Wallowa River Loop Backpacking Guide

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A backpacker hikes by the edge of a turquoise blue lake in the Wallowa mountains with a beautiful island in the middle


Last Updated: August 28, 2023

The Wallowa Mountain Range, located in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of eastern Oregon, is one of the most stunning areas to backpack in the Pacific Northwest. Often referred to as the “Alps of Oregon,” the immense granite peaks of the Wallowas are best experienced on multi-day backpacking trips.

This 36-mile Wallowa River Loop Trail will take you over some breathtaking mountain passes and still ensure that you get a chance to take in the beauty of the Lakes Basin. Over the course of this loop you can expect to see crystal clear lakes and streams, wildflower-socked meadows, and granite peaks that will make you wonder if you’re still in Oregon.

There are also very worthy side trips to the summit of Eagle Cap and Matterhorn that will further solidify your appreciation of the Wallowas. Although this route sees its fair share of hikers, we think it’s well worth a visit.


  • Distance: 36 miles

  • Days Needed: 4-5 days

  • Elevation gain: 7,500 feet

  • Best time to travel: July-September

  • Permits: free and available at trailhead

  • Difficulty: moderate-difficult

A high lake nestled in a basin in the Wallowa Mountains



  • Immense granite peaks

  • Pristine alpine lakes

  • Wildflower meadows

  • Beautiful glacier-carved valleys

  • Well marked and maintained trails

  • Permits are self-issued at trailhead and free


  • Little solitude, especially in the lakes basin

  • Seasonal bugs & snow

  • Some big climbs and descents

A mountain goat walking past Glacier Lake with Eagle Cap Peak in the background.



Permits for the Eagle Cap Wilderness are free and self-issued at trailheads.


In general, late July to September is the best time to travel to this area. Snowpack is a key factor for trip planning in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Some years a heavy winter snowpack and early season storms will keep trails covered into July. In warmer years with lighter snowpack, June backcountry trips are quite feasible.

The same is true for autumn hiking, some years early snowstorms make this area inaccessible, and other years it’s stable into October. You can always contact the local Ranger Station to ask about snow level and accessibility.

Varying snow conditions also mean variable water levels. The trail has a few river crossings that could be challenging with increased water levels during the early season after a heavy snow year or heatwave.

July and August are usually great for wildflowers, but that’s also the time when mosquitoes will be the worst. Use a combination of Permethrin on your clothing and a small amount of Picaridin on exposed skin for full protection. Mid-August through September can also be a good time to visit this area because crowds and bugs will be lessened.

Always pay close attention to the weather forecast before your trip and be prepared for changing conditions.

Logs jammed up along a creek in the Wallowa Mountains.



  • Total distance: 36 miles

  • Total elevation gain: 7,500 feet

  • Overall difficulty: moderate to difficult

Difficulty depends on your experience, physical fitness, pack weight, & weather conditions. This is not a technically demanding hike, but there are a few big climbs and descents on this trail. Climbing over Polaris Pass is the most demanding portion of this hike with the trail on the west side of the pass being mostly scree.Be careful, go slow and watch your footing.

Hiking with lightweight equipment will help make this trip easier and more enjoyable. Check out our Gear Guide for our favorite backpacking equipment.

A backpacker approaching Polaris Pass on the Wallowa River Loop Trail



The Eagle Cap Wilderness is a popular hiking destination and the Wallowa River Loop is one of its most popular trails, so you shouldn’t expect to be alone on this hike. That said, we were surprised by how few hikers we saw on the east side of Polaris Pass. Once we reached Glacier Lake and headed into the Lakes Basin, we started to see a lot more travelers.

To avoid the crowds, try to hike this trail mid-week and outside of the summer rush from mid-July to mid-August.

The view from Eagle Cap Summit in the Wallowas.



The Wallowa River Loop can be completed in 4-5 days depending on your physical fitness level and desired pace. Because this hike is a true loop, you can hike it in either direction. Below is a general route summary heading in a clockwise direction. Moving clockwise will result in hiking uphill on most of the scree-filled and exposed sections. Know that this loop is not a singular trail, but rather multiple trails connected. Before you hit the trail, make sure to consult a detailed map with trail numbers, mileage, and trail junctions, as the signage can be a little confusing.  

  • Begin your hike at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead, near the south end of the lake

  • Follow the East Fork Wallowa Trail until you reach Aneroid Lake. There are some good campsites along the lake.

  • Continue ascending up and over Tenderfoot Pass and onward to Polaris Pass, following signs for Polaris Trail. Take a moment to enjoy Polaris Pass. It’s arguably one of the best views in the Wallowas.

  • After the pass, descend through a well-graded, but long set of switchbacks and follow the trail to Frazier Lake.

