Tombstone Lake


Forest Service Trail #1943

Why? A stark and lovely lake, and wonderful views.

Season: July through September

Ease: Difficult. The trail is 8+ miles long, with a gain of 1,800 feet and a loss of 2,000 feet as hiked from the Elk Creek Trail to the West Fork Eagle Creek Trail.

Tombstone Lake is another of those wonderful Wallowa spots, a wonderfully stark and lovely place, similar to it’s relatively near neighbors Traverse and Echo, yet different. It feels greener, for one, though I’m not sure it is. There’s pink rock, always a delight when I find it in the Wallowas, and whitebark pine dot the landscape.

But I would repeat this hike even without the lake, for the trip from the unnamed pass above it down toward West Eagle had some fine scenery, indeed. Some of it was fine just because of what it was. And some was fine because it was of a place I’d been before.

Of course, getting to that area above the lake means hiking up , exercise compensated for by views back over the lake to the China Cap Ridge, a place I’ve wanted to hike for years but have yet to get to.
The pass gave little hint of what was to come, a wide-open space with clumps of whitebarks, a patchwork of places with charred trees and places with untouched, live trees. It was rocky and open and, again, stark. It turns out that we were passing through the location of the fire that had kept us out of this area two years before. The live areas probably had been helped to survive by the water dumps we watched from afar.

Part way down, there’s a little meadow with a meander. It could be used as a camping spot if you wanted to hike into Tombstone the short, steep way from West Eagle and do so over two days rather than one.

A little farther down, the Echo Lake and Wonker Pass area comes into view – a wonderful view for us, since we’d been there twice before. We could see the waterfall from Echo down into the canyon below in addition to the many, many switchbacks that take the trail up to Echo and beyond. We’ve hiked those switchbacks and many more on the two trips it took us to finally get to Wonker Pass.

We did camp at Tombstone on our trip, on a sort of island peninsula. It wasn’t really connected to the main body of land, making it an island, but it was only a short hop over a stream away, so maybe it’s a peninsula. At night we heard rocks being knocked down the talus slope near the tent – not near enough that we were worried about rocks hitting us, but near enough that we wondered what we weren’t seeing that was making them move. We never did find out.

Trail Notes: The Elk Creek Trail isn’t covered separately. It is 10 ½ miles downstream from Minam Lake on the Minam River Trail. It crosses the Minam River on a fine bridge, then heads into the woods and up the hill along Elk Creek, staying on the west side of the creek until about ¾ mile before the Tombstone Lake Trail junction which is almost 4 miles up. There are some views of the Burger Butte area along the way.

The Tombstone Lake trail heads uphill from there, basically switchbacking its way up the hill until it drops 200 feet or so to the side trail to a view of Diamond Lake below. Then it’s a small meadow, a talus slop and a few switchbacks to the top and Tombstone Lake below.

Directions: The Tombstone Lake Trail goes from the Elk Creek Trail, which is off the Minam River Trail, to the West Fork Eagle Creek Trail.

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

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