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Wallowa Lake, Craig Mountain, and the miles between

Wallowa Lake curls slightly, like an index finger beckoning travelers to stop and play.  Just a mile south of the quaint town of Joseph, Oregon, the lake acts as gateway to the Wallowa Mountains, nicknamed the Alps of Oregon by a tourist commission genius somewhere.

Looking south down Wallowa Lake in a soft twilight.

A county park geared toward waterplay sits at the north end of the lake, complete with a swimming area, boat access, and picnicking.  The backdrop is spectacular, a photo-worthy view into the mountains to the south, the massive wall of Chief Joseph Mountain to the west, and a high glacial moraine to the east.

At the far end of the lake, there is a forested resort area centered around Wallowa Lake State Park.   The area has camping, lodges and cabins, the cheesiness known as miniature golf, and access to the hiking trails that lead into the Eagle Cap Wilderness.  There is even a tram that leads to the top of Mount Howard.   It makes me wish I had more time.

Prize view overlooking the county park

Alas, I’d arrived in the evening, with little time to hike, so I scoped out the trailhead, had a nice meal at a Mexican restaurant in Joseph, then caught a spectacular sunset at the lake.  Afterward I found a room and went through my gear, almost panicking when I briefly misplaced my camera.  Goofball.

Amped up, I pored over the map before falling asleep. Ice Lake was about a nine mile hike, in its own basin separate from the more popular lakes at the foot of Eagle Cap.  I finally zonked out, and when I woke, I quickly packed, then cruised to the trailhead, where I got front row parking.  A good omen, I thought.

Morning light on the slopes above Wallowa Lake State Park

I have a few gulps of water, fill out a wilderness permit, and start hiking.  I haven’t done the full backpack gig in a couple years, and I move a bit slowly. The pack feels heavier than I’d hoped, but I’m pleased to be hiking before 7 a.m.  I have a lot of daylight for hiking, and it looks like a gorgeous day.

The first hour is casual.  Then the Ice Lake trail splits off.  While it’s not steep, it’s relentlessly uphill with way too many switchbacks for my liking.  I rest beneath a tree at one point, and a deer comes close to munch vegetation, eyeballing me curiously.

Bambi is not afraid of me

After paying for my views with sweat, I crest the final hill, arriving at Ice Lake shortly after 11 a.m., tired but pleased.  The lake sits in a tremendous bowl surrounded on three sides by peaks, varied in appearance, comprised of a variety of rock: limestone, granite, and basalt.

Craig Mountain over Ice lake

After relaxing, hydrating, and munching, I set up camp.  Afterward, I realize I still have a lot of daylight.  Could I climb a peak today?  I contemplate the map and spy Craig Mountain to my southeast, the peak lurking above me on the second half of the hike. It’s a humbler peak, but still worthy at over 9000 feet, and it seems feasible.

Craig Mountain from my campsite: an obvious choice

At two p.m., I set off around the lake toward an obvious approach gully to the mountain.  I soon find myself scrambling up tremendous slabs of granite, winding through dusty scree slopes.  The slopes get steeper, and I use my hands on occasion.  In an hour I reach the crest of an east-west ridge dotted with rock outcroppings and dense stubby pines.

A rocky ridge

I soon get views of Eagle Cap, Cusick, Pete’s Point and more. To continue upward, I must thrash my way through very tight trees.  It is not pleasant.  At one point I am ready to retreat, but I find more open ground south of the ridge crest, along with awesome views.

Eagle Cap in the distance, snow still on its flanks

Lots of rock hopping or scrambling ensues,but the route is clear, and I top out in less than ninety minutes from the lake.  Craig’s summit is small and rocky, with views in all directions. I relax and snap some photos, then manage to send a text to my wife and stepson (whose middle name happens to be Craig).  It is warm, and from above, Ice Lake looks swim-worthy.

The fantastic surroundings of Ice Lake from Craig Mountain

Descending, I take my chances with scree gullies rather than fight the pines again. There are moments I need to downclimb granite for ten feet or float down a fifty degree slope of sand mixed with occasionally solid rock.   My descent is faster, but it is not without a few pucker-factor moments, and while I am happy to have climbed the peak, the route will not make my top ten list.

After a leisurely exploration of the lake’s lush shoreline, various tiny waterfalls and granite crags, swimming calls.

Inlet stream on south side of Ice Lake.  Stress evaporates in this scenery.

It has been a good day, and I enjoy the onset of evening.  I even see a single meteor blaze down the night sky.  I’m not usually one for omens, but what the heck, I’ll take it.