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Packrafting and Backpacking the Wallowas

Tom in the Wallowas back in the day
Mom and boys at Wallowa Lake

In the posts about my mom Ginny Diegel I talked about how much she loved the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon; indeed, for an Oregonian, it’s a “real” mountain range.  Not that the Cascades is not a range, but with craggy peaks and jagged ridges, deep valleys, rivers, and pristine mountain lakes the Wallowas offer a lot of alpine bang once you make the long entrance into them.  They are known as the “American Alps,” which I think is actually a bit unfair:  they don’t actually look much like the Alps and they are far wilder than the over-developed Alps, but I get that it’s a magnificent little range that probably deserves more notoriety than it gets so people (back in the day) wanted to apply an impressive-sounding moniker.  Generally they seem more akin to the Wind River range, the Sawtooths, or the San Juans.  But regardless of what they are similar to (and who really cares?!?), the Wallowas have always loomed on the eastern horizon as Ashley and I have driven I-84 past LaGrande, and she had never been in those mountains and it had been….a lonnggg time since I’d been there.  

It turns out that I was apparently into Great Snags even before I knew that I was into Great Snags:

On that trip I had the opportunity to take probably the best – at least, the most fortuitous – picture i’ve ever taken:

Like some of the bigger/wilder ranges of the West, if you wanna access the Walllowa’s goods, you can’t drive, ride, or even day hike into them.  You gotta sling a pack on and march for a solid day up one of many long drainages to get to those idyllic mountain lakes.  Back in the day we had big frame packs and huge sleeping bags; now we can go with 1 pound sleeping bags and packs that weigh 2# empty and are essentially oversized day packs:

Though to be sure, there are still folks who eschew the light is right ethos:

At least they aren’t wearing big boots!  And that sleepover sleeping bag looks pretty comfy….
But a new development over the last few years has enabled the ability to not have to hike out:  you can float!

The Wallowa’s drainages are big enough to support several rivers, and we realized that we had the opportunity to add packrafts to our journey.  The Minam Lodge is an amazing place on the Minam river (more on that later) and is 23 miles upriver from a highway, so before we launched on foot we stopped by the Enterprise, Oregon international airport:

And dropped off our packrafts and paddling gear at the check-in counter:

Yes, we could have carried our boats in (they are “packrafts” and all), but we hoped to hike 60 or 70 miles with a lot of vert, and the Minam Lodge folks were kind enough to fly in our boat etc for only $50, so it was hard to pass up that opportunity to offload the poundage of the river gear.  
In addition to getting the boats into the lodge, we also had to deal with our car; we needed to get it from the trailhead to the end of our first section of paddling, and then get it to the takeout.  But if you have a car or gear or body that needs to be shuttled around, there is almost always someone willing to take your money and move it where it needs to go.  In this case it was the Minam store, which was very professional and accommodating:

once we got the logistics sorted, it was off into the simpler life and pace of rambling through the mountains:

Bridges like these help to keep the horse traffic down….
I got a little carried away on the “tilt the camera to make it look steep” thing!
the butt crawl is a proven successful log-crossing technique
A long cool spring made for a lot of snow for us to cross, and we had to change our route choice a bit to account for it. 

this photo is worth a bit of a tale.  As we were heading up to a pass we saw two different couples coming towards us. The first said “The trail to the pass is impassable!  The couple ahead tried it and said it was impassable!”  Okay, we said, we’ll take a look for ourselves.  We came upon the 2nd couple who  – not surprisingly – also said “the trail is impassable!  My wife fell 250 feet!”  Okay, we said, we’ll take a look for ourselves.  Our new benefactor declared, in a bit more panicky voice:  “THE TRAIL IS IMPASSABLE!”  Whoa dude, take it easy.  We aren’t gnarly, but we will take a look for ourselves.  Indeed, the trail appeared to lead to a steep snow slope that had a big glissade track down the middle (visible in the lower left of the pic).  But if one turned about 80 degrees, one would see that the trail actually avoided the steep snow and switchbacked back into melted-out terrain, switched back a coupla more times, then a quick shot over the snow on top of the riege, which we traversed pretty easily.  While we tried to appreciated the good intentions of the advice, it was a good reminder that what one person perceives is not necessarily what everyone perceives.  
Onward through the mountains, we got into the popular Lakes Basin, but the snow pushed us down in elevation a bit:

But we were able to go to Ice Lake and the Matterhorn.  Ice Lake is one of the Wallowa’s most iconic lakes; it’s big, crystal clear, deep, and at the base of the Matterhorn; a nice granite-domed peak that’s just a walk up.  

