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Hiking inevitably involves compromise.
Trouble is, you can’t negotiate with topography.
You can’t swap a few granola bars — not even those concoctions of peanuts, caramel and chocolate that are barely disguised Snickers — in exchange for a mountain moving out of your way or a glacial valley lopping off a few miles to spare your legs and your lungs.
But occasionally, through a happy confluence of nature and human activity, we end up with a place that’s as beautiful as any remote wilderness but requires a much more modest investment in time and effort than is typical.
Which is to say, a place even most kindergartners, whose moods are as predictable as a tornado (and which often leave a similar swath of debris in their wake), ought to be able to get to on foot.
Van Patten Lake, in the Elkhorn Mountains near Anthony Lakes, is just such a place.
Nearby Anthony and Grande Ronde lakes are even easier to get to, but that’s hardly a fair comparison since you can drive right to the shores of both.
When friends ask me to recommend trails suitable for kids and their short legs (and attention spans) I invariably include Van Patten among my suggestions.
But not only because I figure most youngsters, including those who have never hiked in the mountains, can manage the 3-mile round trip.
I promote Van Patten because the rewards, at least to my eye, compare quite favorably to alpine lakes that require considerably more toil to reach.
The lake, at an elevation of 7,395 feet, strikes me as the quintessential mountain pool. It lies in a granitic amphitheater, with serrated ridges rising on three sides and looking rather like the notched parapet of a medieval castle’s walls.
At 16ﬁ acres, Van Patten ranks fifth in size among lakes in the Elkhorns (behind Rock Creek, 24 acres; Anthony, 22; Pine Creek Reservoir, 18; and Summit; 17).
Although it’s a natural lake, its basin carved by an Ice Age glacier, in common with many lakes in the Elkhorns and the Wallowas, farmers decades ago augmented the natural dam so Van Patten can hold more water for summer irrigation.
The trail follows an old road for the first mile or so, then transitions to a footpath. It’s a steady climb but the grade is moderate.
A trail circles the lake and leads to good campsites on both the north and south sides. The lake, as befits it altitude, is eternally chilly, but there are a few decent spots for wading (or jumping in, for those with a more adventurous spirit, or with less sensitive nerve endings).
Van Patten is also a fine fishing lake, harboring eastern brook trout.
IF YOU GO....
Drive toward Anthony Lakes Ski Area. The well-marked turnoff is about three miles down the mountain from the ski area. Follow the gravel road a few hundred yards to the trail, which starts on the left. There is no parking fee.