The spectacular Wallowa Mountains in Northeast Oregon are often referred to as the “Alps of Oregon”. These granite mountains rise from about 4,000 feet at the valley floors to nearly 10,000 feet atop the highest peaks with many, many mountain lakes to be found.
Most of the range is located in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. This hike takes you through a beautiful U-shaped valley to Mirror Lake, before ascending to the summit of Eagle Cap. While not the highest peak in the range, Eagle Cap is the namesake peak of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and is known for its endless views.
This trek makes for an excellent (very) long day hike, or 2-3 day backpacking trip.
Distance and Elevation Gain
Difficulty: This is a challenging hike due its length and overall elevation gain, but there is no scrambling or off-trail hiking involved to reach the summit of Eagle Cap once the snow is gone. The elevation gain to Mirror Lake is gradual, but the hike from Mirror Lake up to Eagle Cap is quite steep.
Distance: 6.8 miles one-way (13.6 miles roundtrip) to Mirror Lake, and 9.2 miles one-way to Eagle Cap (up to 18.4 miles roundtrip, or 17.8 miles if you cut off the side trip to Mirror Lake on the way down).
Elevation Gain: 2,075 feet to Mirror Lake and 4,387 feet to the Eagle Cap summit.
Max Elevation: 9,573 feet at the Eagle Cap summit
Estimated Time: Fit hikers can complete this in a long day of about 9-12 hours depending on your pace and how often you stop. For a backpacking trip, this is best done as a 2-3 day trip with camping near Mirror Lake.
Multi-Day Backpacking Option
This hike is highly recommended for backpacking and dispersed camping is allowed in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
The most obvious itinerary would be to camp at Mirror Lake and hike to the top of Eagle Cap the next day. Alternatively, you could camp at Upper Lake or Moccasin Lake, both of which are short distances away from Mirror Lake.
Rules and Regulations: Permits are required to camp in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, but they are free and are available for self-issue at trailheads. In other words, the permit system is about as easy as it gets.
The main regulations to be aware of are that camping within 100 feet of a lake is prohibited and building a campfire within 1/4 mile of a lake is also prohibited.
Better yet, I would recommend against having a campfire here in this high use and fragile environment. This area is prone to wildfires during the dry summer months and campfires also consume wood (which improves soil for future plant growth), kill vegetation, and sterilize soils.
Also, this area sees a lot of backpacking traffic through the course of the summer, so practice Leave No Trace principles and be sure to bury your poop and do so well away from any water, and don’t leave TP behind!
Visit the Eagle Cap Wilderness Website to learn more about the wilderness information and regulations.
How to Get to the Trailhead
From the town of Enterprise, it is just under a 1 hour drive to the Two Pan Trailhead. The length of this drive is due to the fact that the road to the trailhead involves an 18-mile drive on Lostine River Road, which is a dirt road.
The dirt road, while rutted at times, is passable by all vehicles.
Trail Breakdown and Highlights
The hike starts out with a steep climb for the first 1.75 miles through heavy forest cover, before the grade eases a bit.
After 2.5 miles, you’ll pop out into the more open Lostine River Valley with beautiful views and a flat trail for the next few miles. Only for the final mile or so to the Mirror Lake junction will the trail begin to climb again.
You’ll catch your first glimpses of Eagle Cap off in the distance as you hike through the Lostine River Valley.
After about 6.5 miles, you’ll reach a trail junction with the Lakes Basin Trail. The right fork takes you to Eagle Cap, whereas the left fork takes you on a short side trip (0.3 miles) to Mirror Lake. Even if you are doing this as a dayhike, the side trip to Mirror Lake is totally worth it. Looking to camp here? Even better!
From Mirror Lake, head back toward the original trail junction and continue straight on the Ivan Carper Trail. You’ll only be on this trail for a very short distance (maybe a tenth of a mile), then take a left onto the East Eagle Trail.
From here, the trail starts to climb, gaining about 1,000 feet/mile the remainder of the way to the top of Eagle Cap. Early on, you’ll pass another pretty lake called Upper Lake.
