Hiking + Backpacking the Elkhorn Crest Trail

This beautiful through hike boasts some of the best views in Eastern Oregon. Whether you’re looking for a day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, this trail has it all. Keep in mind that this trail runs along the ridge of the Elkhorns. Camp spots are limited and there is no water between camps.

As a multi-day backpacking trip, there are a couple of great places to stop and make camp. If you’re beginning the hike from Marble Pass, the first place to stop is Twin Lakes. The turn off for this gorgeous oasis is just under 5 miles from Marble Pass trailhead. The lakes are easily seen from the trail above, so it would be hard to miss it. One mile of switchbacks from the crest lead down to the two serene lakes. This area is a dispersed camp area, so pick any place you’d like and pop a tent! If you’re only doing a day hike, this is a lovely place to stop for lunch. There’s fishing, swimming (the water is very cold!), mountain goat watching, and relaxing by the lake. Make sure to keep a close eye on your belongings though, as the mountain goats are numerous and are not shy in the least. They’re attracted to salt, so they’ll be very interested in anything you have with you. They’ve even been know to chew backpack straps.

If you choose to continue on from Twin Lakes, the next stretch of trail is very long and not for the faint of heart! The next stop for water and camp is at Summit Lake – close to 15 miles from Twin Lakes including the mile back up to the trail and the two miles down to Summit Lake off the crest. Make sure you’re prepared with as much water as you can carry and some hiking poles for balance. The trail is very exposed and can get quite hot, but the views are amazing. If you’re afraid of heights, you may want to rethink taking on this section of trail, but if you’re okay with some exposure and a pretty steep drop off the trail at some parts, the views are worth it. The turn off to Summit Lake can be easy to miss, so make sure you’re paying close attention. It’s about two miles down to the lake and again, is a dispersed camp area.

The final stretch of the Elkhorn Crest Trail is from Summit Lake to the trailhead at Anthony Lakes. This stretch of trail is close to 10 miles, including the two miles from Summit Lake back up to the crest. As you near Anthony Lakes, the majestic peaks surrounding the lake come into view and are a sight to behold. Make sure to leave time for photos! There is one spot a couple miles from where the Summit Lake trail comes back up to the crest that is pretty confusing. There are 5 different options for ways to go and the sign that is supposed to point in the right direction is knocked over. Make sure to get out your map and compass for this part. If I remember correctly, once you come upon the “fork” it is the right most trail that you take. But again, take out a map and compass to be sure you’re going in the right direction. The bottom right photo below shows this area of the trail.

The Elkhorn Crest Trail can also be done beginning at Anthony Lakes and ending at Marble Pass with the first night at Summit Lake and the second at Twin Lakes.

My family and I backpacked this trail at the end of July, and the snow had only just melted off (as can be seen in the photo above). If you’re planning a trip here, make sure it’s no earlier than the last week in July. Below are a few of my recommendations for this trail:

  • Bring a blister kit/tape – I can not stress this enough. With long days of up to 15 miles, your feet will be in bad shape at the end if you don’t take good care of them. Tip: wrap duct tape or medical tape around the bottom of your hiking poles to save space and allow quick and easy access to blister protection.
  • Pack as much water as you can carry out of camp. This was mentioned above, but it’s super important. There is little to no water between camps and it can get very hot on the trail. Bring about 1 liter for every two hours of hiking. Obviously this amount will vary depending on weather and your own preferences, but it’s a good rule of thumb to follow.
  • Leave camp early – with 10-15 mile days ahead, the last thing you want to do is be setting up camp in the dark (yes, this happened to me). Make sure to leave enough time for lunch stops and picture taking, as the views are amazing the entire time.
  • Bring hiking poles – there are quite a few sections of this trail that are exposed rocky cliffs. Some sections are also a bit washed out. I did not bring poles, but some of my fellow hikers did, and I was very jealous. At the very least, pick up a good hiking stick to help you keep your balance and feel more in control on the cliffy, washed out sections.

The Elkhorn Crest Trail is a beautiful trail for backpacking as well as day hikes from either end. As long as you come prepared, you are sure to have a great experience.

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