HORSEBACK RIDERS REVEL IN BEAUTY OF PRISTINE COPPER CREEK
For The Observer
A horseback ride on the Copper Creek Trail is like finding a treasure chest of jewels. Flecks of silver sparkle off the granite-strewn Elkhorn Peak, golden pebbles glisten in the creek's shallow pools and the air seems as pure as a cut diamond.
On foot or on horseback, Copper Creek, one of the many facets that make up Northeast Oregon's 360,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness, is a back-country gem begging to be explored.
I had come to visit this pristine area for two reasons. The first, my love of trail riding. The second, to introduce Jordan, my 15-year old granddaughter who is into riding English saddle in an indoor arena to the joys of trail riding, hoping that someday she'll appreciate its natural treasures as much as I do.
Unsure of her reaction to a day ride, riding western saddle no jumps, no canters, just a walk or trot with one horse following behind the other I was pleasantly surprised at her reply.
"Sure," she said, "I'll go."
Although the 15-mile drive from Lostine to the Two Pan trailhead is alive with things to see heavily forested towering mountains, riverside campgrounds and an occasional mule deer the narrow road is like a washboard, rough and dusty. Concentrating on maneuvering the truck and two-horse trailer, I expected signs of boredom, but this little gal was more intent selling me the idea of buying a three-horse trailer with living quarters than she was at checking out the scenery.
Horses saddled and bridled, lunch and bottled water packed in the saddle bags, we were ready to go. But by the time I had stepped into my stirrup, swung my leg over the back of my Quarter horse and signaled her forward with a kiss, Jordan, on her Morgan, was disappearing into the trees.
From the overcrowded Two Pan parking lot to the solitude of the West Fork of the Lostine River Trail our horses moved at a steady pace the
2.8 miles to the Copper Creek trail junction.
With a touch of rein our equine turned right. A gentle nudge and they crossed the wide but shallow Lostine River before beginning the climb through thick conifer stands. The animals worked up a lather as they picked their way up and over the rocky granite outcropping. The clip-clop of their hooves made a rhythmic beat.
The trail climbed to 7,000 feet before crossing Copper Creek, from where the horses drank. From there short switchbacks led into the thinning forest where a panoramic view of Glacier Mountain to the left, Elkhorn Peak to the right and the valley below, made you want to shout.
Reaching the basin, headwaters of Copper Creek, the remains of an old mining cabin built on a shelf of granite lay off the trail on the north side.
An alcove near the banks of the creek seemed a shady spot to rest the horses and have lunch. Jordan dismounted, found a makeshift hitching post and headed for a fallen log.
"Let's sit here," she said. "We can dangle our feet in the cold water."
In a bend of the creek, a pool glistened in the sunlight. Gold- and
copper-colored rocks, polished to a smooth finish, crowded the streambed, and mounds of white sand spread to the bank.
"Is there copper in the creek?" Jordan asked, as she examined a rock.
"I don't think so," I said, "but a Forest Service trail worker tells a story that in the days of mining Copper Creek, a miner, while panning for gold, discovered bits of copper oxide ore."
Back in the saddle we followed the mountainside switchbacks toward the North Minam River-Granite Creek Trail junction our destination. As we traveled the last three miles the sub-alpine landscape put on a show with its lush meadows and wildflowers Cusick's speedwell, pearly everlasting and sticky asters. Water from Elkhorn Creek tumbled down the ravine, and small, still pools warmed to the sun. A young man using trekking poles, who claimed 20 hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail within three years, said that he had yet to see a trail as colorful as this. "I couldn't take my eyes off the creek," he said.
Another hiker in the meadow pointed to the west. "The path heads up that way. When you get there, right at your feet will be one of the finest springs I've found in 38 years of backpacking in the Eagle Cap. Fill up your water bottle and enjoy. I don't filter this water as it comes gushing right out of the red rock cliff."
Sky Lake would have gone by the wayside as it lay hidden off the right of the trail, but the shouting of a group of hikers camped nearby led us to the cliff's edge to watch as they dived into icy water.
A quarter mile farther the path reached its highest point at 8,600 feet. Swamp Lake was visible below to the northwest, and the Matterhorn and Eagle Cap mountain summits were recognizable in the distant east and southeast. It was a picture-taking moment, and a 72-year-old man, hunkered under the weight of a well-used outer-frame backpack, agreed to do the honors. He pointed out Aneroid and Sentinel peaks as he said, "I've been hiking the Eagle Cap for 50 years. I never tire of its beauty."
Eight miles later, back at Two Pan, I hesitated in getting off the horse positive my over-60 knees would collapse on impact. Jordan, already off her horse and bouncing around, laughed.
"It looks like I'll have to lead the next trail ride," she said. "I can do it."
"Do you really want to go again?" I said, as I stretched my legs.
"Sure, Copper Creek is cool." And then she gave me a sly smile and added, "A three-horse trailer with sleeping quarters would be nice too. Then we could spend the night here."
HOW TO GET THERE
From Interstate 84 take Highway 82 to Lostine. Stay right and take the Lostine River Road (8210). Drive 15 miles, of which six miles is paved, to the Two Pan trailhead. Hike or ride horseback the West Fork of the Lostine Trail No. 1670 2.8 miles to Copper Creek Trail No. 1656. From there the trail is five miles to the North Minam River Trail-Granite Creek Trail junction.
WHO TO CONTACT
For information about Copper Creek and the Eagle Cap Wilderness, call the Wallowa Mountain Visitor Center at (541) 426-5546