Part of the complexity of hiking the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is navigating the overlapping network of trails – and it can be daunting enough just heading out to such a vast wildness in the first place.
So for folks just wanting to cut their teeth on a challenging - but straightforward - hike, I’d flag the Pine Lakes Hike. It’s a simple there-and-back, with 15 tough miles to traverse in between. Plus, elevation gain totals at around 2,700 feet, so while you won’t get lost, you will break a sweat.
The Cornucopia Trailhead is the kickoff point for the hike, leading down along Pine Lakes Trail #1880, which is a dusty old road best walked in the late summer or early fall, when ice and mud have long cleared off. It’s a straight shot along to a creek crossing, which you can ford when the water levels are low, but there is also a hiker footbridge just downstream.
From here the trail winds parallel to the East Fork Pine Creek, and the mountain views will start to widen on the horizon.
Another mile down you’ll cross the creek via another footbridge, and continue north on the opposite bank before hitting another bridge crossing (this one a large bridge meant for livestock as well as humans) and finally moving away from the water.
Next it's all elevation gain, with serious switchback helping create a more even grade. It’s possible along this section of the trail to follow the sounds of rushing water and swing off trail for a view of Pine Creek Falls. It’s a lovely view and a great rest spot, but it’s also a smaller waterfall, so don’t feel bad about missing it if heading away from the trail is not your cup of tea.
In any case, the trail continues switch backing up the mountains, leveling a bit for a traverse along the lower section of Granite Mountain. Around this point you’ll move into the offical Wallowa-Whitman Nation Forest boundary. This section is all dense scrub, exposed rock, and no shade, so be warned that this stretch of land can heat up on summer days.
Then it’s just a few more switchback, and another stream crossing before the trail leads out just below the Pine Lakes dam. The upper and lower lakes are now in view and both are well worth wandering around. They are similarly sized deep pools of blue green waters hugged by granite walls, with ice floating on the surface even in the summer months. Plus there are flat area great for camping by both the upper and lower lakes, so walk around and explore your options.
Note that the south side of the Wallowas is less traveled than the north side, which means quiet trails. This is a plus for wilderness serenity seekers, but it also means lone backpackers should take extra precautions before heading out. Mountain weather is unpredictable, and it’s best to call local ranger stations for warnings and advice in advance of multi-day trips.
You'll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park at the trailhead, and if you plan on camping at Pine Lakes you need to pitch your tent at least 100 feet from the lakeshore. Also be aware that rifle hunting season in these parts start Oct. 1, so wear bright colors when hiking past that date.