I never appreciate switchbacks so much as when there aren’t any.
My legs and my lungs are especially fond of these simple but elegant bits of footpath engineering.
If you have neither the time, inclination nor the budget to build a tram like the one that hauls passengers from Wallowa Lake to the top of Mount Howard — and such conveyances aren’t exactly common hereabouts — then constructing a series of switchbacks is the best way to tame a section of wild terrain.
A switchback, as its name suggests, is the spot where a trail abruptly switches direction. Generally this is a roughly 180-degree shift — if you’ve been walking north, the switchback will set you on a southerly course.
The concept of the zigzag captures the essence of the thing.
Trail designers most often call for switchbacks on steep ground.
A switchbacking trail allows hikers — indeed, anything that has feet and employs them for locomotion — to ascend a slope in a series of traverses that are at a much gentler grade compared with clambering straight up.
For reasons best explained through geometry or physics or anyway some other discipline with numbers and symbols that frighten and confuse me, the steeper, and to some extent the narrower, the hill, the more switchbacks, with shorter traverses, are necessary to moderate the grade.
On a nearly vertical slope — hardly an uncommon feature in our region where the topography is as rumbled as the piles of clothes on a teenage boy’s bedroom floor — a trail might switch directions every couple hundred feet.
In less severe terrain, especially on broad slopes not confined by cliffs or cleaved by a canyon — a traverse might extend for a quarter mile or more before the trail switches back.
Northeast Oregon has a wealth of examples of both approaches to building trails.
Although there are notable exceptions, most trails in the Wallowa Mountains are generously endowed with switchbacks. This design reflects the frequent use of horses to carry visitors, and their gear, into the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon’s largest primitive area at 365,000 acres.
Horses are fine climbers, to be sure.
But if you’re riding one, or even if it’s only your weekend’s supply of pancake flour and beer that depends on equine agility, you’ll likely prefer the gentler ascent that a well-designed switchback trail encourages.
The Elkhorn Mountains are a decidedly different matter.
Switchbacks are scarce.
Trails are also shorter, as a rule, in the Elkhorns compared with the Wallowas.
This reflects in part of the sizes of the ranges, certainly, as the Wallowas sprawl over three times as much ground.
Wilderness, or lack thereof, is also a significant factor.
The Wallowas are mostly designated as federal wilderness, which means motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. Most popular destinations such as lakes lie several miles from the end of the nearest road.
By contrast there’s very little official wilderness in the Elkhorns, so roads — terribly rough roads, in many cases, about which more later, but roads just the same — penetrate deeper into the mountains, resulting in shorter trails.
But the comparatively puny trail mileage in the Elkhorns also reflects trail builders’ choice to largely eschew switchbacks.
Attacking the terrain directly, as most trails do in the Elkhorns, is a shorter, steeper way to get to where you’re going.
Several trails exemplify this strategy.
But none demonstrates it quite so brutally, or so my quadriceps tell me, as the path to Rock Creek Lake on the east side of the Elkhorns.
The 4-mile trail includes a section about a third of a mile long that is, if not the steepest sustained climb among Elkhorns trails, then surely belongs in the upper echelon.
(The path from the North Powder River to Summit Lake is comparable, although I believe its most torturous stretch is slightly shorter.)
Were the Rock Creek trail rebuilt to the general specifications common to the Eagle Cap Wilderness, it would be at least 50% longer, and probably nearer to twice the distance.
Its antithesis is the trail to Frances Lake, on the east side of the Lostine River Canyon in the Wallowas. The Frances Lake trail, which replaced an older, steeper and shorter route, ascends the canyon in a series of long traverses, connected by switchbacks, that are so consistent and so gradual that when I hiked the trail several years ago with my father-in-law, Howard Britton, we scarcely detected the elevation gain.
And it’s a considerable gain, at about 3,000 feet from the trailhead to the ridgecrest several hundred feet about Frances Lake. But that elevation is spread over about 8 miles.
There’s nothing so subtle about the Rock Creek trail.
After crossing the North Fork of Rock Creek and then the mainstem, both in the first tenth of a mile, the trail climbs steadily but at a moderate grade for half a mile or so until it plunges into the jungle.
That, at any rate, is what I’ve long called the short stretch where the trail cleaves a grove of alders and thimbleberries and cow parsnip with stalks as tall as an elk’s back, much of it dangling across the trail.
Fortunately none of the species that make up this vegetative gantlet is especially scratchy.
The hard work, though, starts where the trail emerges from the jungle. The path immediately scrabbles its way up a forested slope so steep that the trees seem to be growing at a peculiar angle.
