Looking south from the Elkhorn Crest Trail west of Baker City, snow still blocks large sections of this high-elevation trail, but lower trails in the Elkhorns, Wallowa and Blue Mountains are snow-free, although few have been maintained this spring. (Lisa Britton/WesCom News Service)
Many low-elevation trails are accessible this time of year for hikers
The good news, if you like to hike, is that snow has already melted off at least the lower sections of most mountain trails in Northeastern Oregon.
The bad news is that fallen trees don’t melt.
Neither do boulders — unless you put them in an awfully hot kiln, which is a hard thing to fit into a backpack.
Such is the nature of late spring recreation on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
The period between the departure of the snowdrifts and the arrival of the trail-maintenance crews is a transition.
You don’t have to slog through slush (unless you happen to enjoy the challenge or want to test your new waterproof boots), but you might have to clamber over, or crawl under, an occasional wind-toppled tamarack or lodgepole pine.
“The snow’s creeping up the hill. It’s a typical problem, chasing the snow with crews,” said Dan Ermovick, recreation planner for the Wallowa-Whitman.
He’s seen trail conditions for himself — several weeks ago, it took him half an hour to walk half a mile up the Killamacue Lake trail in the Elkhorns west of Baker City, due to downed trees.
It also snowed on him.
And even though it’s almost summer in the valley, he reminds hikers that temperatures are quite a bit cooler in the mountains.
“When you go up, don’t expect summer conditions,” he said.
Ermovick said trail crews will head to the mountains in force by the beginning of July.
In the meantime, lower-elevation trails, besides being snow-free, typically have fewer obstacles.
A few examples include the paths around Phillips Lake, about 17 miles southwest of Baker City, Bird Track Springs interpretive trails southwest of La Grande and most of the trails in Hells Canyon.
Although the Eagle Cap Wilderness, with its peaks close to 10,000 feet, holds its snow longer than any other part of the Wallowa-Whitman, several popular trails start at relatively low elevations and thus are accessible now.
In fact, crews have already cleared logs and other debris from portions of two main routes starting at the trailhead at the south end of Wallowa Lake.
The East Fork Wallowa River trail has been maintained from the trailhead to one mile beyond the Eagle Cap Wilderness boundary, a distance of about three miles. The West Fork Wallowa River trail has been maintained to the Ice Lake trail junction, also about three miles from the trailhead.
If you prefer to tour the Wallowa-Whitman on four wheels rather than two feet, the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, Forest Road 39, has been open since Memorial Day.
The paved two-lane route is between Hells Canyon and the Eagle Cap Wilderness, linking Highway 86 east of Halfway with the Imnaha Highway east of Joseph.
The Elkhorn Scenic Byway, which circles the Elkhorns, is still blocked by snow between Anthony Lakes and Granite, but the remaining 80 miles of the 106-mile route are open.
The road to Hat Point east of Imnaha is still closed by snow.
Most developed campgrounds on the Wallowa-Whitman are open.
Exceptions include Anthony Lake, Grande Ronde Lake and Mud Lake campgrounds in the Anthony Lakes area.
The Wallowa-Whitman website is updated regularly about the condition of trails, including whether they’ve been maintained by crews.
Many entries also have links to find more detailed information about specific trails.
To find these hiking resources, go to www.fs.usda.gov/main/wallowa-whitman/home.
Under “Quick Links” on the right side, click on “Current Roads and Recreation Reports” then “Trail Reports” for the area you’re interested in exploring.