  • At Frazier Lake, take the trail towards Glacier Lake following signage for Glacier Pass. There are some nice campsites close to Glacier Lake. Try to get one early because they are in high demand, and get ready to enjoy some stunning sunrises and sunsets.

  • After Glacier Pass you will begin descending down into the Lakes Basin Management Area. Follow signage for the Mocassin Lake Trail. At Moccasin Lake you’ll find several popular campsites and epic swimming holes.

  • You’ll then meet up with the Lakes Basin Trail, which will wind you through some exquisite, crystal-clear lakes and campsites.

  • The Lakes Basin trail eventually meets up with the West Fork Trail, which will lead you through beautiful Six Mile Meadows and back to the Wallowa Lake Trailhead.

The blue-green water in Glacier Lake.



  • Currently, there are only a few map options for this area, and none of them are ideal for backpacking trails and mileage. The Green Trails Wallowas, Imus Geographics, and Wallowa Mountain Hell’s Canyon Trail Association (WMHCTA) maps are all options you can purchase online. The WMHCTA map can also be found in person at the Sports Corral when you get to Joseph and includes a QR code for a downloadable GPS map. When we completed this loop, we stopped at the Ranger Station in Joseph to purchase a map.

  • Backpacking Oregon – This book is an excellent resource for the Wallowa River Loop and many other backpacking trips around Oregon. I highly recommend picking this book up if you like backpacking around the PNW. It’s got great play-by-play descriptions of this trail and is very useful when planning out camping locations and side trips.

  • Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness – A practical, well-organized, and thorough book about the various trails in the area complete with maps, trail descriptions, elevation profiles, and photos. This book contains information about backpacking trips as well as day hikes.

  • AllTrails – On this app, the route we took is called East Fork to Glacier Lake to West Fork Loop. A primary benefit of this app is being able to see recent trip reports and comments from fellow hikers. With a premium subscription you can download different maps of the trail and record your hike. Keep in mind that the mileage on the actual trail maps will more accurately reflect the trail length than the AllTrails track.  

  • CalTopo – With a free account you can veiw this loop with a variety of map and layering options and create a pdf. A premium subscription will allow you to download the map, access layers while offline, and utilize gps tracking.

The Wallowas Mountains reflecting in the outlet of a high-alpine lake.



Below is our summary of the regulations for this area. For the official regulations, please visit the USFS Wallowa-Whitman Recreation page.

  • Leave no trace – If you pack it in, pack it out

  • No motorized equipment

  • No bicycles

  • No groups larger than 12

  • No groups larger than 6 if camping in the Lakes Basin area

  • No shortcutting trails or switchbacks

  • No damaging live vegetation

  • No entering restoration areas

  • No camping within 100 feet of any lake or posted wetland

  • No campfires within 1/4 mile (1320 feet) of the following lakes: Bear Lake (Bear Creek Area), Blue Lake, Chimney Lake, Dollar Lake, Eagle Lake, Frazier Lake, Little Frazier Lake, Glacier, Hobo Lake, Ice Lake, Jewett Lake, Laverty Lake, Maxwell Lake, Mirror Lake, Moccasin Lake, Prospect Lake, Steamboat Lake, Sunshine Lake, Swamp Lake, Tombstone Lake, Traverse Lake, and Upper Lake.

Looking into a lush green basin surrounded by steep granite peaks on the Wallowa River Trail.



Water is plentiful along this trail and is easily accessible from lakes and streams. Carry plenty of water to get from one source to the next and a lightweight water purifier. Our current favorite is the Sawyer Squeeze and we highly recommend grabbing one for your trip. Though the water is often crystal clear through the Wallowas, it is rich with glittery flecks of mica. This mineral is chemically harmless, but can cause your filter to clog faster than you’d expect. Make sure you have a backup treatment option or know how to clean your filter depending on your device.

The Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter in front of granite peaks in the Wallowas.



There are black bears in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, however it’s not very common to see them along this route. Even if you don’t see any bears, there will still be plenty of smaller critters that will want to get into your food supply. And they’ll be happy to chew through your expensive backpacking gear to get after it. For that reason, food protection and storage are very important considerations in this area.

There are no food storage requirements along this trail, but you should always store your food properly in the backcountry. Make sure you know how to hang a bear bag properly or carry a food storage container. Bear canisters and Ursacks are the most effective storage methods and the easiest to use.

A backpacker preparing a meal while hiking the Wallowa River Loop Trail.



If you have the energy and time, there are two incredible side trips off the Wallowa River Loop Trail that will reward you with panoramic views of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The Matterhorn and Sacajawea Summits and Eagle Cap Summit trails will not disappoint.

