Hiking & Trails

Eastern Oregon’s Elkhorn Crest Trail is a backpackers’ paradise

The 23-mile national Elkhorn Crest 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.

“It’s this beautiful little gem tucked into a part of Oregon that’s still pretty unexplored,” said Pat Thomas, owner of Range Tour and Shuttle Company in Baker City. “To hear my friends in Bend tell it, the Elkhorns are located somewhere near Outer Mongolia.”

The first thing that sticks out about the Elkhorn Crest is its elevation. 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.

Water is almost nonexistent on the crest, but short trails lead to five alpine lakes: Dutch Flat, Lost, Meadow, Summit and Twin lakes.

“It’s a very nice place to backpack,” said Jay Moore, recreation specialist with Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. “With the exception of one steep area near Anthony Lake, it’s a gentle trail with small ups and downs. It’s very well designed.”

The trail is intertwined with northeast Oregon’s mining history. Sections of the path show up on Forest Service maps as far back as 1931, connecting old boomtowns to the high mountain lakes and crest.

The trail was gradually lengthened, sometimes using dynamite to blast through mountain passes, on a route that had a reputation for multiple uses.

Motorcycles were once a common sight on the Elkhorn Crest, though only a few are seen these days. While day-hiking and backpacking are the most popular uses, the fastest-growing activity on the Elkhorn Crest is mountain biking.

“There’s a feeling of being way out there as you’re riding one of the highest trails in the state and playing around in these stunning lake basins,” said Thomas, who offers mountain bike tours, along with shuttles for bikers and backpackers. “There aren’t many places in Oregon where you can do that.”

Mountain bikes, and motorcycles for that matter, don’t have free rein across the Elkhorn Crest.

From Marble Pass, riders can travel 14 miles before they hit the boundary of the North Fork John Day Wilderness, where bikes and motorcycles aren’t allowed.

Established in 1984, the wilderness boundary has long been a source of frustration among locals for the way it creeps just across the Elkhorn Crest, limiting recreation on one of the few alpine trails in Oregon where pedals and engines can be used.

“Especially with mountain biking getting bigger, there’s this sense that without the wilderness right there, the Elkhorn Crest could be this ultimate destination trail,” Moore said. “You hear it a lot, that people really wish this particular area wasn’t in the wilderness.”

“Would I like to see people be able to ride all the way? Would it help me as tour operator?” Thomas said. “Of course, the answer is yes. The fact that the boundary is there, on this trail, is a little frustrating.

“But the rides are still really incredible, and the trail so beautiful, no matter how you use it.”

HIKING AND BIKING GUIDE

Backpacking

The recommended route for backpacking the entire 23-mile Elkhorn Crest Trail is to begin at Marble Pass (which eliminates a steep climb from Anthony Lake to Angel Pass). Make sure to have a good map or guide. Plan on bringing extra water because there is almost none on the main route. Plan on detouring off the main trail to camp at Twin Lakes, Summit Lake, Dutch Flat Lake or Lost Lake. There is a long stretch between Twin Lakes and Summit Lake of 10 miles that usually makes for a long day.

Hikes from Anthony Lake

The most popular trailhead is next to this popular campground. From the trailhead, the trail climbs almost 1,000 feet to Angel Pass before flattening out. Popular day-hikes or backpacking trips include 4.2 miles to Dutch Flat Lake (8.4 if you go out and back), 6.4 miles to Lost Lake or 10 miles to spectacular Summit Lake.

Hikes from Marble Pass

The roads to this remote trailhead are awful and require a reliable high-clearance vehicle along with a person comfortable with driving sketchy roads. However, the journey is rewarded, since the trailhead begins at 7,540 feet and the incredible views begin almost immediately. A one-way hike of roughly 5 miles will bring you to the Twin Lakes Basin, probably the most impressive spot in the Elkhorn Mountains.

Hikes from Twin Lakes trailhead

The lowest of the three trailheads, the trail here provides steep but direct access through wildflower meadows to spectacular Twin Lakes Basin. The hike is 3 miles one way and climbs 2,300 feet to the basin. From the basin, it’s another mile and 500 foot of climb to connect with the Elkhorn Crest Trail.

Rock Creek Butte Scramble

You can climb to the highest peak of the Elkhorn Range on a nontechnical scramble. The Elkhorn Crest contours below Rock Creek Butte about a mile west of the junction with Twin Lakes Trail. To climb the 9,106-foot peak, follow the trail to the butte’s flattish, meadowy west side (not on the craggy exposed northeast side). The most direct route begins on Twin Lakes Trailhead and climbs about 3,700 feet and 6 miles (12 roundtrip) to the summit, which is marked by a large rock carin.

Mountain biking

Bikes are allowed, and most common, on the 14 miles from Marble Pass Trailhead to the boundary of the North Fork John Day Wilderness area. Most bikers either ride out and back on the Elkhorn Crest Trail from Marble Pass or complete a 20-mile loop on the Elkhorn Crest Trail, Summit Lake Trail and down a rough Forest Service Road along the North Powder River. For more detailed information, contact Range Tour and Shuttle at (541) 403-2616 or rangetour@gmail.com.

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