July 18, 2002 11:00 pm
Once at the summit, wide-eyed wonder and long spells of silent staring is a common reaction to the scenery that visitors find there. (Photos/Mark Highberger).
Once at the summit, wide-eyed wonder and long spells of silent staring is a common reaction to the scenery that visitors find there. (Photos/Mark Highberger).

by Mark Highberger

For The Observer

For many people, getting into the wilderness means there's a whole lot of achin' going on — foot blisters or saddle sores, shoulders scraping against straps or buttocks bouncing against leather. But you'll find a rare exception to this in Northeast Oregon, where the Wallowa Lake tramway carries you to the top of Mount Howard and sets you down on the alpine edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area.

First opened almost 30 years ago at Wallowa Lake State Park, the tram is said to be the steepest (almost three-quarters of a mile rise in elevation) and the longest (almost two miles from base to summit) in North America. Because it climbs the mountain in about 15 minutes, covering more than the length of two football fields every 60 seconds, it also provides what has to be the quickest and easiest route into Oregon's mountain backcountry.

"It would take me almost two hours of grunting and groaning to hike to the top," says a man riding one of the tram's four-person gondolas. "This is much more comfortable."

Next to him, a woman gazes through the window to a world of water and mountains, where Wallowa Lake lies as a blue crescent between its moraines, and valley fields spread out beyond it in a patchwork of green and brown. "This," she says, "is the easiest mountain climbing I've ever done."

The higher the climb, the more serene it becomes. Soon the hum of the steel cable is the only sound; the sway and sag of the gondola the only movement. Even people who fear heights seem to enjoy this ride. Maybe that's because the mountain is so steep that the ground seems always so near — no dangling over chasms on this trip. You're close enough to the forest floor to see the heather and lupine and yarrow that spot it as well as the deer trails that cross it. Yet nothing on the ride prepares you for what you find once you reach the 8,200-foot summit of Mount Howard and step out of the tram's terminal.

"Wow!" says a man standing on the patio of the Summit Grill, staring toward Chief Joseph Mountain. "Almost makes me want to yodel."

He cups his hand to his mouth, but before he can cut loose with his first "little-old-lady-who," his wife tugs his sleeve and begins pulling him along one of the nearby hiking trails.

A network consisting of short loops and stunning overlooks make up the summit's trail system. With each overlook offering a different view, it's possible to see a half-dozen mountain, canyon, or valley perspectives by walking less than three miles of relatively flat pathways. It's a wilderness experience without the gear or sweat, a combination of beauty and ease that brings thousands of people to the summit every year. Yet these numbers can create problems.

"The challenge to Mount Howard is its 30,000 visitors a year," says Jerry Hustafa, a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service. "It's important to get them all to stay on the trails."

And it seems that almost everyone here ventures out onto those trails for some distance. "If you can walk a quarter-mile, you can see into the wilderness," says a woman stepping along one of the gravel paths. "And if you can walk a half-mile, you can see into Idaho."

That first quarter mile takes you to Royal Purple Overlook, where a hiker with binoculars scans Chief Joseph's peak for mountain goats and the Hurwal Divide for bighorn sheep. At a bench on the nearby knoll, his wife feeds peanuts to the golden mantles, gray diggers, and chipmunks that come scampering after handouts. Sleek and shiny and chubby, they stand on her feet and eat out of her hand. "How many can you fit in there, Mister?" the woman says, laughing at the golden mantle's peanut-stuffed cheeks.

Even though the Summit Overlook is less than a half-mile down the trail, the walk might take your breath away because here your body receives almost 15 percent less oxygen than it does at valley elevations. Another difference is that you'll be cooler than you were at lakeside, for each rise of 1,000 feet can drop the temperature three degrees. In fact, a trailside sign explains that alpine and Arctic climates are roughly the same because each 1,000-foot increase in elevation is the equivalent of driving north for 360 miles. This means the vegetation on top of Mount Howard is similar to that found on an Alaskan tundra.

"Mount Howard is one of those areas in Oregon where you can get to alpine-like, slow-growing plants that survive a harsh environment and a short growing season," Hustafa says. "The habitat is fragile."

The hilltop trail to Summit Overlook takes you through a good cross-section of that habitat, especially of wildflowers and whitebark pines crouching against mountain winds and winter snows. Once at the viewpoint, however, you'll find your attention shifting toward the snow-pocketed, deep ribbed slopes of East Peak and Aneroid Mountain. For those who need more challenge, a nearby trail leads off the summit and toward the slope of East Peak and the wilderness. If you've ever had the urge to climb a 9,000-foot mountain, this route gives you an 8,000-foot head start.

For those content to stay on Mount Howard, the next stops are around a bend in the trail, where Highlands Overlook and a nearby viewpoint show you a far-reaching land of green and gray recovering from a 1980s forest fire. From here the hills beyond the charred trees seem to roll toward a horizon where Idaho's Seven Devils mountains tower above the Hells Canyon country.

Close by lies a trail junction where hikers can either turn back toward the tram terminal and its adjacent cafe, or go ahead to Valley Overlook, which offers a panoramic view of the Wallowa Valley. Because this is the longest leg of the trail system, roughly a mile, many take the short cut, leaving the final loop to those determined to circle the summit. On this summer day, however, a sudden roil of gray-black clouds starts rumbling the sound of retreat.

The wildlife seems restless. Two mountain bluebirds flit across the trail and swoop for cover lower on the slope; a mule deer doe steps out from behind a sub-alpine fir and tips her nose to the sky. Then thunder crackles and booms and rolls over the ridges, and hikers holding their children's hands or gripping their cappuccino cups scurry for cover. From the growling clouds rolls another clap of thunder. "Are those the Seven Devils talking?" says a man jogging past.

For an answer, the sky whips wind and spits hail, pushing almost everybody toward the great indoors of the Summit Grill, where the steam from coffee mugs and burger baskets offer civilized solace to wilderness wanderers. After all, this isn't the end of the adventure, for when the storm abates the wilderness awaits, and so does the tram that carries you back down the mountain.