Friday, August 4, 2017

Sparks Lake

The  Cascade Lakes Highway sweeps travelers out of the busy town of Bend into the rugged eastern Cascades. This volcanic landscape is filled with lakes, peaks, meadows, and campgrounds and has hundreds of miles of trails connecting them all.

Climb out of town for about 25 scenic miles on the well-paved highway and you will see, spread out to your left, what appears to be a wide, flooded meadow. This is the picturesque and popular Sparks Lake, and you just drove past the access road. To find the main part of the lake, don't miss the left turn onto Forest Road 46-400, a lumpy but well-marked gravel road that is fine for passenger cars if one drives slowly and carefully. Pass Soda Creek Campground, which is currently closed and is nowhere near the lake anyway. Continue for over a mile to find the day-use area. If you are hoping to spend the night (highly recommended), start watching along both sides of the road once it drops towards the lake. There are many dispersed (read: primitive) sites; of course, the pull-in and walk-in sites on the right are near the water and are in higher demand. The left side of the road offers sites as well, though, and some are quite pretty and private. Just bring plenty of drinking water; this is hot, dusty country. Note that there is no camping near the day-use area.

Parking around Sparks Lake does require a day-use fee or a Northwest Forest Pass, but it's well worth the price. The broad, shallow lake covers roughly 370 acres, with another 360 acres of wetland; these figures are approximate, as lake levels drop quickly as summer progresses. The area is known for both its fly fishing and its birding. Trails wind through the pine forest and along the lake, and birders can walk (cautiously) through the edges of the wetlands. South Sister, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor punctuate the skyline. Paddlers converge with canoes, kayaks, inflatables, and paddleboards. Families gather to picnic, camp, and swim during the long, hot central Oregon summer days.

Boaters should be aware that much of the lake becomes very shallow by mid-summer, depending on the year's snowpack. When putting in at the day-use boat ramp, take the left arm to find deeper water and explore weirdly sculptural lava formations. Boats with shallow drafts and flat bottoms, such as canoes, will be able to explore more of the lake, but boating options diminish dramatically as the summer progresses. Those willing to pack their gear in will discover several wonderful boat-in campsites along the lake's edge; most of these are to the left of the day-use area.

This oasis in a rugged landscape holds a variety of wildlife, particularly shorebirds. Western meadowlarks (Oregon's state bird) and a host of songbirds also flourish here. If you are lucky enough to be able to spend the night, you may hear the eerie cry of sandhill cranes as you settle into your sleeping bag beneath the glittering desert sky.

The lakes's day-use area offers one of the best accessible hiking trails in the state: the Ray Atkeson Loop Trail. This wheelchair-friendly paved path passes along lava features and beside the water, and it's a perfect hike for kids. Some of the best views of the lake are from this trail, so be sure to bring your camera. More hiking is available where an unpaved section of the trail continues into the forest, and a few primitive campsites may be found along the path here.

The south pool of Sparks Lake can be a peaceful respite from the crowds. Boatable only during the highest water levels, the marsh is a haven for the more timid wildlife. This pool once had its own busy campground. To find it, drive past the lake and watch on your left for the old access road, now blocked with boulders. Park off of the highway and take the five-minute walk to several primitive sites nestled under the trees. Mt. Bachelor rises silently above the tranquil marsh; you may even have the campground to yourself.

Sparks Lake is no secret; tourists from near and far flock here every summer weekend, and folks from Bend drive up to join them. It's popular for good reason, though, and the lake's size ensures that the crowds are able to spread out. Make the journey, brave the rough road, and explore Sparks Lake. Bring a camera. Bring something that floats, or bring a wheelchair. The lake is waiting, mirrorlike on a craggy mountainside under the central Oregon sun.

These folks brought an extra kayak for their camping gear

The South Pool


  1. Nicely written and described. The pictures are quite elegant. The page would have looked better if there had been a balanced mix between the pictures and text.

  2. Thanks so much for such a great description. We traveled to Sparks but it was so crowded and dusty that we didn't explore it much. I looked for photos, didn't want to steal yours, so linked to your blog post when describing Sparks Lake. thank you again.

  3. I'm sorry it was like that, it is a pretty popular place. Thank you for being considerate. I hope you can try again sometime. It's magical at night; you can hear the sandhill cranes.