Unexpected elements along the Elkhorn Ridge Trail
Morning had broken when Steve and I slipped out of our sleeping bags, gobbled bowls of granola, took down the tent and repacked gear for the day’s 13-mile backpacking hike from Lower Twin Lake to Summit Lake.
But the sky south and west looked ominous, with dark clouds boiling black and heading our direction. Lightning followed, illuminating the horizon with flashes of frighteningly jagged bolts. We counted the shortening seconds between the flashes and the screaming, rolling peals of thunder.
No discussion was needed. In our own flash, we put up the tent and rain fly, then stuffed ourselves and our backpacks inside as a rainy drizzle suddenly transformed into a deluge.
What a change. A day earlier we’d left the Marble Point Trailhead, the southernmost end of the Elkhorn Crest Trail, lathered in sunscreen and wearing shorts. The pyrotechnics were a surprise because the weather forecast had predicted slightly cooling temperatures and sunny skies, but made no mention of rain. Ironically, a week earlier Steve had called and wondered if our August backpacking trip might be ill timed because of searingly hot temperatures. We packed light, leaving wool hats and cold weather gear at home. Little did we know what surprises awaited us.
The miniature Wallowas
The Elkhorn Ridge Trail slices 23 miles from the Marble Point Trailhead to Anthony Lake in northeastern Oregon. Elkhorn Ridge’s granite spine is easily seen from Baker City. From the trail, which mostly stays at elevations near 8,000 feet, views of the Blue Mountains, Sumpter Valley, Powder River Valley and distant Wallowa Mountains are dazzling. So are several invitingly beautiful alpine lakes, the only reliable water sources, in basins below the ridge. The Elkhorn Ridge is sometimes described as a miniature Wallowa Mountains without the crowds. It’s a place most people don’t know about.
Some ridge hikers cover the trail in a day. Not us. We wanted to backpack so we could camp and swim at those enticing lakes.
After a mid-day shuttle to the Marble Point Trailhead, we followed the trail north. Soon the Twin Lake Basin with, appropriately, Lower and Upper Twin Lakes came into view. At a junction, a trail zigzagged a mile downhill to the lakes, our first night’s destination. We camped near rock-choked slopes where pikas whistled and mountain goats lazily browsed. We’d been warned that some goats get overly curious, sometimes chewing or dragging away untended packs and gear. Happily, they and the several others we saw kept their distance.
Hike, sleep, repeat
The next morning, thinking it was late because of light flooding the tent, I woke Steve at 6. Less than an hour later we huddled in our re-erected tent waiting out the sudden storm. Another hour later, with clearing skies, we were climbing back up to the ridgeline trail.
Shortly after the ridgeline junction, the trail changed character. Just a mile north, it followed a narrow cleft that had been dynamited out of the granite walls, creating a spectacular chasm between two passes that provides eye-popping views west and east.
Blue skies and rising temperatures returned as we worked north, savoring the views, some of distant valleys, others of up-close alpine wildflowers — asters, lupine, buckwheat, Western bistort, fireweed, columbine, paintbrush, penstemon and more. An overlook served double-duty as a spot to snack and nap.
It was mid-afternoon when we reached the junction for the mile-plus descent to enticing Summit Lake, its southern shore framed by granite cliffs. We picked a campsite, then bathed in the lake’s only mildly chilly waters. That night, with clear skies, we left the rain fly off the tent to watch the starry sky from our sleeping bags.
Earlier, just before the Summit Lake junction, we had crossed a steep, gravel jeep road. The next morning, after climbing out of the Summit Lake basin and continuing north, the view south showed the road leads to an abandoned mine. We crossed more roads before reaching the North Fork John Day Wilderness, where motorcycles and mountain bikes aren’t permitted. An hour into the first day’s hike a solo mountain biker pedaled past. Over the following days we saw bicycle tracks, some in the prohibited wilderness section. Some mountain bikers wish the entire trail was open for mountain bikers while others want it closed to all but hikers and horses.
Our 10-plus mile day, which included a short diversion to “God’s Telephone” and passage a through Nip and Tuck Pass, ended at Dutch Flat Lake. A lake walk-around featured colorful meadows of lousewort, orchids, shooting stars, corn lily, yellow and Lewis monkeyflowers, Aaron’s beard wild onions, monkshood and other flowers we couldn’t identify.
Increasingly darkening clouds and cool weather eliminated a lake swim. Just in case, we put the rain fly over the tent. Good thing. Heavy rain began shortly after dark and continued most of the night. We ate breakfast in the tent and, during a lull in the storm, packed up and scooted out. And, just as we climbed from the basin to the Ridge trail, the light drizzle transformed, first to gloopy wet droplets, then to dandruff-like snowflakes, and finally to snow.
We scuttled a planned detour to the Lakes Lookout Peak, staying instead on the Ridge trail past Black Lake to Anthony Lake. Steve’s car was at the trailhead at, not surprisingly, an otherwise empty parking lot.
It was later I realized we had seen more mountain goats than people. And while the weather wasn’t ideal, the pleasures were many. We hiked through verdant fields of wildflowers, camped and lazed at secluded cirque lakes, and gazed into deep, distant valleys while traveling a wildly remote, wondrously beautiful section of Oregon that few people have seen. And returned with stories to tell.