Thursday, September 8, 2022

On the Sunny Side: Suttle Lake (And a Bonus)

Just east of the Cascade summit, below the combined highways 20, 22, and 126, a glacier-carved valley holds a beautiful mountain lake. No secret in the communities of Sisters and Bend, this 253-acre lake draws visitors like a magnet, especially in the heat of summer. There is always something to do here, though, and quieter, cooler days mean fewer visitors. Drive about 2 hours from the central Willamette valley and explore one of the highlights of central Oregon, just barely on the sunny side of the mountains.

The lake is named for John Settle, one of the organizers of the Santiam Wagon Road. Settle discovered the lake in 1866 and was rewarded by having his name misspelled when it was recorded. The misspelling remains to this day.

This lake has been protected since 1898. The Forest Service first allowed some development for recreation in the 1920s, and today the area boasts three campgrounds and a resort. 

Driving in, head toward the day use area to find an excellent swimming beach for all ages; this also is a great place to launch kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards (please note that a Northwest Forest Pass or a day-use fee is required). Families hang out here and picnic in the sun, the water spreading out like glass and dotted with folks of all ages floating on whatever they can get to float. But there is another side: when the wind comes up, and this close to the summit it does come up, the water can rise and fling foam like ocean breakers. Not so much fun to swim in, but lovely to watch, and certain bloggers have ridden the chop in their inflatable U-boat (no bloggers were harmed in the making of this article).

While at the day-use area, follow the shore to your right to find a well-maintained trail that encircles the entire lake. This makes a nice, fairly level hike that is also used by anglers and mountain bikers. The path passes through forest, campgrounds, and an area burned in the B and B fire in its 3.6-mile course around the lake.

On the other side of the day-use area lies the resort. A remarkable patchwork of buildings, this facility offers a modern lodge, a tavern, darling little rustic cabins (equipped with Traeger grills but not bathrooms), and a selection of lovely cottages dating from 1925 all the way to nearly-new. You will also find a cafe here, as well as a small shop. Kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards are rented from the boathouse, and the docks in their sheltered cove are a perfect spot to enjoy the lake view. it's worth noting that most of these amenities close for the season in mid to late fall.

Continue driving around the lake to find three excellent campgrounds, each with their own day-use area and boat ramp: South ShoreBlue Bay, and Link Creek. While all three have some lake access, Link Creek is our favorite, with easy boat launching, nice docks, and a lovely creek. This campground even offers a few yurts, and it is open earlier and later than the other two. That being said, all three are great places to camp, boat, fish, and watch wildlife.

After all, it's about the lake: over 250 acres of cool, clear mountain water, up to 75 feet deep. Motorized and non-motorized boating. Water skiing, windsurfing, and now wing foiling. Anglers seek kokanee, brown trout, rainbow trout, and whitefish while whole families bob about on air mattresses. If the weather turns, head to your campsite, where you can relax by the campfire and watch vehicles creep beetle-like along the highway halfway up the hillside opposite. Bird watchers are especially successful on the more sheltered western end; bald eagles, ospreys, loons, goldeneyes, mergansers, and a variety of ducks are found here. Vine maples display their vibrant colors in early fall, making this an excellent time to visit.

All of this would be enough, but for those who like quieter water, there is a bonus: a left turn from the lakeside road leads to Scout Lake, a small gem set in a little basin in a high, sparse forest. Only non-motorized boating is allowed here, and dogs are prohibited; since this popular little lake has no outlet, sanitation is a concern. It is a lovely spot for paddling and photography, and a swimming area with a crumbly pumice beach is popular with kids, although the lake has deep areas, too. The campground here is set in the trees away from the lake, and it only operates until mid-September, but with a Forest Pass or day-use fee you can visit the lake and then head back to your campsite or yurt at Suttle Lake.

Summer may be winding down, but Oregon offers outdoor activities all year long. During the quiet days of early fall, head to the sunny side of the pass to explore Suttle Lake and its little brother, Scout Lake. If the wind comes up, you may even see a couple of bloggers bounding over the waves in their faithful inflatable. Wave as we go by...

Docks at the resort

View from the U-boat

Black Butte

Getting choppy

Mt. Washington background, remains of the B&B Complex Fire foreground

You thought we were kidding about the breakers, didntcha?

A relatively new sport, wing foiling involves a hydrofoil on a SUP board, propelled by a
hand-held kite. Ideally, the board moves above the water, as seen here.

Finding refuge at quiet Scout Lake
Pick your lake and plan your trip, we'll see you there!

Thursday, August 11, 2022

If the Planets Align: The Obsidian/Scott Loop Hike

This unique hike offers an incredible variety of jaw-dropping views in under 20 miles, but it doesn't come easily. We wanted to do the loop for years, but could never get all of the pieces together. First, the Old McKenzie Pass (Highway 242) has to be open. On a good year, this is from the end of June until maybe October; it is a high, remote passage and subject to closure by snow. Second, you need a permit from the Forest Service, and if you have not gotten one in April you will need to try to grab one when they release the remainder a week prior to your entry date. Third, the trail tends to hold onto snow late into the season, especially the PCT section, and it would be very easy to get lost in this huge wilderness unless you are accustomed to snow hiking with a GPS. Fourth, if you want the views, the weather has to be clear, and mountain tops often hide their heads in the clouds. And fifth, if you are like us, you have to get the time off of work.