And yet as taxing as this trudge is, I never fail to be amused, as I plod along, heart thudding and breath wheezing, at the pathetic gesture the trailblazers made to acknowledge the severity of the terrain.
I would describe their efforts as half-hearted except that cliché strikes me as an exaggeration. And quarter-hearted is an awkward alternative.
Regardless, the trail does meander a bit as it climbs toward the gap that Rock Creek has spooned out of the Elkhorns’ geologic goulash over the millennia.
But these slight squiggles don’t qualify as switchbacks even under the most generous definition of the word.
If anything, the trail gets a trifle steeper at these spots. A well-constructed switchback requires a fair amount of digging, to keep the grade steady. The Rock Creek trail has none of this.
At the top of the climb the trail — perversely, it seems to me — descends briefly. This, of course, merely ensures that on the way back hikers, rather than relishing the downward tug of gravity all the way, after having defied it so sweatily on the way up, instead, albeit briefly, give truth to the old adage about how in the old days people had to walk to school “uphill both ways.”
None of the rest of the path to the lake is quite so precipitous — indeed, for a half mile or so it is pretty nearly flat. But there are several steep stretches in the last mile, and none is relieved by a switchback.
The Rock Creek trail ascends a bit more than 2,000 feet in all. That works out to about 500 feet gained per mile, which on paper seems not vastly more daunting than the Frances Lake trail’s rate of climb of about 375 feet per mile.
But mountains, it goes without saying, are not made of paper.
(And a fine thing that is; imagine how much worse the fire seasons would be.)
The bigger difference is that the Frances Lake trail’s grade, as mentioned, is nearly constant.
The trail to Rock Creek Lake, by contrast, bookends its gentle middle with passages where the grade, if extended, equates to at least 1,000 feet per mile.
This is the sort of steepness that creates lasting memories. Certainly you’ll remember it a few days later when your calves and thighs ache with every step.
But what you’ll also remember, and with pleasure rather than pain, is your first sight of Rock Creek Lake.
Among the 25 or so lakes in the Elkhorns — the exact tally depends on whether you include a handful of nameless bodies of water that are little more than ponds — some rival the spectacular setting of Rock Creek Lake.
But to my eyes, none surpasses it.
This if of course a subjective matter. I’ve never visited an alpine lake that didn’t give me a little thrill when I first saw the limpid glint of the water through the trees.
But Rock Creek Lake, elevation 7,600 feet, belongs to that category of places that gives even a cynical visitor pause. It’s both the biggest (35 acres) and deepest (about 100 feet) natural lake in the Elkhorns. That great depth gives the water a shade of cobalt not quite like any I’ve seen elsewhere in the range.
The lake occupies a cirque — a circular depression gouged by an Ice Age glacier — at the base of Rock Creek Butte, the 9,106-foot peak that is the highest in the Elkhorns.
The pinnacle that looms above the lake’s western shore has no official name but its sheer north face is impressive. I call it the Thumb, and it’s even more prominent when seen from the last mile or so of the trail, before the lake itself steals some of the grandeur.
The lake, which was dammed at its northwest corner to increase its capacity to store water for irrigation, drops several feet late in the summer, leaving the bathtub ring marks common to reservoirs.
There are a few campsites on the north shore — the other sides are too steep and rocky to make camping convenient.
As is the case with most of the southern half of the Elkhorns, mountain goats are common at the lake. I talked with someone who had camped overnight at Rock Creek Lake a week before I visited on Aug. 15, and he said the goats roamed around his camp most of the night.
We didn’t see any goats at the lake during the hour or so we were there, but my daughter, Olivia, and I spied a nanny and two kids crossing a distant snowdrift from a vantage point a mile or so below the lake on our way down.
Besides the steep climbing required, on the day we hiked the trail it had not recently been cleared of trees. And by recently I mean since the Clinton administration, or so it seemed. We had to climb over, crawl under or detour around about a dozen such obstacles.
This is annoying, but is not wholly bad. The logs make a convenient reason to rest for a bit before resuming the ascent.
And finally there is the matter, mentioned earlier, of the access road.
The Rock Creek road is not the roughest road in the Elkhorns.
But this is akin to saying that Siberia isn’t the coldest region on Earth because, of course, Antarctica sets the standard for frigidity.
Although other roads boast bigger boulders and deeper ruts, the Rock Creek road constitutes a challenge to shock absorbers and ground clearance.
I have seen vehicles with modest clearance and no low-range transfer case as far as Eilertson Meadow — a Subaru, in one case — but I wouldn’t recommend the trip in such a rig to anyone who I might have to answer to later.