Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Scott Lake: A String of Jewels

Highway 242, the Old Mckenzie Pass, has reopened for another summer, and we have made our yearly phone call to the McKenzie Ranger District: "Is the road to Scott Lake open yet?"

At 4800', snowmelt comes late to this part of the Cascades, but it's worth the wait. Scott Lake is actually three crystal-clear mountain pools connected by channels, like beads on a string. Peaceful and shallow, it's a perfect lake for all human-powered craft and for boaters of all skill levels. It's also a delightful swimming spot. Due to the shallow water, this is one mountain lake that warms up in the summer; no numb toes here! Consider swimming from your boat, though, as the bottom consists of soft, deep silt.

Daytrippers often stop to photograph the sparkling lower pool and abundant wildflowers. Only the well-informed drive to the end of dusty, potholed Scott Lake Road and follow the path that leads east from the parking lot. Those who do find a stunning view of the lake with the Three Sisters in the background. Due to the beautiful backdrop, this end of the lake is the most popular for camping, and the trail leading toward Hand Lake accesses more sites along the middle pool. Other campsites are scattered along the west side of the lower pool, near the road. All of the sites at the lake are walk-in, with the very first site being the most easily accessible. This is primitive camping, with no water and few vault toilets, but your day-use parking pass (or Northwest Forest Pass) is all you need to stay the night. A word to the wise: leave your big camping trailer at home; check out our previous post on the Belknap Craters for a description of Highway 242.

Boats can be launched from your camp, or at a small put-in just past the first campsite. Songbirds flit among the bushes and the air is pungent with the scent of a high Cascade forest baking in the summer sun. Watch the depths for an occasional wily fish; we have seen many people fish here, but we have never witnessed a catch. When you have finished exploring the first pool, look for a small, rocky channel at the northwest corner. If lake levels are low, a short portage may be in order, but the water quickly opens into the middle pool. This one seems particularly popular with tadpoles. The next channel is deeper and more obvious, leading into the last, and most shallow, pool. All three pools offer amazing views; the Three Sisters rise to the south, Scott Mountain stands to the northwest, and flowers and wetland plants fringe the lake's forested edges.

One of the Tenas Lakes
It's tempting to spend your whole time here lazing beside the tranquil lake, observing frogs and dragonflies and watching the clouds drift by. If you're looking for a hike, though, you're in the right place. There are two trailheads at the end of Scott Lake Road. Take the path to your left (Benson Lake Trail) and climb through the woods for about a mile and a half to beautiful Benson Lake. This is a good turnaround point for families with small children, as well as a notable brookie-fishing destination (bring in a float tube or pack raft if you can for easier access). For a longer hike, continue about a mile further and watch on your left for a spur trail to Tenas Lakes, a scattering of small, deep-blue mountain lakes. This is a good destination for a first backpacking trip; there are several excellent tent sites near the pools, and the rugged country makes privacy possible in this popular area. For an even longer hike, continue on the main trail to climb Scott Mountain, bypassing the cutoff for The Knobs and the trail toward Hand Lake. On this last mile and a half, the trail gradually steepens as the views grow ever more spectacular. Take some time to rest and savor the panorama from the grassy summit, then return the way you came.

Be aware that this trail is often under snow early in the season. It is easy to lose the trail under snow fields (this writer speaks from personal experience), and half-melted drifts can offer very unstable footing. For a lower-elevation, kid-friendly hike, take the second trail from the parking lot toward Hand Lake. This path skirts Scott Lake, then heads off through the trees. It's a mostly-level mile-and-a-half walk to a broad,  grassy mountain meadow. Hand Lake varies greatly in size depending on snowpack and the time of year, but there is usually some water lying in the verdant field. You will find a rustic three-sided shelter here, complete with wooden bunks and a fire pit. The other side of the lake offers dispersed camping among the trees; Hand Lake Trail #3513 also leads to this part of the meadow, with parking and a trailhead on Highway 242. Note the wall of lava at the lake's far end, the edge of a huge lava flow.

To find Scott Lake, head over the Old Mackenzie Pass from either Mackenzie Bridge or the town of Sisters. Look for Forest Road 260 between mileposts 71 and 72. Follow the lumpy but passable track for one mile to the lake. For the trailheads, continue to where the road ends at an old quarry and a small parking area.

This lake is one of the jewels of the Central Cascades. Take your mosquito repellent. Take your camera. Take something that floats and maybe your hiking boots. The snow has melted. The road is open. It's time to go to Scott Lake.


  1. You are right in that places it's hard to bring the camping trailer while planning to camp a tour. It's really adventurous to go out for a campaign in salt lake.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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