Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fish Lake: A Stop for Weary Travelers

Just before Highway 126 connects with Highway 20 in the McKenzie Pass, a small sign announces Fish Lake on the west side of the highway. Folks traveling between the Willamette Valley and Sisters often stop to relax at this lovely broad meadow, just as travelers in the mid-1800s did.

The Old Santiam Wagon Road passes by here, and it was a major highway in its day despite its rough, often steep, sometimes muddy dirt surface. Settlers traveled on horseback and in wagons, and cattlemen drove their herds over the Cascades. Lying right beside the old roadway, the Fish Lake meadow offered rest and grazing for tired horses and cattle. Entrepreneurs recognized the potential of this area and were happy to supply travelers' needs. In the early 1900s, the US Forest Service set up an outpost here, and not only are many of the old cabins still standing, they can actually be rented for public use during the winter months.

The Santiam Wagon Road
The parking lot for Fish Lake is found among the lava fields between Clear Lake and the Highway 20 junction with 126 (just south of the Fish Lake Guard Station turnoff). This is a day use area, with a vault toilet and several picnic tables beneath tall, leafy trees. The meadow spreads out toward the west, broad and grassy. Pass through a well-marked gateway to find the Fish Lake Historic Site. The path is smooth and accessible to most. You will find a barn built by the CCC and some old Forest Service equipment as well as the historic cabins. Lava flows are piled up along one side, and the Old Santiam Wagon Road heads off into the forest on the other. The settlement is a wonderful place to teach children about Oregon's pioneers. This section of the wagon road makes a lovely hike or bike ride through history, passing westward beside a grave site and into the forest on its way to Hackleman Creek.

But...where's the lake?

Fish Lake is one of those Cascade oddities: porous volcanic soil makes for disappearing water features, and this one does a major vanishing act. Come here soon enough after snow melt and you will find the meadow brimful of sparkling water. Hand launch a small boat and you can enjoy a long afternoon of paddling or rowing. The lake quickly shrinks, though, and soon carrying your boat to the water is a bit of a slog. By midsummer of most years, Fish Lake is simply a broad, grassy meadow. As for the fish of Fish Lake, we are told that they retreat up a small creek for the summer and return with the lake the next year.

There are a handful of lovely, treed campgrounds along 126, the best of which is Coldwater Cove beside Clear Lake. The developed campgrounds here are simple, offering few amenities, but there is room for medium-sized trailers and the settings are beautiful. There are also dispersed camping spots here and there, as well as access to the McKenzie River Trail, well-known to mountain bikers. Clear Lake Resort offers rustic cabins, a few tent sites, and a gravel boat launch.

Next time you're passing through the Cascades, enjoy a rest stop at Fish Lake. 150 years' worth of travelers can't be wrong.

We leave you with one last example of Fish Lake's little magic trick. Here is a picture of a forest service cabin with a brimming lake behind...

... and this is the view from that same cabin just a few months later.


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