Picture yourself waking up with views of jagged peaks and gentle breezes rustling through evergreens, steps from your sleeping bag. This immersion in nature isn’t reserved for multiday backpacking trips. Day hikers looking to break into overnight trips can find adventure in Oregon’s mountain wildernesses, with short adventures in the glorious backcountry of the Elkhorn and Wallowa mountain ranges that are only about 6 hours from Portland. Even better, you don’t have to reserve ahead for these blissfully crowd-free treks, and you can spend part of your time backpacking and the other part enjoying small communities like Joseph. Here are tips to get started and some of our favorite places for beginning backpackers in Eastern Oregon.
Tips for Backpacking Success
Setting out on an out-and-back, one-night backpacking trip is a great start to gain experience for longer trips. You’ll be staying at dispersed campsites, which lack facilities present in maintained camping areas. They are often marked only by a social trail — an unofficial path created by use over time. It’s important to stay on this trail to keep from getting lost.
When you’re looking for the perfect dispersed campsite, steer clear of any water source and find flat ground, which will be the most comfortable for sleeping. If there is a slight slope, ensure the tent is pitched so that the head side is upslope.
In August you’ll generally find the best trail conditions and your best chance at avoiding high-elevation snow, spring precipitation and pesky mosquitoes, but see each hike for recommended timing during summer months.
Lakeside Relaxing in the Elkhorn Mountains
Perched in the Elkhorn Mountains southwest of Anthony Lakes, Crawfish Lake offers dispersed camping less than 2 miles from the trailhead. Starting from the Upper Crawfish Lake Trailhead, follow Crawfish Lake Trail #1606 and descend down a wide trail crossing multiple trickling streams before the trail narrows and winds around an open hillside. The trail crosses Crawfish Creek and reaches the lake after 1.8 miles. A social trail leading to multiple dispersed campsites follows the shoreline. Take a dip in the crisp snowmelt water, look for wildflowers like purple lupine or relax in your hammock. Best backpacked July to August.
Easy Going at Strawberry Lake
A mere 1.2 miles is all it takes to reach this beautiful lake shadowed by the Strawberry Mountains and fed by mountain snow in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, southeast of John Day. From Strawberry Campground, access Strawberry Lake Trail #5004 via Strawberry Basin Trail #375 on an easily hiked, compact dirt path that climbs slowly through a forest dominated by pines and firs and abundant with patches of snowberry and huckleberry. Dispersed camping options are most numerous on the east side of the lake. Set up camp before enjoying a hike around the lake, where you might catch a glimpse of a beaver or two. Best backpacked July to September.
Alpenglow and Waterfalls at Little Strawberry Lake
Surrounded by steep mountainsides also southeast of John Day, Little Strawberry Lake resides at a higher elevation than its larger counterpart and offers more solitude for about 7 miles round-trip. From Strawberry Basin Trail #375 and Strawberry Lake Trail #5004, continue past Strawberry Lake and soak in the mist of Strawberry Falls as a midhike reward. Hikers will come to a junction with Little Strawberry Trail #5003 after switchbacking and crossing a short bridge above the falls. Select one of many dispersed campsites set away from the lakeshore, and settle in to watch the sunset light the surrounding peaks with alpenglow. Best backpacked July to September.
Camping Solitude and Alpine Views at Maxwell Lake
Located within the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowa Mountains, this 8-mile trail offers experienced day hikers looking to break into backpacking the opportunity to train their trail legs with an overnight trip. Look for flat ground, and bear in mind that camping within 100 feet of the lake is prohibited. Campfires are not allowed within a quarter mile of Maxwell Lake.
Beginning at Shady Campground just south of Lostine, Maxwell Lake Trail #1674 switchbacks for about 3 miles up the west side of the Lostine River Canyon. The trail then increases in grade and gets relatively steep before gradually dropping to the north shore of Maxwell Lake. Along the shoreline, snag views of mountain reflections in the snow-fed water. Keep an eye out for mountain goats and furry little pika along the mountainsides. Best backpacked July to August.
Forests and Panoramic Views at Hurricane Creek
Another favorite Wallowa Mountains hike and easily accessed from Joseph, Hurricane Creek Trail #1807 begins in a mild climb through a diverse forest of evergreens and a few deciduous trees such as quaking aspen before hikers reach a creek crossing. Add an optional out-and-back 0.4-mile hike to 50-foot Falls Creek Falls by taking the junction at 0.1 miles into Hurricane Creek Trail.
As Hurricane Creek Trail opens up, you’ll experience panoramic views of Sacajawea, the Matterhorn and Eagle Cap. Chosen campsites should be on flat ground 200 feet from any water sources and off-trail. The best areas for dispersed camping can be found along the flatter sections of trail, where forested areas interchange with meadows 4 to 5 miles into the trail. Best backpacked June to September. In the early season, be aware that snowmelt will increase water levels in the creek.
If You Go:
- Freshen up on Leave No Trace and Wilderness Minimum Impact practices before you leave. Pack out all your garbage and try to leave it cleaner than you found it.
- Make sure you understand the rules of dispersed camping at each site.
- Always inform someone of your trip plans and expected return date.
- Carry the Ten Essentials and set up and test your gear before you head out.
For all of these places but Crawfish Lake, parking fees will apply. Pay a day-use fee on-site or use a Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful pass. Before starting your hike, fill out a free self-issued wilderness permit at the trailhead.