But it finally happened. The planets aligned for us and we drove out Highway 242 to the Obsidian Trailhead one fine morning and even located a parking place. There was a ranger waiting to check our permit; he was to reappear three more times over the course of our hike, so don't think it's something you can omit. 

At this point we should perhaps mention that you will also need your sturdiest boots, a walking stick or trekking poles, good maps, and the ability to carry plenty of water. Dogs should have boots to protect their paws in the obsidian and lava areas.

Begin hiking uphill (get used to it, there is a lot of uphill, more uphill than seems logical) through the forest. A trail to the right marked as "not maintained" is worth missing; it once went to Spring Lake at the foot of Sim's Butte, but a recent burn has made it fairly impassible. Continue through forest, a short burned area, more forest, and arrive at a wall of lava at the three-mile point. Follow the well-maintained trail through the lava field and continue to climb to a junction near White Branch Creek at around four miles. Now you have a decision to make: take the trail to the left and hike Scott Trail Glacier Way for less than a mile to camp at Sunshine Meadows, or take the trail to the right for around a mile and camp in the Obsidian area. If you choose the lush wildflower meadow at Sunshine, you will definitely want to head south on a side trip to see the Obsidian area, as well.

One square mile of obsidian. Shining, black glass lying over acre after acre. Huge boulders of black volcanic glass. And next to it, Sisters Spring bursts from the base of an enormous cliff and trickles across a mountainside meadow until it pours through a small slot into 20-foot Obsidian Falls. If this is not enough, you will begin to catch views of the surrounding Cascades and find many lovely campsites off of the trails and away from the water. 

This hike can be done as a lollipop loop of 11.5 miles, and it offers so much that is absolutely worth every step. But if, like us, you finally got your planets to align and you want to make the most of your visit, there is a bigger loop using the PCT and Scott trails to make a 17.5 mile loop. This offers even more variety and views, at the cost of a long, dusty hike out and a short trek along the road. 

To take the long loop, head north from Sunshine Meadows or Obsidian Falls on the PCT. Fill your water bottles first. This section looks deceptively short on the maps; don't believe it, allow plenty of time. 

Climb, first through the forest and then alongside the edge of another lava flow. Then begin hiking through the lava field and over Opie Dildock Pass. This is a wildly rugged landscape, dotted with the silver skeletons of trees that tried to make a go of it and failed. Climb until you find yourself in a sort of box canyon with a wall of crumbled lava at the end. This is your trail.

Switchback up the wall and pass along a lava fin. Continue until Collier Cone looms ahead (crumbly scramble trails allow for exploration for those bold enough). North Sister looms above the cone, with Middle Sister peeking coyly alongside.

Continue through the rugged landscape with more views of the Cascades; on a clear day one may spot Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Adams. At long last arrive at Minnie Scott Springs, a beautiful, fragile oasis and probably your last water source. Look in the trees on the ridges above to find camp sites.

Continue to climb on the PCT through sparse forest to a wide meadow filled with a variety of wildflowers in season. Look behind you for an up-close view of North Sister, Middle Sister, and Little Brother. Cross the meadow and watch for the Scott Trail on your left (continue briefly on the PCT if you wish to explore Yapoah Crater, a massive cone with scramble trails). 

Four-in-One Cone

This next section is a long, dusty pull of over five miles through lava and forest, but Four-in-One Cone provides a welcome side trip and a good, if unmaintained, trail to the top. After that, expect a descent through sparse woods and sections of lava; this part of the trail was originally a segment of Felix Scott's Trans-Cascade road, built in the mid-1800s. 

Emerge onto Highway 242. There used to be a tie trail to make this into a nice, neat loop, but it has been inexplicably closed, leaving hikers to walk about half a mile along a narrow pavement with no shoulders and somewhat limited traffic sight lines. Be cautious on this part of the journey until you meet back up with your car at the trailhead.

This is a rather unfortunate fizzle of an ending to a truly spectacular hike, but don't let it deter you from taking the longer loop. The views and wild landscape are well worth a bit of a trudge at the end. 

Regardless of whether you choose the long loop or the short loop, this is not an easy hike; it is a rugged, volcanic land. If you are up to the hike, though, and the planets align for you, don't hesitate to drive out the Old McKenzie Pass and explore this wild country for yourself. 

It was worth the wait.

Obsidian Cliffs

North and Middle Sister

Sunshine Meadows

Little Brother

Little Brother and Middle Sister from Obsidian Trail

Arrowhead Lake

Sisters Spring

Obsidian Falls

That's not just wet. That's glass.

Obsidian and, for some reason, a perfectly round lake.

You thought we were kidding about the square mile of obsidian

Sawyer Bar

North Sister and Little Brother

At the top of Opie Dildock Pass
Unnamed rock. We like to think of it as the Eye of Sauron.

Inside Collier Cone

North and Middle Sisters, Little Brother just off frame to the right. A climb up the lower flank of the cone rewards you with this view of an unnamed lake.

Little Brother and part of Collier Cone

Here we go, left to right: Washington, Three-Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, and just barely visible, Adams. Collier Cone foreground.

Inside the cone

Cone overview

Cliff over Minnie Scott Springs

Minnie Scott

The bubbling headwaters of the spring

Minnie Scott Springs from camping area

Jefferson and Three-Fingered Jack at sunset

Meadow near Scott Trail

"Old Man of the Mountain"

Looking back from the Scott Trail

Four-in-One Cone

Crest of Four-in-One Cone

And on our way out. May the planets align for you!