West Fork Wallowa River


Forest Service Trail #1820

Why? Good entry into Lakes Basin and access to Ice Lake.

Season: July through September

Ease: Difficult. It’s 6 miles and 1,600 feet up to Six-mile Meadow, 3 more miles and almost 900 feet up to Frazier Lake, another 2.1 miles and 1,200 feet up to Hawkins Pass.

My memories of my first hike up the West Fork Wallowa River are marvelous. It was the first long backpack I did, and my first hike into the Wallowas. The scenery was superb, probably no surprise, and I even saw a black bear close up but not scary. What more can you ask of a hike?

Once you’re past the uphill out of the trailhead area, the grades are gentle for the first 7 miles or so along the West Fork, though on the way out, it feels like there are an awful lot of short ups and downs. Mostly, the trail’s in the woods with only an occasional look through the trees at the peaks and ridges beside or ahead. The trail is dusty, probably a testament to the myriad of horses that use it. It also crosses many small streams.

Just past the junction with the trail to Ice Lake, be sure to look up the Adam Creek drainage that flows down from it. There’s a fine falls up high.

Six Mile Meadow, at six miles in, give or take, makes a fine overnight stopping spot if you don’t want to go all the way to Frazier Lake in one day. It’s a lovely, open meadow, with views of the west side of Pete’s Point and of great triangles of different colored rock on the ridge north of Pete’s. You won’t be alone if you camp there, however. But there are several good camping spots, and when I last visited, most were in use.

The going gets a bit harder about a mile past Six Mile, but never feels difficult. At least the long stretch of deadfall we hiked over and around on that first trip is long gone, though in 2008 the remains of an avalanche intersected the trail in about the same spot. A narrow canyon comes shortly after the junction with the trail to Polaris Pass, then what can be an interesting crossing of the West Fork itself. On one early season hike, we decided it was a lot more interesting than we were willing to try.

The crossing sits in a fine open bowl of white limestone cliffs decorated with brown, boulders strewn here and there. The river comes into the bowl from the right, down a waterfall from Frazier – which of course translates into a few more switchbacks up the hill before you reach the lake. The views back into the bowl from along the way make the switchbacks pass quickly.

Frazier Lake sits in its own glacial bowl at the base of Cusick Mountain, a magnificent brown and white peak that I’ve since seen from all sides. It ranks as one of my favorite Wallowa peaks, if not the favorite. I remember zig zags on the Frazier side, other patterns on other sides.

The trail continues around the north side of Frazier, heading left at the junction with the trail to Glacier Lake. After some uphill through rocks and good views back of Frazier, the trail skirts the edge of Little Frazier Lake. Every time I’ve passed that way, there’s been a waterfall of woven small streams from Prospect Lake emptying into Little Frazier on the opposite side.

From Little Frazier on, it’s switchbacks up to Hawkins, primarily through rocks. Some are pink, a color that shows up in various spots in the Wallowas and always surprises.

Hawkins is arguably my favorite Wallowa pass. It certainly was my first, and gave me my first view of another favorite spot: the South Fork Imnaha Basin, with Cusick high above.

Trail Notes: There’s a trail junction about 3/10th of a mile up the trail. The right used to be the trail up Chief Joseph Mountain. Unfortunately, the bridge over BC Creek about 1 mile farther blew out during a high snow year in the mid 1990s, and there are no plans to replace it. However, an extreme right at the same spot will take you on a short trip to a viewpoint above some nice falls over the West Fork.

Directions: Drive through Joseph, Oregon, on Highway 82 past Wallowa Lake to the trailhead at the end of the road.

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.

Connections: From the West Fork trail, you can get to: Polaris Pass the hard way, Ice Lake, the Lakes Basin, the South Fork Imnaha River via Hawkins Pass, Glacier Lake and Glacier Pass.