July 30, 2012

Oregon's Olallie Lake Scenic Area - an outdoor lover's paradise

Ollalie Butte with Mt. Hood in the distance and Olallie and Monon lakes behind trees to the left
High atop Oregon's Cascade Mountains is a magical area where lava and ice have sculpted a landscape filled with high buttes and shallow basins. Ripples along the surface of over 200 lakes and tarns dance at the feet of high cliffs and cinder cones. Plump huckleberries flourish beneath lodgepole pines adorned with lichen, and colorful meadows sweep away the forest, giving breathtaking views of nearby Mt. Jefferson and Olallie Butte. One of the most accessible high lake regions along the crest of the Oregon Cascades, this place, known as the Olallie Lake Scenic Area, is truly an outdoor lover's paradise.

Named after the area's largest and most popular body of water, the Olallie Lake Scenic Area is located about 80 miles southeast of Portland. Eight developed campgrounds, each with its own individual characteristics, lie within the area, allowing campers to choose from lakeside, meadow, or forested campsites. And for those folks wishing to find a more secluded campsite, a network of hiking trails lead into the area's backcountry. 
Fishing on Olallie Lake
Three campgrounds - Paul Dennis, Camp Ten, and Peninsula - are located along Olallie Lake's scenic shoreline, making this body of water the area's most accessible. At the lake's northwestern end, several rustic cabins await those who wish to rent them. There, a small outpost stocks camping supplies and tempts the fisherman with several photos of large trout pulled from the lake. And if those pictures of Olallie Lake trout give you the itch, plenty of open shoreline is available for you to cast your line from, or you can even rent a rowboat (motors are prohibited on all the area's lakes) from the outpost's small marina.

English: Olallie Lake Resort boat dock in Oreg...
Olallie Lake Resort boat dock in Oregon, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 While your at this end of the lake, a stroll out onto the boat dock with a camera will present you with a great photo opportunity - Olallie Lake with Mt. Jefferson in the background.

Olalie Lake and  Mt. Jefferson

Monon Lake
Past Olallie Lake, road 4220 continues south to neighboring Monon Lake. Like Olallie Lake, its waters occupy a basin scoured out some 10,000 years ago by a massive ice sheet. But unlike Olallie Lake, Monon Lake has no campgrounds, thus providing a bit more solitude for those choosing to float its waters or explore its shores. A level path circles the entire lake and makes for a lovely evening walk or a brisk early morning jaunt or jog.

Osprey often circle high above the lake in search of a meal. You may even see a bald eagle. While hiking the Monan Lake Trail one morning, I suddenly heard the whooshing of air directly overhead. When I looked up, there was a bald eagle, flapping its enormous wings no more than 50 feet above me.

Horseshoe Lake
Past Monan Lake, road 4220 climbs to a quaint lakeside campground along Horseshoe Lake. A somewhat sandy shoreline at the campground makes this lake great for swimming in the late summer. And in the evening, if you listen close enough, you can sometimes hear a peeping sound coming from the lake's far, more rugged shoreline. It is the sound of the pika, a small mammal that lives among rocks and boulders in the higher elevations of the Cascade Mountains.

Horseshoe Lake is a good place to turn around or set up camp if you're traveling by car or RV. The road conditions beyond the lake are rugged and unmaintained. For those equipped with a high clearance vehicle, Breitenbush Lake is a worthy destination. Climb along road 4220 over a ridge and then back down into Brietenbush Lake's basin. Located within the western border of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, this 65 acre lake is at an elevation of 5,500 feet. 

Breitenbush Lake's campground borders the southern, most shallow section of the lake, where sediment from the lake's inlet has slowly filled in part of its basin. This end of the lake is especially scenic. A small inlet stream winds its way through a lush green meadow before emptying into Breitenbush Lake. A canoe or raft can take you to the deeper section of the lake where good fishing is found in crystal clear waters up to 25 feet deep. 
Breitenbush Lake
For those who want to become a bit more intimate with the Olallie Lake Scenic Area, several trails meander through the stunted forests, alongside green lakes and to the summits of several steep buttes, making for both leisurely and more strenuous day hikes.

A short, yet scenic hike is along the Gibson Lake Trail. It graciously offers sweeping vistas and a potpourri of trail side settings. After a short uphill meander, beginning near the north end of Breitenbush Lake, you'll find yourself standing along side Gibson Lake, viewing both Breitenbush Lake and Mt. Jefferson. The trail ventures further along a ridge separating Breitenbush and Horseshoe Lakes. A look down the ridge's steep  slope will give you a bird's eye view of Horseshoe Lake, with Monan and Olallie Lakes beyond.