A backpacker looking out over the Wallowas from the summit of Eagle Cap Mountain.



You will begin and end your trip at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead, which is located at the south end of Wallowa Lake. This trailhead is the start for dozens of hikes and horse packing trips, so the parking is limited and frequently full. During busier times of the year consider downloading the summer shuttle schedule in case you cannot park at the trailhead. A more comprehensive guide to the shuttle and where to park is available on signs at the trailhead but not online.

If you’re headed clockwise, you will begin your hike at the East Fork Trail, heading toward Aneroid Lake.If you begin counterclockwise, you will begin your hike on the West Fork Trail, heading toward Six Mile Meadows.This is a true loop, so you can go in either direction. Some argue that hiking clockwise makes the climb up Polaris Pass easier, but hiking in either direction is totally doable.

A backpacker hiking in the Eagle Cap Lakes Basin towards Moccasin Lake



It takes roughly six hours to reach the Wallowa Lake trailhead from Portland.

Driving Directions:From Portland, follow Interstate 84 East. Take exit 261 from I-84 E toward La Grande/Elgin. Continue to follow OR-82 East to Power House Rd in Wallowa County.You will arrive at Wallowa Lake Trailhead.




We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.

The Zpacks Duplex backpacking tent in a meadow in the Wallowa Mountains.



TENT: We used the Zpacks Duplex tent on this trip. We love its combination of incredibly low weight and livability and that’s why it’s one of our top picks on our best lightweight backpacking tents list. 

BACKPACK: We used Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpacks on this trek. They’re lightweight, convenient, and comfortable which is why they made our list of the best lightweight backpacking packs

SLEEPING BAG: We used the Western Mountaineering UltraLite and Feathered Friends Swallow UL 20 on this backpacking trip. They are both lightweight, incredibly warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping bags.

SLEEPING PAD: We both used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite NXT sleeping pad on this trip. It’s light, comfortable, warm, and makes our list of the best backpacking sleeping pads.

COOKING SYSTEM: We used the BRS StoveSnow Peak Mini Solo Cookset, and Toaks Folding Spoon on this trek, all of which make our top picks gear list and best lightweight stove list

WATER PURIFIER: We used the SteriPEN Ultra as our main purification method on this trip. It’s lightweight, works fast, and doesn’t require any pumping/squeezing or chemicals. Check out our best water filters list for our other top recommendations.

SHOES OR BOOTS: We wore Saucony Peregrine 13 trail runners (men’s & women’s) on this trail and they were excellent. If you prefer boots, make sure they’re lightweight and break them in really well before your trip. Here are the lists of our favorite hiking shoes and hiking boots for trails like this.

HEADLAMP: A small headlamp like the Petzl Actik is an affordable, bright, and lightweight option. Check out all our favorite headlamps here.

FOOD: When backpacking the Wallowa River Trail you’ll have to carry all your food. For some suggestions on common backpacking food options, check out our backpacking food guide or our list of the Best Freeze Dried Meals.

FOOD STORAGE: For this trip, we brought an Ursack, to keep the critters out of our food. There are no food storage requirements for this area, but you should always store your food properly in the backcountry. Bear canisters and Ursacks are the most effective storage methods and the easiest to use.

A backpacker cooking a freeze-dried meal near Glacier Lake in the Wallowas.



Here are some of our favorite hiking/backpacking clothing items from our Top Gear list

MAP &COMPASS: You should always hike with a topographical map. See the above suggestions on map options for this area. In addition, we always hike with a compass.

FIRST AID KIT: Always bring a small personalized first aid kit. We used the .5 Ultralight Kit and added extras, like painkillers and personal medications.

SUN PROTECTION: Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and SPF lip balm are an absolute must.

POCKET KNIFE: We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife, which came in handy here and there.


  • SMALL TOWEL: The PackTowl UltraLite is great.

  • CASH and ID



  • HAND SANITIZER: Always apply after using the bathroom and before eating.

  • WET WIPES: These can be useful for cleaning up after hiking.

  • INSECT REPELLANT: At higher elevations, insects weren’t a problem for us at all. For lower elevations, a 1oz bottle of Picaridin will do the trick.

Mountain reflections in a lake on the Wallowa River Loop Trail.



I hope this guide helps you plan a trip along the Wallowa River Loop Trail. It’s one of our favorite places to backpack in the Pacific Northwest so we hope you will enjoy your trip and help preserve our beautiful wild spaces.

As always, please leave a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions. Thanks!

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Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means we may receive a modest commission if purchases are made through those links. This adds no cost to our readers and helps us keep our site up and running. Our reputation is our most important asset, which is why we only provide completely honest and unbiased recommendations.