As amazing as the Elkhorn Range is to seasoned backpackers, it can be harder for casual hikers and day-trippers to find less-challenging trails in this section of the Wallowa Whitman National Forest. Recently I found the Hoffer Lakes Hike, a just over 2-mile trek with mild elevation gain that makes for a perfect family-friendly afternoon adventure.
Best visited in the warmer months, this trail takes visitors up to a group of natural water features known as the Anthony Lakes, as well as the two Hoffer Lakes. During high summer/early fall it’s a short but stunning instroduction to the awesome granite architecture of the Elkhorns, especially when the hillsides are laden with bright wildflower blooms. This trail also has the advantage of offering a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps guard station up for overnight rental, in case folks want to make a leisurely trip from the short trail.
The trailhead is right opposite of the guard station, and leads past a picnic gazebo built in the same era, before winding up clockwise to Anthony Lake's eastern shore. You’ll see the looming shadow of Gunsight Mountain up ahead as the trail leads past some rocky inlets. You’ll come to a junction, at which you’ll take the Hoffer Lake Trail and continue south on an old road bed. Keep in mind that you’re already at around 8,000 feet, so if you feel a little short of breath from this gentle ascent, don’t feel too badly about it!
Up ahead is an exit creek from Lilypad Lake, and the wide sedge-filled southern shore of Anthony Lake. Keep ahead, and you’ll next encounter another trail junction and an information kiosk. Here you have the option of tacking on an extra mile via a short loop around Anthony Lake. You can do this by taking a spur trail up a rocky path up along Parker Creek as it zig-zags over the creek three times before leading out to the first of the Hoffer Lakes. This is a great lookout not only across the water, but out to three nearby mountain peaks: The Lakes Lookout, Lees Peak, and Angel Peak.
The trail then bends right towards the second and larger of the two Hoffer Lakes, which is set up against a stunning backdrop of massive granite walls. All along these rocky slopes grows paintbrush, false hellebore, and asters, so keep your guidebooks handy and enjoy the flowers if they’re blooming. From here walk back along the trail to the first of the Hoffer Lakes, then either head on through a loop through some alpine meadows, or else head back to the original junction.
If you choose to head back to the junction with the kiosk, you can resume to original hike by taking the trail to the left. You’ll cross Panther Creek and stroll through a walk-up campsite (one with restrooms) before heading up to a viewing area overlooking Anthony Lake. The road then leads an along the lake’s shoreline, which in the summer is coated with monkshood, ladies' tresses, gentian, and Sitka burnet. As you come along the curve of the lake Gunsight Mountain will come into view again, peaking through the spare foliage of subalpine fir and lodgepole pine. And just down from here is the gazebo and the trailhead.