A few weeks ago, a reader sent me an eloquent email complaining about a story in which I'd suggested paddling on the northern branch of Sparks Lake as an alternative to more crowded portions of the popular lake.
The writer said that over the decades, he'd seen Central Oregon “loved to death." Now, powder is tracked out in 30 minutes, Sparks Lake is always crowded, and I'd just given away one of the few secret places he had left, he wrote, adding that I should be sure to alert Outside Magazine to my discovery.
I wrote a sympathetic email back, because on the one hand, I know precisely what the emailer was getting at. (Hey, Outside, call me!)
On the other, there are no secrets. Not even counting guidebooks, unless there are places yet to be mapped and satellite-imaged “to death," there are no destinations I can tell Outside about that they couldn't locate themselves by looking at a Google map, or better still, the Central Oregon Hiking-Trail Map from Adventure Maps Inc., which is what I use.
Three days after the offending article ran, I drove by Sparks Lake — twice. Both times I kept an eye out for paddlers on the north branch (yes, the supposedly secret portion of the lake is also the part most clearly visible from Cascade Lakes Highway) and didn't see one paddler.
So don't fret too much if you see your favorite “secret" lake divulged here. If it's not in someone's nature to paddle to an unfamiliar part of Sparks Lake or to hike to remote lakes in Three Sisters Wilderness, a newspaper article is not likely to change that.
To spread the wealth and any possible new crowd a little, I'll tell you about three lakes that require hikes of varying distances.
Two and a half weeks ago, my family and I hiked to Lucky Lake, a 1.4-mile hike from the trailhead, located just south of Lava Lake on the west side of Cascade Lakes Highway.
Although the kids would probably report a more torturous story to the United Nations or whoever enforces the Geneva Conventions, the trail is an easy, slightly uphill hike through scenic, sun-dappled forest that, at times, affords glimpses of Mount Bachelor in all its brown summery splendor.
Though we didn't walk all the way around the lake trail, we saw enough to get the idea that Lucky Lake doesn't have a beach in the same sense that Elk Lake has beaches. Which means, if you get there in the late afternoon like we did, the best spots — defined here as having a break in the trees to set down your stuff and access the water — are probably already occupied by others. Though Lucky doesn't have the crowds of, say, Elk Lake's Sunset Beach, we encountered lots of other little groups dotting the shore, many of them camping.
Our chance to get even farther from the crowds came last weekend, when my wife and I took advantage of the absence of our kids, who are off visiting relatives in the Midwest, to swim in still more pristine lakes.
Saturday, we hoofed it to Teddy Lake, about four miles each way from the Winopee Lake Trailhead at Cultus Lake. What a stark contrast these two lakes present. The much larger Cultus is heavily used by motor boats, and because access to the trailhead is adjacent to the campground, you see a lot of RVs, canopies and tents through the trees. It's interesting to see all the stuff people bring while camping these days: tents, tables, chairs, bikes, giant floats, anchored boats, electronics, etc.
I recognized Alex Morley's yellow FJ Cruiser (it has his name on it) parked at the trailhead. Morley is an active Bend retiree, and a couple of years back he and I did an outing together at Lake Billy Chinook. When we met up with him, I was heartened to see Morley, 93, still getting down the trail with the help of a Swedish-made outdoor walker called a Veloped, replete with knobby tires, a seat to rest on, suspension and handbrakes. Thinking about it now, I kind of want one, and I'm in my 40s.
After visiting with Morley and his companion, Bend writer Helen Vandervort, we headed back down the trail. After about an hour of hiking, we reached the Winopee Lake Trail turnoff. The forest here is less of that cool, lakeside green and more that hot, lodgepole pine, but less than a mile later we reached the sign pointing the way to Teddy Lake, just a half mile away. We encountered a lot of blowdown across the trail, and little clusters of blooming lupin, and soon we were standing at the shore of Teddy Lake and the remnants of a pretty well-established campsite where someone had taken the trouble to make benches from the many logs lying around.
The water looked clear and inviting, but there were blown-down trees everywhere. I, of course, led us around toward the western shore and even heavier blowdown. Finally heeding my wife's keener eye, we backtracked to a trail leading around the eastern shore of the lake. We found another campsite and set down our gear before climbing in for a well-earned swim.
We spent a couple of hours here swimming, eating and lazing in the sunshine, with only our dog and a few mosquitoes as companions, but not enough to bother with the bug repellent we'd brought along. We didn't see another person until late in the hike out, a pack of mountain bikers by Cultus Lake.
We liked Teddy Lake so much that upon waking the next morning, we decided to head back up the hill to check out Blow and Doris, a pair of lakes located just southwest of Elk Lake. The large parking area at the trailhead here was wide and dusty and fairly crowded with cars, and I correctly assumed we weren't looking at more Teddy Lake-like solitude.
The trail up — a little steeper than those leading to Lucky and Teddy lakes — is dotted with moss, wildflowers, firs and marshy green ponds connected by trickling streams.
Blow Lake was another gorgeous sight to behold, but as the name suggests, it's heavily surrounded by blowdown. We made our way on to Doris Lake, and found a couple of great spots to kick off our sandals and swim. The water here is a little colder than Teddy and Lucky lakes, but no less refreshing when you jump in to rinse off the trail dust.
Some readers may be crestfallen to see their favorite lake divulged here. Me, I'm excited. It's still hot, it's still summer, and in my case, the kids are still out of town and there's a lot more splendid seclusion to be had.
And as I look at the map on my desk, I see dozens, maybe hundreds more lakes within striking distance of those I've mentioned: Island, Dumbbell, Copepod, Questionmark and Zowie lakes, to name but a few.
If you go to any of these, be prepared with maps, GPS, drinking water, sunscreen and proper footwear. You may consider water shoes for the lakes, which are crystal clear, but lake-bottom muck stirred up by moving legs and feet can quickly turn submerged rocks and logs into unseen obstacles.