West Fork Eagle Creek


Forest Service Trail #1934

Why? Two austerely beautiful alpine lakes plus great views from Wonker Pass.

Season: Mid-July through September

Ease: Difficult. It’s 5 miles and 1,600 feet to Echo Lake, another mile and 350 feet to Traverse, and another 1.5 miles and 780 feet to Wonker Pass.

It may sound contradictory, but my first hike to two lovely lakes in the southern Wallowas was a big disappointment. Echo and Traverse Lakes were to be the first stops on a week-long backpack into an area I’d wanted to see for several years. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and after more than 36 hours of rain, with snow visible above, we turned around and retraced our steps back to West Eagle, still carrying most of our food. A disappointment, but not because the lakes were at fault.

If you’ve read Fred Barstad’s book, Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, you might wonder why anyone would do this hike. If my math is correct, there are more than 60 switchbacks between the trailhead and Traverse Lake, most of them in a two mile stretch below Echo. While this may make it sound steep, it isn’t. Switchbacks are a much gentler way to gain elevation than the “straight up the hill” method so favored, at least in my experience, in British Columbia.

The draw was the area past Wonker Pass, the pass that sits above Traverse Lake and was in our sights for the daylight hours that it rained. I’ve been told it’s the hardest or most dangerous pass in the wilderness. It’s 22 more switchbacks up from Traverse to the pass, and 25 more in order to get even part way down the other side. At least that’s what Barstad says.

The area beyond Wonker has been described to me as a moonscape, and that was the draw for me. The only other place I’ve ever been that was described that way, Haleakala Crater on Maui, was spectacular in the short glimpse I had of it before the clouds flowed in.

I liked Traverse better than Echo Lake, though the latter isn’t shabby by any means. The background for Traverse is dominated on its east end by a peak that’s the high end of an angled, flat ridge that is quite distinctive if you see the area from the east, from the Eagle Cap or Carper Pass. A continuation of one side of that ridge is above the lake on the south, and to the west, there’s the drop off in falls down to Echo Lake, which also is visible from the west end of Traverse, where we camped.

Echo’s main feature to me was the jagged, toothy ridge – admittedly, teeth with big gaps between them - that dominates its southern side. Of course, I may have been prejudiced against Echo when hiking in by knowing I still had to hike farther and when hiking out by the fact that I was hiking out instead of in the other direction.

The ridges above both lakes are grey with black highlights, with trees here and there and occasional brown basalt intrusions. In mid-August, there was even some snow snuggled into north-facing pockets here and there.

Getting to Echo and then Traverse turned out to be easier than it sounded, even fun. There’s a lovely meadow about 1/3 mile from the start, and some time spent in the trees over the first couple miles. Early in the year, the crossing of the West Eagle Creek could be interesting, but in August, it didn’t even top our boots.

Near the two mile mark, the trail gets serious about going uphill, and that’s where most of the switchbacks are. If they weren’t primarily out in the open, it’d be a fairly easy hutch up. It wasn’t bad when we hiked, but I can imagine that hiking them on a sunny day would be very warm. The trail is narrow, however, and that combined with the steep hillside would make passing anyone on horseback a bit of a bother.

Along the way, there are views of East Fork of the West Fork Eagle Creek waterfall – broad and lovely over a granite ledge. On our way down, after lots of rain, it was even more impressive. And of the West Fork drainage and beyond, out to non-mountainous flat areas to the south.

When I returned to Echo and Traverse a couple of years after the first try, we even made it to Wonker Pass, a spot well worth the effort. Along the route between Traverse and Wonder there’s a pull out, so to speak, where the trail nears the edge on the north side. A short few paces off the trail there are fantastic views in that direction of the Brown Mountain to Glacier Mountain to Elkhorn Peak high country. The trail also passes through some fine rocks in shades of pink, amongst others, and allows for good views back toward the two lakes. We also saw mountain goats near the top.

From Wonker, the views that make the trip worthwhile are to the north and east. But even with my Wallowas map I had a hard time recognizing the Eagle Cap Ridge – it just didn’t seem to be running in the right direction. And just so you know. First, we met people who’d hiked Wonker and Polaris Passes, and they said Wonker was easier. Second, the moonscape actually is above Cached Lake on trail #1922, not near Wonker.

Directions: Eagle Creek Drive (also known as Big Creek Road), Road 77, is between mileposts 20-21 on Highway 203, south of Union, OR. Drive east 15.2 miles to the trailhead junction, left ½ mile to the trailhead and parking area.

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

Maps: USGS Bennet Peak, Oregon; Imus Geographics Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.

Connections: The trail over Wonker connects with the Trail Creek Trail which heads down to the Minam River and up into the area near Needle Point and eventually to the Main Eagle Trail.