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  • The Elkhorns Hike one of Oregon's less-traveled gems

    This corner of the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon contains some of the most spectacular hiking terrain in the state
  • BAKER CITY — A jagged line of mountains looks like so many shark's teeth west of Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon, between Baker City and North Powder.
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  • BAKER CITY — A jagged line of mountains looks like so many shark's teeth west of Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon, between Baker City and North Powder.
    These are the Elkhorns, the highest among several uplifts collectively called the Blue Mountains. Across the valley to the east lie the Wallowa Mountains, usually considered a range unto itself and not part of the Blues.
    Most visitors go to the Wallowas, so the Elkhorns are one of Oregon's lesser-traveled ranges.
    The best-known access point to the Elkhorns is at Anthony Lake, reachable from the east and west via paved Elkhorn Drive. This is a national forest scenic byway in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
    The rewards of a summer visit to the Elkhorns include quiet and solitude, mountain lakes and forests, wildflowers and butterflies, lightning storms and sunsets.
    Early autumn usually has spectacular weather, with hunting season bringing elk and deer hunters.
    Here are some places ripe for exploring in the Elkhorns:
    Lakes Lookout: This prominent rocky point is at the north end of the rugged ridge seen from summer campgrounds (or winter ski runs) in the 7,131-foot-high Anthony Lake basin. Once the site of a fire lookout, the point is surprisingly easy to reach. It's only 0.7 mile of a hike, if your vehicle is tough enough to drive to the end of the rugged road. It has a mountain goat's view of the scenic Anthony Lake basin from the top, but expect some rock scrambling to get there.
    For a full day's outing, continue from Lakes Lookout summit at 8,522 feet to an off-trail scramble over three other rugged summits: Lees Peak (8,626), Angell Peak (8,646) and Gunsight Mountain (8,342). Drop west off Gunsight to pass Hoffer Lakes, then climb back to where you parked.
    Or, like many do, just spend the day lolling in the sun and fishing at Anthony Lake.
    Van Patten Peak: This long east-west ridge is the other elevated landscape in the Anthony Lake area, topping out at 8,729 feet. From near Anthony Lake, hike the Elkhorn Crest Trail south a mile to Black Lake, then walk off-trail east to reach the summit.
    Red Mountain: Driving close to this peak will teach you why few visitors approach the Elkhorns from the east. You need a rugged vehicle to drive the track up the North Powder River drainage to lightly used Red Mountain Trail. A snorkel, like the Australians use on off-road vehicles in tropical Queensland, may come in handy should the river be running high when you drive through it to reach the trailhead for Red Mountain Lake.
    The trail heads south where it ends at the lake. The off-trail route to 8,929-foot Red Mountain is obvious from the lake: up the northwest ridge, across the top, down the northeast ridge.
    Ruth Mountain: This peak is near the center of the Elkhorns, so it's about 15 miles round trip via any approach. An overnight backpack trip from the Crawfish Basin Trail, which begins near the parking area for the Lakes Lookout hike, is an attractive option.
    The trail passes above scenic Crawfish Meadow, full of mosquitoes. After connecting with the Elkhorn Crest Trail, pass an overlook of Dutch Flat Lake, squeak through Nip and Tuck Pass and descend toward Lost Lake, where water in a meadow offers a place to camp.
    Hike the next day along ridges that lead over the summit of 8,600-foot Mount Ruth and to 8,117-foot Columbia Hill, a nondescript hilltop filled with summer wildflowers and butterflies. It also is an apex peak, sending water to the North Powder River, Powder River and the North Fork of the John Day River.
    Mount Ireland: This 8,321-foot summit, west of the main range, is reachable by trail, beginning near the community of Granite. The lookout on top is staffed during fire season. A small part of the range, between Mount Ireland and Mount Ruth, is protected as the North Fork John Day Wilderness.
    Twin Lakes: The jewel of the Elkhorns, the lakes are a backpacker's camping destination. Day hikers stop when bagging the two highest peaks in the range: Rock Creek Butte, 9,106 feet, and Elkhorn Peak, 8,931 feet. The trailhead comes after a 10-mile, dusty drive on forest roads from Phillips Lake.
    Elkhorn Crest: This is the creme de la creme of the Elkhorns, one of the great backpacking adventures in Oregon — especially if you can arrange a shuttle. Just don't do it the way I did.
    I started OK, leaving my truck on the north end at Anthony Lake and hiring a local kid to drive me to the south end at Marble Pass, west of Baker City.
    The 23-mile trail stays amazingly level as it traverses the range. It gains 700 feet on the south and drops 1,100 feet on the north, but ups and downs are minor. Once snow melts there is no water on the ridge, so you must descend to a lake or spring via a side trail for water.
    When I hiked it in late July, with full overnight gear, it was spitting snowflakes. I just kept going, not wanting to drop off the crest to camp by water and sit in a storm. I made it all the way to my truck in one day, which was a waste of a great experience. I didn't even use my tent, sleeping bag, stove and food.
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