Ice Lake Backpacking and Fishing - Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon

Instead of climbing Mount Shuksan in Northern Washington, Matt and I went backpacking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness to Ice Lake. Ice Lake is located in the North Central part of the Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon. It is a productive 46 acre Brook Trout lake sitting at approximately 7,849 feet in elevation with a depth over 190 feet (deepest lake in the Wallowas). There are a handful of peaks each over 9,000 feet high surrounding the Lake, including the Matterhorn and Sacajawea (the two tallest peaks in the Wallowas). One way to reach the lake is by way of the West Fork Wallowa trail # 1820 from the Wallowa Lake trailhead at the end of Highway 82 SE of Enterprise, Oregon. After about 2.5 miles, the trail forks with Ice Lake trail # 1808 branching to the right (NW). The Ice Lake trail arrives at the lake in about 4.5 miles, making the one-way trip 7 miles with about 3,200 feet of elevation gain from the Wallowa Lake trailhead. Other sources list the distance anywhere from 6 to 8 miles one-way.

Ice Lake Trail Elevation Profile

We left Portland after work Friday evening and arrived at the Wallowa Lake trailhead just after 10 PM. It's about a six hour drive. The road is paved all the way to the trailhead with ample parking on both sides of the road. We slept under the stars near my car and awoke just before 5:30 AM Saturday morning to begin our hike to Ice Lake. A mule deer (doe) casually walked by us as we were waking up.

As we were getting our packs ready, Matt slipped on some loose gravel and took a spill. He caught himself with his left hand and at first appeared to be okay. I continued packing until a short while later when I heard Matt calling for help. When I got to him, he was definitely not okay. His hand was bloody as well as his nose, which I thought very peculiar at the time. Apparently while sitting down and trying to get a rock dislodged from the flesh of his palm, Matt had passed out, fallen face forward onto the pavement, and scraped his nose. With the help of my MiniBuck tool, I quickly removed the rock from his hand and helped clean the wound as best we could. Luckily Matt is a tough guy, so we bandaged up his hand and began our hike.

Mule Deer near Wallowa Lake Trailhead     Matt Showing off his Injuries at Wallowa Lake Trailhead

Shortly after starting down the West Fork Wallowa trail # 1820, we entered the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, marked by a fancy sign. Then about a half mile later we entered the Eagle Cap Wilderness, which was marked by a more modest sign.

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Sign     Eagle Cap Wilderness Sign

The trail climbs uphill most of the time with scenery that rivals Yosemite National Park. Granite (mostly diorite and granodiorite) and limestone peaks abound as far as the eye can see. Rivers, creeks, and lush vegetation exist along the entire trail.

Wallowa Mountains     West Fork Wallowa Trail
West Fork Wallowa River     West Fork Wallowa River

The bridge over the West Fork of the Wallowa River just past the Ice Lake trail # 1808 junction is still out. We noticed a pile of salvaged boards on the East side of the river. Luckily there is a large downed tree over the river so we did not have to ford it.

Missing Bridge at West Fork Wallow River Crossing near Ice Lake Trail Junction     Wallowa Mountains

The Ice Lake trail follows Adam Creek and several large waterfalls are visible from the trail. There is a long series of switchbacks on the way to the lake that weave in and out of the trees. A beautiful gently sloped open meadow can also be seen before the last major switchbacks.

Waterfalls on Adam Creek     Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) Wildflowers
Leafybract or Cusick's Aster (Symphyorichum foliaceum) Wildflowers     Wallowa Mountains

As the trail continues to climb, the landscape shifts to subalpine with shorter trees and drier conditions.

Wallowa Mountains     Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) Cone

Near the end of the trail, Ice Lake pops into view without much warning. It's a beautiful deep blue lake with edges that quickly drop off. We saw many varieties of wildflowers watered from melting snow still present on the surrounding peaks. There were still some small patches of snow around the lake, but I imagine they will be gone in the next week. It took us just under 3.5 hours to hike to Ice Lake.

Ice Lake     Ice Lake
Matterhorn (grey mountain in the back)     Bee on Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis) Wildflower

There is a trail that goes around the entire lake with numerous camp spots mostly concentrated on the West and South sides of the lake.

Elephant Head (Pedicularis groenlandica) Wildflower with Wallowa Mountains in the Background     Tarptent

After finding a secluded camp spot a little ways from the lake, we tried our hand at fishing. I started off with bait, but quickly realized that spinners would be the ticket after witnessing Matt pull fish after fish out of the lake. We caught nearly two dozen Brook Trout mostly around 8 inches in length, but Matt managed to land a nice 14 incher. We kept a few for dinner and released the rest. After dinner, we fished a little more and I managed to coax a couple fish with my fly rod while Matt caught several fish again on a spinner.

Alpine Shooting Star (Dodecatheon alpinum) Wildflower with Ice Lake in the Background     Brook Trout
Brook Trout     Matt Fishing at Ice Lake

It was a full moon on Saturday night and we hardly needed our headlamps to see around camp. This was great since we planned to climb the Matterhorn and Sacajawea before first light Sunday morning.

Razz'berry' Mountain from Ice Lake     Matt and Jason around Campfire

After successfully climbing both the Matterhorn and Sacajawea, we packed up camp and headed back down the trail. We came across several groups of hikers headed to the lake and chatted about the fishing conditions with some of them. We made it back to the Wallowa Lake trailhead in under 3 hours, but we were both pretty exhausted. We headed back to Portland just after 3:30 PM and arrived about six hours later. It's a bit of a drive to the Wallowas just for the weekend, but well worth it. Though this was only my first trip to the Eagle Cap Wilderness, I am excited to come back soon. There is so much to explore and nearly an endless supply of peaks to climb.


water, Tue, 08/16/2011 - 12:02

Luckily, I am a tough guy!

glad to hear that you thought aspects of the wallowas were of a near Yosemite-caliber level of awesomeness.

So you did a lot of good research on the plants, geology, etc! Nice to see--I was right about Elephants Head (lousewort)...parasitic. And the 'granite' there isn't true granite, eh? more of a derivative of granite?

next up for you is a GPS enabled camera so your photos automatically tag on those maps above!

jloomis, Tue, 08/16/2011 - 12:44

Granite and Granodiorite are both granitic (http://www.nps.gov/goga/forteachers/granite-and-granodiorite-faq.htm). From what I can tell, the main difference is the type of feldspar that each is composed of.

Jerrod Austin, Mon, 07/28/2014 - 17:08

Good job on the detailed description of your hike. I will go there soon. Thanks again!

James, Tue, 07/29/2014 - 07:56

Did you have much of a problem with Mosquitoes this time of year?

jloomis, Tue, 07/29/2014 - 21:07

I don't recall mosquitoes being a problem on our trip in August. Every year can be different, so don't count on my being fortunate the norm.

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