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Top 5 backpacking routes in Eastern Oregon

On the far side of Oregon, among rolling prairie and high desert, are some of Oregon's most spectacular but overlooked places.

Eastern Oregon is home to a colorful collection of mountains with names such as Wallowa, Blue, Strawberry and Steens — places of sweeping alpine topography and oddball geology — that are visited far less than their brethren on the west side.

The best way to experience these wild and beautiful mountains is with a backpacking trip. Mountain lakes, meadows and wind-swept peaks are best experienced with a few days of up-close enjoyment.

Here are the top five places for a backpacking adventure in Eastern Oregon.

5: GEARHART MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS

Gearhart Mountain is located east of Klamath Falls in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Highlighted by pearl-white rock formations, a cliff-walled valley and deep-blue lake surrounded by quaking aspen, the Gearhart is a place of deep solitude in the desolate southeast.

The best backpacking route is a 13-mile trail that bisects the wilderness. A shuttle isn't difficult to set up with two cars, but there's an out-and-back option, as well.

From Lookout Rock Trailhead, the trail quickly reaches the Palisades, a collection of oddly shaped rock towers that with the right eyes resemble characters from "Lord of the Rings."

The trail climbs to a pass just below Gearhart Mountain before dropping into a spectacular cliff-walled valley at mile 5.5. Camp here and spend the day exploring the valley or take a non-technical climb to the 8,370 foot summit of the wilderness' namesake peak. If you haven't set up a shuttle, the valley is your turn-around spot.

Beyond, the trail travels through a patch of forest ravaged by mountain pine beetles before dropping to Blue Lake, a good fishing and camping spot. The trail wraps up along the North Fork of the Sprague River, among swaying aspen that turn brilliant gold in autumn.

The route is 13 miles with 2,054 feet of climb one-way, or 11 miles out and back to the valley, with 1,800 feet of climb.

4: BIG INDIAN GORGE (STEENS MOUNTAIN)

Wide, deep and rich with color, Big Indian Gorge is the most visually stunning of the accessible canyons in southeast Oregon's Steens Mountain. But reaching it does require some work.

South Steens Campground, home to running water and 36 sites, is the trailhead for Big Indian Gorge. The trail begins with 1.9 miles on an old road, through grassy meadows and below wide-open sky, to the first of three stream crossings. The crossings are 10 to 15 feet wide and require careful footwork.

Beyond the crossings, the scenery ramps up as the trail swings east into the mouth of the canyon. The entire gorge sweeps out in a massive U-shaped landscape carpeted with sagebrush, aspen and juniper.

There are places for lunch along the trail and a fantastic campsite among a grove of cottonwood trees at the 6.5-mile mark. The trail quits after 8.5 miles near a headwall where Steens Mountain's summit looms above. With a bit of exploring, waterfalls sprouting from the headwall can be found.

The full route is 17 miles out and back, with 2,000 feet of climb.

3: ELKHORN CREST TRAIL

Views across the length of northeast Oregon feel almost commonplace on the Elkhorn Crest Trail, one of the highest and most unique pathways in the state.

The 23-mile national recreation trail tightropes across the granite spine of the Elkhorn Range, where mountain goats roam sheer peaks and alpine lakes dapple multicolored valleys high above the prairie below.

Located outside Baker City, the trail stretches from one high pass to another — staying close to 8,000 feet throughout — on a fairly level route between trailheads at Anthony Lake Campground and Marble Pass.

Backpackers typically tent at Dutch Flat, Lost, Meadow, Summit and Twin lakes just off the main trail. Water and flat ground is rare on the crest. The recommended route for backpacking all 23 miles is to begin at Marble Pass, which eliminates the one steep climb on the route.

To save time, money and gas — and to avoid driving the awful roads to Marble Pass — consider getting a shuttle. Range Tour and Shuttle in Baker City charges $50 per backpacker and can be reached at 541-403-2616 or rangetour@gmail.com.

More than half the trail is open to mountain bikes and the occasional motorcycle.

2: STRAWBERRY MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS

The Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is a place that, for many Oregonians, sits just beyond reach.

This diamond in the rough is wrapped in craggy peaks and glacier-carved valleys and is home to a 69,350-acre wilderness of blue lakes, pine forest and alpine meadows speckled with — you guessed it — wild strawberries.

Mountain goats roam the high country, and nine different streams begin here, their headwaters tumbling down waterfalls and creeks, from the summit of 9,038-foot Strawberry Mountain to the sun-baked desert below.

By connecting a few roads, it's possible to backpack 14.5 miles over mountain passes and down into glacial valleys during a wild and beautiful loop that begins and ends at Roads End Trailhead.

The loop will bring you through the wilderness' heart — Strawberry Lake — and past gems like Strawberry Falls, Little Strawberry Lake and to the 9,042-foot summit of Strawberry Mountain.

The total distance of the route is 14.5 to 17.5 miles, depending on where you start, with about 3,000 to 3,500 feet of climb.

1) EAGLE CAP WILDERNESS

Home to 17 mountains that eclipse 9,000 feet and derived from the Nez Perce word for "land of running waters," the Eagle Cap features 359,991 acres of alpine peaks, meadows and lakes in the heart of what's known as the Oregon Alps.

No single route through the Eagle Cap could really be considered "best" because there are simply too many amazing options, so here are a few possibilities.

Ice Lake and the Matterhorn: Waterfalls, a stunning alpine lake and the two highest peaks in the Wallowa Mountains are within reach on this steep three-day adventure. From Wallowa Lake Trailhead, the trip climbs an exhausting 7.5 miles and 3,400 feet to Ice Lake. After making camp, follow a trail from Ice Lake up the Matterhorn (2.2 miles, 2,117 feet of climb), a dramatic summit of white limestone and marble that at 9,826 feet is the Wallowa's second-highest peak. The range's highest peak, Sacajawea, can be reached by following the ridgeline to the north. Ice Lake is popular and should be avoided on weekends.

Glacier Lake Loop: An unbelievable tour of six stunning alpine lakes can be reached on a tough backpacking loop of 28 miles with almost 4,000 feet of climb. This iconic route is a bucket-list experience for Oregonians and begins and ends at Wallowa Lake Trailhead. The lakes basin begins at Sixmile Meadow. The area is popular and should be avoided on weekends.

Tombstone, Traverse, Echo lakes: Located on the less-traveled south side of the Eagle Cap — and away from the tourist centers of Joseph and Wallowa Lake State Park — this alpine basin is just as beautiful but with fewer people. The trails begin at West Eagle Campground and travel steep trails from 12 to 18 miles into this trio of lakes.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for seven years. He is the author of "Hiking Southern Oregon" and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com.

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