowl than Swamp and is a deeper blue color than its neighbor. The trail hugs the its eastern shore for a bit, then heads away and up before beginning the long descent into North Minam Meadows. The best view spot comes about 4 miles above the Meadows, when the hillside the trail traverses is still largely open. As the trees become more numerous and sizeable on the hike down, vistas of any kind are harder to come by.

North Minam Meadows is lovely and huge, and it’s easy to imagine it as the special place William O. Douglas talks about in his book “Of Men and Mountains.” It’s easy to imagine herds of wildlife grazing morning and evening. Our experience unfortunately wasn’t like that due to other campers with a loud, unrestrained dog.

Directions: The trail as described starts 5 miles up the Copper Creek Trail (hike 22), at the pass above the Elkhorn Basin. The other end of the trail starts on the Upper Minam River Trail 26.4 miles from its junction with the Lower Minam River Trail. That junction is 14.5 miles from the Mead Flat Trailhead.

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

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

Connections: Obviously, this trail connects to the Copper Creek Trail. From North Minam Meadows, you can use the Bowman Trail to hike up to Wilson Pass and down to the Lostine River. I haven’t hiked this trail down to its confluence with the Minam River, obviously another route to the area.