The Cascade Lakes Highway in Central Oregon (Photography Tour)
Tour the Cascade Lakes: Central Oregon's Mountain Beauty
The Cascade Mountains are less than 20 minutes away from Bend, Oregon. In fact, one of the reasons we decided to move from Seattle, Washington to Central Oregon was to be closer to nature and have the ability to be on a hiking or cross-country skiing trail within a half hour. Simply head up Century Drive from Bend and within minutes, you're gazing out over snowcapped peaks and lush, green forests. Wildflower meadows are abundant throughout the Cascade Lakes from June through August.
If you're visiting the High Desert of Oregon, you don't even need to pack gear. You can tour Central Oregon's mountain beauty by driving the Cascade Lakes Highway. The scenic drive is one of the most stunning in the Pacific Northwest. This drive will take you 3-5 hours, depending on how long you stay at each of the lakes along the tour. Head west from Bend into the Cascade Mountains, past Mt. Bachelor, and follow the highway around a series of lakes and other stops along the way. You'll end up back on Highway 97, south of Sunriver. The drive is generally open from April through October each year, weather permitting.
Pack a picnic lunch, some sunscreen and bug spray - and don't forget your camera! A good pair of athletic shoes are suggested so you can reach some higher spots for even better views. You will also need $5 for a daily Forest Service Pass. With the pass, you can park at any of the lakes for the entire day. Simply deposit your money at one of the kiosks and fill out the form - leave on your dashboard while you enjoy the Cascade Lakes!
One final note: the Cascade Lakes Highway past Mt. Bachelor is usually closed during winter months. Check here before you plan your trip to make sure you won't be snowed out!
All photographs in this Hub are the property of Stephanie Hicks. Please contact me for permission to use.
Mt. Bachelor, Oregon
Many people consider Mt. Bachelor to be the iconic image of Bend, Oregon. After all, if you are vacationing in Bend any time from November through May, you are probably here for the skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports!
It's a short 20-30 minute drive from downtown Bend to the base of Mt. Bachelor. During the summer (when you'll be planning a scenic drive along the Cascade Lakes Highway), you can ride the Summit Lift chairlift and take in the views from 9,000 feet above sea level. Look towards the north and see the Three Sisters mountains and Broken Top. You'll even spot some of the Cascade Lakes below from your viewpoint.
When my sister and her family visited us in Bend in 2007, we took the kids on the chairlift, had lunch at the restaurant on top, and then hiked back down! If you prefer, you can ride the chairlift back down, as well.
Trust me, you do not want to forget your camera for this visit!
Mt. Bachelor Photographs and Views from the TopClick thumbnail to view full-size
Sparks Lake, Oregon
Once you pass Mt. Bachelor, you'll come to the gate through which you enter the . Its a gorgeous drive, windy at times, with trees hugging the roadway on both sides. Be careful to slow down on curves and use extra caution when passing on this 2-lane highway. Cascade Lakes Highway
Sparks Lake is about 5 miles past Mt. Bachelor. You're going to take a left at the sign (all the lakes/trails/campgrounds are well marked). Stay to your left when you enter, unless you are headed to the campground. The road to Sparks Lake is not paved, and deeply rutted. But fortunately, its only about a 5 minute drive to the lake itself.
Quiet and tucked away, Sparks Lake is one of my favorite of the Cascade Lakes. Fly-fishing is allowed, but our favorite activity is hiking - and photography! This would be a perfect place to dip your toes in the water and enjoy a picnic.
According to geologists, Sparks Lake is getting towards the end of its life-cycle, as it is slowly draining and turning into a marsh. The evolution will still take many human lifetimes to complete, but you can see some evidence of the change that is underway.
Sparks Lake PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Devil's Lake, Oregon
After Sparks Lake, you'll travel about 5-6 miles southwesterly on the Cascade Lakes Highway. You cannot miss Devil's Lake! Its the only lake that is visible right from the highway. But don't swerve and weave around the road. Pull over so you can marvel at the blue-green waters.
Across the highway from Devil's Lake is a rocky lava flow called "Devil's Garden," or "Devil's Necklace." In the photographs below, my two older sons are trying to navigate some of the large lava rocks in the Devil's Hill flow above Devil's Lake.
My kids love this little bit of trivia: did you know that a sample of the lava rock from Devil's Garden is on the moon?! In the 1960s, Apollo astronauts trained for their missions in the lava fields of Central Oregon. James Irwin took a rock to the moon to commemorate their other-worldly training right here in the Cascade mountains!
Hiking, camping and fly-fishing are all allowed around Devil's Lake.
Devil's Lake PhotographsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Elk Lake, Oregon
My first exposure to the Cascade Lakes was about 15 years ago, when we stayed at the rustic Forest Service cabin "owned" by my husband's family (technically, its a 99-year ground lease) at Elk Lake. No running water or heat, but a cozy little log cabin with a lot of charm.
Notwithstanding the fact that the lake is a chilly 65 degrees at its warmest during the summer, my kids love swimming in the alpine waters. We also canoe and kayak, hike, roast marshmallows and picnic!