The 1975 picture at the beginning of the post was taken looking down at Ice Lake, and we were keen to get on top for sentimental reasons, since that’s where this great pic of Ma Ginny was taken on that same trip:

It’s a nice little walkup, and though it seems like many things get less-big and less-beautiful as we get bigger/older, the Matterhorn and Ice Lake are still as great as ever. 

To continue our traverse of the range to meet up with our boats and avoid a lot of snow we had to drop down into a drainage and then back out.  The Lostine River drainage is quite steep in the neighborhood of the trailhead, so even though we didn’t necessarily want to camp at the trailhead where there would undoubtedly be more people/vehicles, that’s where we ended up.   As we were setting up camp alongside the roaring and chilly stream, a guy came wandering over from his camper van with a glass of wine in his hand.  Turns out that Bill – from Portland’s suburbs – was a fascinating guy who regaled us with tales of “I hitchhiked to India – and it took me a year to get there!” and the like for hours.  He’s the retired director of a Christian-based Doctors Without Borders-type of organization, so he turned a wanderlust into a career that helped people around the globe.  And in an era where it seems that the word “Christian” has a connotation of social and political conservatism, it was great to meet a guy like Bill who truly personified the thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic ethos that Christianity should embody.  

Another day and a half of hiking – again, with plenty of vertical and plenty of snow – we rolled into the Minam Lodge.  

The lodge was originally built in the early 50’s as a hunting/fishing lodge, and after a number of ownership changes in the 80’s and 90’s it fell into a bit of disrepair.  Around 2010 it apparently struck the fancy of a financial dude in Portland who embarked on a very ambitious project to not only revive the lodge, but make it into a super nice, high end lodge parked literally in the middle of nowhere (it’s a tiny hole in the wilderness that was grandfathered in).  The shortest access is an 8 mile hike, so it was basically built with materials helicoptered in, and it was clear that the owner spared no expense; it was almost too fancy, but it was also pretty “cool”.  They have a great greenhouse:

Ash went straight to the greenhouse before heading to the lodge, but it didn’t take long to throw the pack down on a deck and enjoy a nice beer after 5 days of marching.  

We didn’t give them any notice of our arrival (we were tromping through the mountains) so we weren’t able to have dinner, which was very much “presented” to the diners by the chef, whom we found out from other guests is apparently some sort of “celebrity” chef from Portland.  But they did have enough breakfast:

Homemade bread, huckleberry jam, wilderness chicken eggs, and strawberries from the garden were a nice change from freeze dried eggs and oatmeal!  The Lodge isn’t cheap, but it doesn’t take very many napkin calculations to understand that they aren’t making much/any money with the investment in quality that they’ve put into their place that likely only sees visitors 6 or 7 months a year.  
After breakfast we headed down to the “hangar” (a shed), grabbed our boats,  and headed for the river.  We love hiking, but a more or less flat 22 mile hike through the woods was easily foregone for a nice float down the class 2-3 Minam river. 

There were a few rapids, but generally it was swift water. Apparently there are some class 4 gorges upstream from the lodge for the more ambitious.  
Soon enough we were back at the Minam Store where the Minam and Wallowa rivers join.  Our car had magically made it there from the trailhead, so we were able to refuel our trip with food, and then merrily carried on down the river.  The Minam/Wallowa confluence is actually the common start for floating the Grande Ronde river, which in turn joins the Wallowa 10 miles downstream.  The Grande Ronde is very easy and is simply a boat-based camping trip with beautiful beaches tucked into Ponderosa pines that stretches 40 miles more to the remote town of Troy, Oregon.  

It was great to be able to follow a river from its humble beginnings coming out of mountain lakes and small springs bursting out of hillsides all the way down to a rolling desert river. 
Thanks again to the nice folks at the Minam lodge, and to Ash for being a great pard on yet another great little adventure. 

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