Clear Lake is nestled among majestic evergreens and towering volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range west of Sisters. (There are actually 11 lakes in Oregon with the name of “Clear Lake”, but this is the only one I have been to.) It is the source of the wild and scenic McKenzie River, which in turn, supplies the drinking water to the city of Eugene. The lake was formed 3,000 years ago, when a volcanic peak erupted and the resulting lava flow damned up the river, thus creating the lake.
Under this crystal clear water there still remains the trunks of ancient trees that once stood along the river. They are preserved by the icy cold water, which year round, is just above freezing.
The source of the lake is from snow melt and springs that travel through miles of volcanic rock and emerge from the ground at the northeast side of the lake. The lake is popular for fishing and is home to native cutthroat trout and stocked with rainbow and brook trout. No motorboats are allowed. It is also noted to be one of the best places to scuba dive in North America.
On this particular trip we decided to camp at Coldwater Cove Campground located on the southeast shore. It is the only campground on the lake and has about 50 sites, some of which you can reserve ahead through the website www.recreation.gov. The weekend we chose was a bit overcast and must have scared people away as there were many empty sites to choose from. After setting up our campsite, we took our canoe down to the boat dock at the campground. (If you don’t have your own boat, you can rent a rowboat at the Clear Lake Resort for $30 for the day). We paddled around the lake for a few hours, leaning over the boats edge to peer into the water below and view the petrified trees.
Duck families were abundant, swimming around the lakes edge. I think they are the only ones who can tolerate the cold water! We skirted nearly the entire lake in about 3 hours, enjoying the peace and quiet.
We have hiked the trail that circles the lake on a previous trip but it is definitely worth mentioning. It is only 5 ½ miles long and mostly flat. We started at the Clear Lake Resort (directions to the resort are mentioned below) and walked north along the lakeside trail crossing the Ikenick Creek. In less than 2 miles we came to the massive springs that feed the lake, water gushed from the ground.
Continuing on the east side of the lake the trail leads over ancient lava flows and through old growth forests. I recommend sturdy hiking boots as the lava rocks can be ankle twisting. A lot of the trail on east side has very little shade, so I also want to recommend a hat. The trail passes through the campground and skirts around the south end of the lake to a bridge where the lake funnels down to become the headwaters of the McKenzie River. The trail continues on the west side of the lake through the forest and continues onto a day use picnic area before returning.
Clear Lake Resort also has rustic cabins to rent, a restaurant and lodge. If you want to dock your own boat here, it will cost you $5. I recommend docking your own boat at the campground, for free. www.co.linn.or.us/parks/parks/clearlake.html.
How to Get There:
Drive east on HWY 22 towards Bend for approximately 80 miles. You’ll pass Detroit Lake, the small town of Idanha and when you reach Santiam Junction, turn right onto HWY 20 (25 miles before to the town of Sisters). Drive roughly 3.5 miles and turn left onto HWY 126 heading south towards Eugene. Drive another 3 miles and turn left at the sign for Clear Lake Resort. If you prefer to camp, drive another .5 mile to the campground entrance, also on your left.
Distance and Elevation Gain:
The hike around Clear Lake is 5.5 miles, mostly level, and some sections are paved over lava flows. It’s a very gentle hike and is also very popular with mountain bikers.
Fees and Permits
There are no permits required to park here, and it is dog friendly. There are bathrooms located at the resort and at the campground on the opposite side of the lake.
Camping at Coldwater Cove Campground costs $18 per night. You can purchase a bundle of firewood for $5 but bring your own kindling and newspaper to get it started.