Elk Lake is about 8 minutes past Devil's Lake and is also well-marked. Its one of the several Cascade Lakes with a resort, too. Boot moorage and rentals, groceries and gas are available - if you are willing to spend about $2 per gallon over retail!
Summer brings out sailboats and windsurfers in the brisk winds that come off the mountains. During winter, you can get to Elk Lake Lodge via cross-country skis or snowmobiles.
Elk Lake PhotographsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Hosmer Lake, Oregon
Don't drive too fast after you leave Elk Lake, or you'll zip right past Hosmer Lake. Its about 5 miles south, and off to your left. After you turn off the highway, follow the windy, paved road about 1 mile to the end of the pavement. A boat launch is to your right, with some parking and bathrooms. Put your day pass, or annual Forest Service pass on your dashboard!
Hosmer Lake is small and quiet. Camping is available for a nominal fee. It seems like the perfect place to enjoy some fly-fishing. Pay attention to the rules - only fly fishing with a barbless hook is allowed, and its catch and release only.
Trivia: Hosmer Lake is the only western lake in the U.S. that is stocked with Atlantic Salmon!
A number of trails allow you to explore the area around Hosmer Lake a bit further, if you like. Grassy meadows surround the lake, which is backed up by views of Mt. Bachelor.
Hosmer Lake PhotographsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Lava Lakes, Oregon
After you leave Hosmer Lake and head south on the Cascade Lakes Highway, you'll only travel about another 5 minutes before you see the sign for Lava Lakes. Turn left off the highway and you have another paved road that takes you to a pair of lakes: Little Lava Lake, and Lava Lake.
Trivia: Little Lava Lake is spring-fed and is the headwaters of the Deschutes River!
Little Lava Lake includes a campground, bathrooms and a boat launch. Lava Lake is about twice the size of Little Lava Lake. There is a marina, a small grocery/supply store and gas is available (at a very steep price). You can rent canoes, paddle boats or row boats, if you desire.
Fishing, camping, picnicking and boating are all fun activities at the Lava Lakes.
Lava Lakes PhotographsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Cultus Lake, Oregon
Like Lava Lakes, there are actually a pair of lakes at the turn-off towards Cultus Lake. Cultus Lake itself is about 2 miles along a nice, wide paved roadway. Cultus Lake Lodge also has a small grocery, supply store and gasoline available for purchase. There is a very nice picnic ground with both a changing room and bathrooms at the lake shore.
Cultus Lake's best natural amenity is its shallow, sandy beach that encourages swimmers and boaters, alike. You can also fish, hike, camp, picnic, windsurf and go sailing. Boat rentals are available at the Lodge.
Little Cultus Lake is 4 miles from the Cascade Lakes Highway, three of which are unpaved and very rutted. Check your vehicle's suspension - and your nerves - before you head down the road!
The Cultus Lakes turn-off is about 10-15 minutes south of Lava Lakes.
Cultus Lake PhotographsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Wildlife in the Cascade Lakes Region
The Cascade Lakes Highways takes you through heavily forested lands under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. This is wild country!
Keep your eyes open for:
- Mule deer
- Ground squirrels
- Grey squirrels
- Mountain lions
- Black bears
- Red-tailed hawks
Crane Prairie Reservoir, Oregon
When you leave Cultus Lake, continue heading south on the Cascade Lakes Highway about 15 miles. Its your longest stretch so far on the scenic highway without a stop. But you can still enjoy the scenery and the gorgeous Cultus River flowing along the east side of the highway.
Start to watch for signs because you'll be turning left to stay on the scenic route to get to our next stop - the Crane Prairie Reservoir. If you continue on the Cascade Lakes Highway another 11 miles past the turn-off, you'll connect with Highway 58, which will take you to Crater Lake!
When you turn off the Cascade Lakes Highway, you are now heading west on Forest Service Road 42. Its about 8 miles until you turn left again, and then head 4 miles north to the Crane Prairie Reservoir. Its actually an artificial lake constructed in 1929 to impound waters for irrigation.
The most notable feature of the Crane Prairie Reservoir is the fact that it is one of the prime breeding grounds for Osprey in Central Oregon (an endangered species). You can also see Mallard Ducks and Bald Eagles in the area. Crane Prairie Reservoir is also a fantastic fishing location.
Boating, camping, fishing and photography are all options for you to enjoy at Crane Prairie Reservoir.
Crane Praire Reservoir PhotographsClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Road Back to Bend, Oregon at the End of the Cascade Lakes Highway Tour
After the Crane Prairie Reservoir, head south towards Forest Road 42 again. Now, you're about 20 miles from Highway 97, which will take you back to Bend.
Be sure to follow the directional signs towards Highway 97, so you don't end up doing another loop through the Cascade Lakes Highway! Your return trip will take you through Sunriver, Oregon, and to 97 north to Bend.
Hope you enjoyed the Cascade Lakes Highway! You'll want to visit again, soon!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 Stephanie Marshall