Summit of Olallie Butte

For a spectacular 360 degree vista, the nearly 4 mile climb to the summit of 7,215 foot Olallie Butte is the area's most strenuous hike-but well worth the trip. A sweeping view of several glacier clad Cascade peaks - from Mt. Rainier to the Three Sisters - is in store for those who make the ascent on a clear day. After exploring the remnants of an old fire lookout, a walk toward the summit's south eastern side provides vistas of central Oregon and many of the watery blue gems lying at the butte's base. 

Mt. Jefferson from Ruddy Hill
If a shorter hike and less of a climb is what you're up for, then trails leading to the tops of Potato Butte and Double Peak also provide wonderful views. From the north end of Horseshoe Lake, a trail leads west for about a mile to an intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail. After a brief hike north on the PCT, a left hand turn will take the energetic hiker on a short climb up the steep flank of Ruddy Hill. From the cinder cone's red summit, Mt. Jefferson can be seen standing over the Breitenbush canyon far below.

A much less demanding hike is the short, downhill jaunt from Lower Lake Campground to Lower Lake, both located only about one mile north of Olallie Lake. Lower Lake's forested shoreline is reached after a downhill hike of only about a quarter mile. Continuing past Lower Lake, the trail leads to the top of a large bowl looking down on larger Fish Lake - one of ten lakes in Oregon with the same name.

Calvin at Lower Lake
One of the area's most popular trails is the Red Lake Trail. For the first mile, small tarns dotted with lily pads snuggle up to the trail. After a stroll along Top Lake's quiet shore, the trail climbs to an intersection with the PCT. For a closer look at this scenic plateau filled with lakes and ponds, head south on the PCT. Wall, Averill and Red Lakes await those who choose to continue further along the 5.8 mile Red Lake Trail.

Scene near the Red Lake Trail
For those backpackers who really want to get away from it all, a short bushwhack through the forest can deliver them to the lake of their choice. There are no maintained trails leading to Gifford Lake or View Lake, two of the area's largest, but you still may have to share these lakes with someone else. The best bet for complete solitude alongside a body of water is just north of Double Peak. Here, if you find someone else already at one of the numerous lakes, just continue over the next rise or down the next draw to find a lake to your liking.

There is one very small drawback to all this sitting water. It makes a splendid breeding ground for those blood thirsty creatures called mosquitoes. During the summer months, these creatures are so thick that their millions of flitting wings actually make an audible, low-toned hum. Be sure to carry mosquito repellent inside your vehicle and apply it before, or as soon as you step outside.

Several years ago, while returning to Breitenbush Lake from a hike into Jefferson Park (located in the nearby Mt. Jefferson Wilderness), I watched from a distance as my wife, clad only in her swimsuit, dove into our tent, trying to flee the marauders. After only a few minutes of exposure to the tiny critters, her body had been covered with welts. I don't know what she was thinking.

A breeze strong enough to propel the mosquitoes toward cover will give the camper who has forgotten mosquito repellent some respite - and fortunately, the wind blows quite often in the high Cascades. Those who have a boat can paddle out toward the middle of a lake. Mosquitoes tend to stay away from areas where there is no nearby protection, which is most often trees.

And like mosquitoes to water, black bears love the area's huckleberries. Occasionally, a curious bear may wander into one of the campgrounds, smelling a meal inside a garbage can or campsite. Its best to keep all food locked up in vehicles or hung above the ground so these critters can't get to it.

The Cascade Mountains are dynamic, ever changing as the months pass. Winter snows keep the area inaccessible (except for cross-country skiers) from October or November until usually sometime in June. As the snow melts, trails become soggy. Basins brim with excess water, saturating the rocky landscape. But if you have some water proof hiking boots, this is the best time to see water and earth's contrasting landscape. In some areas, only narrow land bridges separate dozens of newly formed tarns. Small streams that will exist only a month or so flow only a few feet from pond to pond. Later, as the mid-summer begins to dry the land, these heather rimmed tarns will begin to shrink and eventually disappear, leaving behind a dry, shallow basin. And in autumn, the air becomes crisp and the huckleberries bushes turn scarlet. Soon the winter snows will again cover the area, ensuring the Olallie Lake Scenic Area will remain the watery backcountry it has been for centuries.
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