A Backpacker's Guide to Eastern Oregon's Elkhorn Crest Trail
6 hours east of Portland exists an alpine paradise of rugged mountains, pristine lakes, and unpredictable weather
Kodak Portra 800
It’s become tradition. At the tail end of each summer my father, uncle, cousin, and I hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Last year we logged a couple dozen miles south of Mount Rainier. The year before Goat Rocks Wilderness in southern Washington, and before that Mount Jefferson in Oregon, among others. This year, with fall threatening an early arrival, we went east to a little known area called the Elkhorns, a meandering mountain range largely above 9,000ft that’s technically the northern tip of the Blue Mountains—another range few from western Oregon have ever heard of.
A solid six hours drive from Portland and Seattle alike, the Elkhorns aren’t easily accessed. The terrain is equally remote and rugged. Most guidebooks rate our trail of choice—the Elkhorn Crest Trail—as difficult. I wouldn’t disagree. But here, the juice is well worth the squeeze.
Over four days we covered 25 miles on a there-and-back route departing Anthony Lakes and eventually turning an about face at Summit Lake. Walking almost exclusively on ridgelines, the views stretch as far as you can see in all directions—and there’s little out there but trees, lakes, and the odd logging road.
Along with epic views, comes epic exposure too. Throughout the trip we seemed to be either running from lightning strikes or hiking towards a thunder storm. Being among previoulsy burned forests didn't help our confidence much. But in between, breaks in the weather offered ample opportunities to admire the sights and swim in the many alpine lakes that dot the region.
At 5 am on our final morning I awoke to the crack of lightning striking damn near within reach. I couldn’t count a full second between flash and thunder. For a few hours I laid in my tiny tent as the driving rain, thunder, and lightning put on a show, slowly, but thankfully, moving east. A few hours later, soggy as can be, we made it back to the trailhead and shared a few warm beers in celebration of another annual trip in the books.
For me, backpacking is all about the in-between moments. Like lightning these brief scenes flash in my mind's eye when I think back. Maybe I’m just remembering the photos I made. Maybe not. Either way, someone sitting in a lake while holding an umbrella, or seeing 6’ 7” man running around the forest with a trash bag on his back trying to escape a sudden rainstorm are sights not easily forgotten.
The Elkhorn Crest Trail brought me to one of the more remote places I’ve visited in the Great Northwest, and it felt good. It’s a special place. One I considered not even sharing. But my responsibility to make quality internet got the best of me. So, read on for additional info and gear suggestions. And if you do make the trip, do me a solid, and show it gratitude and respect.
5 Gear Essentials for Backpacking Oregon’s Elkhorn Crest Trail
1. Fjallraven Vidda Pro Trekking Pants, $150
Plenty of secure pockets, reinforced knees and butt zone, and water repellent while still lightweight. These are my go-to for backpacking and camping year round.
2. Hoka One One Sky Kaha Hiking Boots, $220
When you’re logging multiple 10+ mile days in a row, comfort an support are essential. No boot I’ve used offers more of both than this maximalist hiker from Hoka.
3. Eddie Bauer Atlas Exploration Shirt, $70
You need a reliable shirt, with secure chest pockets and protection again the sun. This shirt has that, plus it’s lightweight, moisture wicking, and just dang good looking.
4. Teton Bros Tsurugi Rain Jacket, $395
Always carry a rain jacket when heading into wilderness. This hyper lightweight and easily packable anorak uses Polartec Neoshell fabric and minimalist Japanese design to perfection.
5. Astronaut Ice Cream, $3.50
I pack one of these suckers on every backpacking trip. Not sue if it’s nostalgia or if it actually tastes good. Either way, it’s a fun and satisfying desert at the end of a long day.
9 Do's & Don'ts for Backpacking Oregon’s Elkhorn Crest Trail
DON'T be surprised if you see mountain bikers. This trail is popular with extreme bikepackers and folks of the like. Check out a similar story by our adventure biking obsessed pals at Yonder.
DO pack rain pants. At over 9,000ft elevation this are sees a lot of rain. A rain jacket is a must, rain pants are a plus.
DON'T feed or approach the mountain goats. This range is home to a healthy goat population and though they may seem friendly, please remember they're wild animals with dangerous horns and serious instincts.
DO remember to cook and pee a long way away from your tent. Mountain Goats love to lick salty urine and other critters like food spillage too. You don't want either near your campsite.
DON'T leave your camera at home. This is one of the more visually stunning areas in a region filled with visually stunning areas.
DO pack a can of wine or high percentage beer in for night one. It's a nice reward, excellent way to celebrate the first few miles logged, and creates minimal pack weight once empty.
DON'T risk hiking when lighting is striking. Get off the ridge lines, spread out, hunker down, and hope for the best.
DO pack a fly rod. The many picturesque lakes are good fishing. Just be sure to practice catch and release with the little ones.
DON'T leave a trace. This one should go without saying, but includes digital traces too (yeah, ironic coming from me, but still). This is an isolated, pristine, and lightly tread area, so do your part to help keep it that way.
DO visit the tiny town of Joseph, Oregon on your way home. It's not exactly on the way back west, but it's artsy vibe, good food, and friendly local population are worth the detour. In nearby Lostine swing by M.Crow General Store for fresh made pizza, local beer, and to see designer Tyler Hays latest creations.