Badass Backcountry: Skiing Oregon’s Wallowas

Jonathon Stahl is an outdoor enthusiast in all the best ways—always positive, always kind, and always stoked. One of his favorite trips as assistant director of recreation at Washington State University is a backcountry ski trip into Northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.

He loves this trip for all many reasons, including the beauty, the ease of access and, of course, because of the diverse and rugged ski terrain. Backcountry skiing is one of his all-time favorite pursuits. “Backcountry skiing combines all the elements of the sports I love. It offers the benefits of hiking, it’s athletic, and it feels good. You get up high and get good views and all the benefits of skiing—you get to shred and have fun.”

The trip also offers a great environment for outdoor education. Risk management is a critical aspect of any backcountry travel, and assessing snow pack is complicated and requires advanced training. The trip allows students to cut their teeth on risk management, where they have the chance to practice “getting intimate with the snow, really looking at it, and making good decisions.”

Photo of students snowshoeing through the trees.
Student snowshoes to the hut. // Photo: Summer Hess

Many students are also pleasantly surprised to learn that such beautiful mountains exists so close. “The Wallowas are gorgeous and beautiful. They’re rugged, jagged, and at 10,00 feet…they are like a mini Serra Nevada in our back yard.”

Actually, they are like the Sierra Nevada except better. Stahl talks about a recent trip to Salt Lake City for advanced avalanche safety training. He took advantage of his proximity to the Wasatch Range while he was there and arrived at a packed trailhead where nearly everyone had skis, beacons, shovels, and probes. It was so busy and so overrun with people from southern California that the locals had dubbed it “Was-Angeles.”

Having the chance to travel for work allows him to appreciate the magnificence of this 40-mile range on the Colombia plateau even more. “I appreciate the Wallowas so much. We saw one party a day, maybe two parties on our last trip. It’s an authentic backcountry experience… and that’s special.”

For the last few years, Stahl has programmed this trip out of the Wing Ridge Huts, which is managed by Wallowa Alpine Huts. The approach to the hut is steep but relatively short, between 1-2 miles. Amenities include a sleeping hut with 10 beds, a well-equipped kitchen yurt, and a dreamy, steamy sauna. Nightly reservations run $50/night per person, or all 10 beds can be reserved at a flat rate.

Touring options include treks from Phat Ridge to Wing Ridge and beyond in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, but there are plenty of terrain options if the snow conditions are dangerous and groups need to stick to lower-angle slopes. Wallowa Alpine Huts also runs the nearby Big Sheep Hut and Camp Norway. Reservations can be made on a first come, first serve basis.

Although these huts book out quickly, there are other options available for people who want to stay a few days to experience the full beauty of the tucked-away range. Wallowa Lake State Park has two heated yurts that sleep four to five people, and the nearby towns of Enterprise and Joseph offer diverse lodging choices.

Pro Tips for a Wallowas Ski Trip

  • Plan ahead: The huts are popular and book out quickly.
  • Get in shape: Plan weekly trips to Moscow Mountain or Mount Spokane to strengthen your legs and lungs.
  • Gear up: Mountain Gear, REI, and regional college and university outdoor programs rent equipment to community members. And Northwest Outdoors in Spokane has quality used gear for sale at a bargain.
  • Be smart: Refresh your avalanche awareness and rescue skills before skinning out into the backcountry.
  • Pack plenty of provisions: Hut trips provide the chance for a little more extravagance than other backcountry excursions. Consider more gourmet cooking options or packing a few extras brews.
  • Take in the vista: Stop at the Wallowa Lake County Park for a shimmering view of the mountains jutting up out of the waters. This is the perfect place for panoramic photos.
  • Refuel: Terminal Gravity Brewing in Enterprise, Ore., has lovingly-crafted brews that “embody the spirit of the Wallowa Mountains.” Their local-beef burgers perfectly complement the post-ski debrief. //

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