The Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway travels for 66 miles through a striking volcanic landscape dotted with lakes, lava-filled meadows, and towering snow-capped mountains. The entire area is a haven for outdoor lovers with lakes for paddling and fishing, trails for hiking and biking, and the most gorgeous forests for wandering (seriously, Oregon might just have the best forests of anywhere we have visited).
The original plan was to spend two weeks at two different campgrounds. There are many forest service and private lodge type campgrounds scattered along the road and around the lakes so we had a number of options. Knowing that all the NF campgrounds offer at least a few first-come, first-serve sites, we didn’t bother to make any reservations. It was too late anyway as the few I looked at were all booked up on the weekends. Our first stop was the Lava Lakes NF campground. Determined not to repeat our frustrating experience at Diamond Lake, we chose this campground based solely on the Campendium reviews touting good cell service.
It was perfect. A small, no-frills campground with no amenities other than a few pit toilets, some water spigots, and a VERY well-used boat ramp. We arrived on Sunday around noon and found five or six of the no-reservation sites unoccupied. Site 39 turned out to be possibly the best one in the whole campground. No lake view, but the large corner lot had no neighbors on one side and tons of space between us and the other side. Most of the other sites at this campground offer far less privacy so we felt very lucky to get this one.
During our first week, we visited a few of the nearby campgrounds and found a handful of suitable sites with lake views (Little Lava Lake & South Campground have some great spots for small to medium RVs) and considered moving into one on at the end of the first week. By the time the next Sunday rolled around the thought of packing up and driving around looking for another first-come-first-serve site seemed like too much of a hassle and we ended up paying for a second week at Lava Lake instead.
While we didn’t move sites or campgrounds, we did make a quick trip to the dump station at the Lava Lake Resort about halfway through our stay. With no showers at the campground, two weeks without dumping tanks was not going to happen. Fortunately, Lava Lake Resort is adjacent to the Lava Lake CG and the entire task of packing up the house and driving it over to dump tanks and fill our fresh water took about half an hour. Also, they only charge $8 for a dump and fill which is a pretty good deal. While at the Lava Lake Resort we checked out the RV park. It’s fairly small with only 20-30 sites, but they are tucked into the forest and generously spaced. It looked like a really great campground and would be a good choice if you want to visit the area and enjoy full hook-ups. It’s also much better suited to larger RVs as compared the forest service campgrounds which all have skinny roads and tight corners.
For the last month or so it’s felt like our adventure meter has been on the low side lately with work and weather taking away from the things we really want to be doing. Staying in one spot for two weeks– especially a spot smack in the middle of so much incredible nature — allowed us to get out and explore nearly every day. Hiking was by far our most frequent activity, but we also paddled around four different lakes and took our bikes on one pretty fantastic (although mosquito filled) bike ride.
While you can’t go wrong with any of the trails in the area, I think our favorite was the 9-mile out and back up to Green Lakes. Despite it’s longer length this trail is on the easy side with only a moderate amount of elevation gain and we were easily able to hike it after work one day (hello long summer days).
The trail wound up through the forest past waterfalls and across streams.
Eventually, South Sisters and Broken Top Mtn came into view.
The two Green Lakes reside in the small hollow between the mountains. It was late in the day by the time we got there and as a result, we had the whole place to ourselves.
Our other favorite was the Wickiup Plains Loop. Another moderate-rated trail of around 7-miles, this one shares the same track as the South Sisters trail for the first 1.8 miles. That section features a fairly steep series of switchbacks that climb up through a dense forest. It’s around four in afternoon and as we climb we pass numerous groups of hikers on their way down from the summit of South Sisters.
We assume it’s cold up there as most of the people we pass are bundled up in way more clothes than us in our shorts and t-shirts. Hiking to the summit of South Sisters has been on our radar since we caught our first glimpse of the enticing and imposing looking, snow-covered volcano.
We chat with a few of the hikers trying to get a feel for the current trail conditions. It sounds good. In fact, it sounds really good. There is some expected snow in the middle section but a reportedly well-packed trail of footprint means that we should be able to hike it in just our hiking boots. I’ve been researching this trail all week and talking with some people who actually made it to the top, I am very excited by the prospect of coming back in a few days and tackling this mountain. (Spoiler alert – we went back and hiked to the summit a few days later. The experience was so amazing that it deserves its very own blog post which will be coming soon!)
A lot of the land around the Scenic Lakes Byway is designated wilderness which basically limits the use to hikers on foot only. But there are a handful of mountain bike trails that travel closer to the lakes and through some of the non-wilderness areas. We drove over to the Cultus Lake Lodge one afternoon to ride a loop around the lake. The trail started with two miles of mild uphill on a gravel road which wouldn’t have been too bad except for the cars that blew past us at full speed without even moving over leaving up in a cloud of dust.
Eventually, we reached the shore of Deer Lake where the trail led into the woods on the most delightful section of singletrack we have ridden in a while. This trail was just my speed. There was enough uphill to give us a good workout, but not so much that we had to get off and hike-a-bike. The trail surface was also mostly smooth with only a few sections of rocks and roots to navigate over. And of course, those gorgeous Oregon forests and lakes made the ride that much more enjoyable.
With more lakes than residents out this way, we had no shortage of opportunities to get our boats in the water. This is shaping up to be the summer of kayaking for us. During our two week stay on the Byway, we paddled around four different lakes.
All the lakes out here are unique. Some were popular for fishing, some very shallow and suited only for human-powered boats, some offered boat-in camping on the shores, and some even had full on marinas filled with sailboats. Our favorites for paddling were the shallow lakes with narrow trails and interesting inlets for exploring. As a bonus, these shallow lakes were not suited for motorized boats so we didn’t have to worry about being run down by an over-zealous fisherperson or listen to the noise of engines.
There’s no doubt that we fell in love with this area during our two week-stay. We could easily spend an entire summer exploring these forests and lakes and might have even stayed longer this time around if our food supply hadn’t dwindled down to nothing but crumbs! Until next time Cascade Lakes…
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