The trek to Ice Lake is the premier waterfall hike in Eastern Oregon. The numerous named and unnamed cascades that tumble along Adam Creek are certainly a big draw. But it’s the scenery of the Wallowa Mountains that makes this a classic 15.5 mile out and back day hike or overnight backpacking trip that gets better with every mile. If you’re not up for the big trip, a much more attainable BC Falls can be reached from the same trailhead.
From La Grande, follow Highway 82 for 78 miles to Wallowa Lake. At milepost 6 stay left and follow the road until it ends at the massive trailhead parking area.
Known as the “Oregon Alps,” the Wallowa Mountains are worth the price of admission. And in this case the price is 15 miles of hard-breathing, thigh-burning, switchback-laden hiking. This trek into the Eagle Cap Wilderness is justifiably popular. So if you arrive on a summer weekend prepare to get acquainted with a bunch of fellow nature lovers, as well as horses.
The hike starts out on a wide, rocky dirt path that climbs slowly alongside the west fork of the Wallowa River. After .3 mile of hiking you’ll reach a junction. If the shorter trip to BC Falls is your goal, turn right onto the Chief Joseph Trail and hike 1 more mile to BC Falls. Head back the way you came. If, however, Ice Lake is your goal stay left at the junction with the Chief Joseph Trail.
After close to 3 miles of pleasant hiking the trail comes to a junction. Stay to the right here and descend down to the river. Take a moment to enjoy the view before crossing a footbridge. After the bridge, stay straight. The path soon begins to climb steadily along a set of long, well-graded switchbacks. The hike levels out for a bit before arriving at Adam Creek and a second, more arduous set of switchbacks that lead out onto talus slopes. Look for boot paths to the creek and various viewpoints whenever the trail takes a turn near the rushing water. There are no official viewpoints and the trail never really gives a good look at any cascades in this section. Good views can be had of a series of falls in this cluster of switchbacks by getting off trail, but exercise caution.
After leveling off once again the trail soon arrives at a wide open and visually stunning basin. And there to greet you is a very visible Beauty Falls. From the same vantage, the massive Ice Falls can be seen well upstream near the top of the ridge. Continuing past Beauty Falls the trail crosses over a creek and then introduces the toughest test of the day – a dozen or so long, relentless switchbacks. As with the last set, the trail never delivers you to any official views, but boot paths will get you good looks at Ice Falls.
The trail finally levels off near a “Fires prohibited beyond this point” sign which also signifies the end of the heavy lifting hike-wise. The trail continues another half mile, showing off another smaller cascade before finally arriving at a junction just before Ice Lake. To the left, the trail descends down to the creek outlet from the lake where any number of log crossings are there to help out the cause. From here the trail continues around the lake where a number of campsites can be found. Alternately, the path to the right leads the opposite way around the lake, skirting the shore before encountering a large meadow and some camping options.
Those interested in even more exercise can take a trail near the meadow an additional 1.5 miles to the summit of the Matterhorn, one of the tallest peaks in Eastern Oregon. If you’re staying the night, pick a spot, if not head back the way you came.
For more of Adam’s writing, reviews, and photography, visit AdamSawyer.com or follow him on Facebook. His forthcoming guidebook, Hiking Waterfalls in Oregon, published by Falcon Guides, will be available spring 2014.