The trail will then begin to climb up toward a sub peak of Eagle Cap, and after about 0.8 miles since the prior trail junction you’ll come to another trail junction with the Eagle Cap Summit Trail — take the right fork to hop on this trail.
From here, continue the remainder of the way to the summit. The trail is steep but the views in all directions are phenomenal on the way to the top and of course on the summit itself.
Best Time of Year to Hike to Mirror Lake and Eagle Cap
July through early October is the best time of year to do this hike. Every year is different in terms of spring snowpack and fall weather, but even in the heaviest years, you’re most likely to have a mostly snow-free experience on the upper portion of Eagle Cap from mid-July through mid-September.
In terms of weather, July and August are the two driest months of the year and as a result, are good times to hike here. However, be aware that thunderstorms develop over the Wallowa Mountains on occasion and the route above Mirror Lakes is exposed to lightning danger.
Wildflowers tend to explode in July and August as well. Unfortunately, mosquitoes and black flies can also be an issue during these months.
Depending on your preferences, September may be the best time to do this hike. While the wildflowers are waning and the days are shorter, stretches of clear weather are common, thunderstorms are less likely, bugs are gone, and hiker traffic is also waning. Also, while most of the trees are coniferous, beautiful fall colors begin to light up the grassy slopes at this time of year.
If you plan to do this hike in September or early October, keep in mind that nights and mornings are often cold and early season snowstorms can happen as well. Usually by mid/late October, snow becomes deep for hiking on Eagle Cap, though Mirror Lake may remain accessible for a while longer.
Wildlife, Bugs, and Water
This area is quite rich in terms of wildlife. Big game mammals that inhabit this area include elk, deer, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions/cougars, and even gray wolves!
Grizzly bears do not inhabit this area, but I have read reports of cougars sighted on this trail.
Mosquitoes and bugs can be pretty bad around Mirror Lake from roughly late June through early August depending on the snowpack and melt cycle relative to average, but typically from mid-August on they taper off quickly.
You won’t have any trouble finding water for refills on this hike, nor should you have any issues with stream/river crossings. Early season (June/early July), you might get your feet wet on some minor stream crossings due to snowmelt.
Pre or Post-Hike Camping Options
There are several forest service campsites along the Lostine River Road on the drive to the trailhead, the most convenient of which is the Two Pan Campground located right at the trailhead.
This campsite and the others along the road are $5-$6 per night. The Two Pan Campground has a bathroom but no treated water. Sites cannot be reserved in advance.
For free dispersed camping, freecampsites.net is a good resource. Unfortunately, listed options for free dispersed camping are limited in this area, so it may be best to pay the low fee of $5-$6 to camp near the trailhead on the Lostine River Road.
For lodging, numerous options are available in the towns of Enterprise and Joseph.
Here are a few items I consider to be essential for this hike:
- Extra layers
- Ski hat and lightweight gloves
- 3 liters of water and/or a water filtration system
- Personal locater device, such as a SPOT or DeLorme beacon
- First aid kit
Here are a few items I might bring depending on current conditions:
- Down jacket
- Trekking poles
- Ice axe
- Rain jacket and rain gear (if anything but a dry forecast)
- Bug spray
- Bear spray (there are no grizzlies here, so while it’s still not a bad idea to hike with bear spray, it’s not mandatory here like it would be in grizzly country)
Where to Find Weather Forecasts
Here are links to National Weather Service point weather forecasts near the start of the hike and across the upper portions of the hike that take elevation and terrain into account.
Keep in mind that there is a greater margin of error in mountain forecasts for remote areas, but the NWS point forecasts are one of the more reliable sources.
The National Weather Service in Pendleton is the local office for this area, and although somewhat technical, you can read the NWS Forecast Discussions to gain some valuable insight into the weather patterns for this area.
Post-Hike Food and Drink
I highly recommend the Terminal Gravity Brewery for a post-hike beer and food, outside the town of Enterprise. They have a huge outdoor area that is great for lounging on a warm summer day, while enjoying excellent local brews and burgers.
Joseph is also a really cool town and has plenty of food and drink options as well. For craft beer lovers, check out Embers Brew House in Joseph.