Hiker’s Choice: Short & Steep or ... Long & Gentle

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald August 26, 2009 02:04 pm
The Wallowas and the Elkhorns have a lot in common — but the design of their hiking trails isn’t on the list

In terms of their hiking trails, the Wallowa Mountains are summer camp, and the Elkhorns are Marine basic training.

These two ranges, which bestow on Baker Valley its almost unfairly scenic backdrops — the Elkhorns close by to the west, the Wallowas a bit farther and to the northeast — are in other respects much more like siblings than, say, second cousins.

Both were built from a similar geologic goulash — layers of sedimentary rock, which hundreds of millions of years ago formed the floors of a tropical sea, rub their smooth shoulders with sandpapery slopes of granitic rocks that once were molten but which cooled and hardened underground before they could spew lava onto the surface and make a volcano.

The Wallowas are more eclectic still, riddled by streaks of dark brown basalt that are especially conspicuous when they cut through white granite.

The basalt intrusions, known as dikes and sills, are the remnants of conduits that spilled millions of cubic yards of soupy lava between about 14 million and 16 million years ago.

These lava flows, which geologists call “flood basalts,” streamed westward to the Pacific.

Later, the Columbia River slashed its way through these basalts to form the broad basin and deep gorge that bear the river’s name.

Later still, during the Ice Age, glaciers graced both the Wallowas and the Elkhorns. These rivers of ice sculpted the mountains into the forms we are familiar with — narrow ridges capped by precipitous pinnacles; U-shaped valleys with a creek or river in the bottom; and, in most cases, a frigid alpine lake at the head of the valley.

Yet for all their similarities, the Wallowas and the Elkhorns can seem as different to the hiker as freeze-dried spaghetti and a barbecued burger.

With few exceptions, trails in the Elkhorns assault the slopes in the straightforward manner of an infantry platoon making a bayonet charge.

This approach has its advantages, of course.

Elkhorn trails don’t seem particularly daunting when you size them up on a map; few exceed five miles.

But the Elkhorns themselves are as steep as the Wallowas, and pretty nearly as tall.

Trail designers can control distance but they can’t do much with elevation gain — if a lake lies at 7,300 feet there’s no practical way to drag it down to 6,300. And when you’re getting around on foot, the number of feet you have to ascend usually is the more significant statistic, fatigue-wise, than how many miles you travel.

Whoever laid out most of the trails in the Wallowas understood this.

Wallowa trails — again, with certain noteworthy outliers — sacrifice distance for grades which are much gentler than is typical in the Elkhorns.

They achieve this compromise through the generous use of the switchback.

Perhaps too generous, you might think after you’ve wound your vertiginous way through a few dozen of these 180-degree turns in a couple of miles.

Which is precisely what you’ll do if you hike the West Eagle Trail to Echo Lake, a trip of about 5.4 miles one way.

(Some energetic hikers “cut” switchbacks by climbing straight up the slope; this is exceedingly bad wilderness etiquette, as it leaves ugly scars on the ground.)

To complete your comparison of Wallowa and Elkhorn trails, I recommend the trip to Killamacue Lake in the Elkhorns.

But not on the same day.

The Killamacue Lake trail is ideal for such an exercise (or just for exercise alone) because you have to climb almost exactly as many feet as on the Echo Lake trail.

Except you cram all that elevation into three miles instead of 5.4.

There are a handful of switchbacks on the Killamacue Lake trail, but they seem like elements the trail builders threw in when they got bored.

The obvious question, then, is why are Wallowa trails lousy with switchbacks while Elkhorn trails are deficient.

The simplest answer is that horses, both for riding and for packing camping gear, are used more widely in the Wallowas, and the gradual climbs that switchbacks make possible are better-suited to equine abilities (and, perhaps, equine temperament; I know I’d balk at hauling cast-iron frying pans up a 20-percent grade).

Despite the differences along the way, the Echo Lake and Killamacue Lake trails share a similar end: A pretty lake which will entice you to fill your camera’s memory card, and soothe your sweaty feet in cold water and, if you’re an angler, try to hook a few brook trout.

Plus, if you’re at Killamacue there’s this bonus: Your car is two miles — and dozens of switchbacks — closer.