Head out to northeast Oregon to try Sugarloaf Mountain if you’re interested in a less-traveled, cross-country trek up an alpine ridge that rewards with views of the High Wallowas.
I’ve heard this trail is great to hike in the spring if one wants to catch wildflowers in bloom, but if you head to the area before snowfalls choke the roads, it’s a great trail to hit off-season too. I hit up the area in September, and enjoyed the moody solitude of the land, and the unburnished beautify of the terrain even under rainy clouds.
The trail kicks off at the Deadman Trailhead, and heads northwest up through a wet alpine meadow rimmed with granite cliffs. Just a couple hundred yards down the path, you’ll abandon the meadow for a path up a ravine through those aforementioned cliffs. You’ll see fire-blacked and “ghost” trees that stand as testament to a 1995 Twin Lakes Fire. The understory is recovered however, and there’s plenty of scrappy foliage – including an abundance of pearly everlasting – to keep the eyes entertained.
Just before the half-mile point, you’ll hit a trail junction. Follow the signage for the Deadman Trail, which leads eastwards towards a dry meadow. Spring flowers cover the slopes here, and in the summer the Lake Creek is just a step-over. In rainier months you’ll need to be more strategic about the river crossing, and the meadow with be dark with shades of green instead.
A signed rock cairn will mark the next turnoff, this time westward towards the Sugarloaf Reservoir. Just another 100 yards down there will be another trail fork, at which you’ll bear left. There’s a small creek crossing, then a stretch up a ridge. Watch the path carefully, as it grows faint here, and keep the southeast ridge peak ahead in plain view in case you need to head cross-country.
Yet another trail junction lies ahead, marked by a rock carin and a trail sign. Head left on the Sugarloaf Trail across a wide hillside full of bunchgrass and lupine. If the trail grows faint, just keep the forest to your right and head straight until is reappears. You’ll eventually reach the top of the charred forest, and bend to the west.
To hit the Sugarloaf Mountain summit, abandon the trail to wander cross-country up the ridgeline. (With the peak in sight, it’s impossible to miss your destination, but be sure to note where you leave the trail for the trek back down.) At the summit, at the 7,900-foot mark, there are panoramic views of the High Wallowa peaks to enjoy. You can also spot the rusty Aneroid Mountain, the limestone white ridges of the Middle Fork Imnaha basin, and maybe even a herd of elk far below.
Return as you came.