A few weeks ago, my wife, our dog and I braved heat and horse droppings to make an approximately eight-mile loop hike out of several connecting trails west of Elk Lake.
From Bend, we took Cascades Lakes Highway approximately 33 miles and parked at the Elk Lake Trailhead (look for it on the west side of the highway, directly across from the Elk Lake Resort entrance).
As we readied our backpacks with food and water and clicked the dog into his leash, two guys walked out of the forest looking like they'd been on the trail a while, if facial hair and large backpacks were any sign. They were from New Mexico and were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and took an interest in our detailed map of the Sisters Wilderness Area, jawing aloud about a wrong turn they'd made earlier as they tried to find their way toward the resort.
I was no help. For some reason, I told them they'd need to make a right when they got to the highway. But fortunately, all signs they'd have encountered as they reached the highway would have overruled my misdirection.
Point being, these guys seemed to know what they were doing, and even they had made a wrong turn. So pay attention to the little map affixed to this article (Page B6). Better yet, get your hands on a wilderness map, GPS and compass, and know how to use them.
We opted to go in a counter- clockwise direction on the loop, avoiding the strong sun we'd have faced going clockwise.
The first leg of our trek took us on Trail 3514 out toward Horse Lake, located about halfway along the loop. For the most part, this is an easy stretch of uphill trail that levels out somewhat about halfway to the lake. If you want to head toward Horse Lake — a lovely spot for a dip while the season still permits — be sure to bear right and stay on Horse Creek Trail (a slight name change from “Horse Lake Trail," but you're on the right path) and watch for the blue on your left. The forest between the trail and Horse Lake is thick enough that you can't see a lot of the southern portion of the lake, but it becomes easier to spy through the trees just as you're about to pass it.
We crossed a low-lying stretch of mud and grass and found a faint trace of trail to an old campsite, well-developed in that someone had built a fire pit next to a natural curve in a rock by stacking smaller stones around it and made a small bench out of a well-placed log next to it.
I found an old wine bottle cork nearby and told my wife, with some degree of envy, “Some people really know how to live." The jealous scold in me now thinks they should have packed out their trash, too, the self-indulgent ne'er-do-wells.
We had neither camping gear nor wine, so our time there was going to be short — short like the remaining summer season. We made the best of it by immediately hitting the water. For a refreshing post-hike cool-down, a cold lake beats air conditioning every time. Just as we had at Teddy Lake (near Cultus Lake) a few weeks prior, we had Horse Lake all to ourselves. Lately, I can't get enough of swimming in these out-of-the-way spots. The cooling weather ahead will curtail that, but there may be some time left, if the weather holds, to get a little lake all to yourself — keep your tan and sun-damaged fingers crossed.
My pattern of choice was rinse, dry, repeat. We swam and dripped dry on our blanket in the sunshine, then ate our sandwiches. After our cheap feast, my wife was through with cool water, but I went in for more, followed by more lazing in the sun, then took a shoreline wade along the portion of the cove we called ours for a too-brief couple of hours.
Soon enough, we loaded our stuff back in our packs and backtracked, finding our way back to Horse Lake Trail.
At the trail crossing, we took a right and stuck to 3516, ignoring down the line a turn that would have taken us west on Trail 3530. About a half-mile down the trail, we reached trail 3515.1, where some helpful person had handwritten “Elk Lake" on the trail marker with an arrow, confirming we were heading the right way.
Here we passed through forest peppered with flowery meadows and shallow ponds. We caught a glimpse of Sunset Lake to our right, but the nearest point was occupied by campers, so we left them alone and kept on moving to the intersection of Pacific Crest Trail, which traverses an open plain, a nice change of scenery from the forest. After 1.3 miles on this trail, we arrived at the Elk Lake turnoff, which passes through a burn area full of sentinel-like snags whose shadows stretched long in the afternoon sun. Before we knew it, we and our dusty selves were back at the car, where we'd stored more cold water for just this moment.
During our hike, we met a trio of horses coming downhill with whom we had a quasi-prickly encounter. Seeing them approaching, I made sure to clip our dog, Kaloo, onto his leash, and following trail etiquette, I stepped out of the way of approaching horseback riders.
Kaloo has hair-trigger hackles, which contrast poorly with his otherwise friendly demeanor. As the riders neared, up went the hackles. When he started anxiously growling, I stepped farther back from the trail, unintentionally putting a lot more trees between us and the riders, essentially obscuring us from their view. Here I thought I was doing them a solid, but the front rider began yelling, though we couldn't hear what in the commotion.
“He's on a leash," I called to them reassuringly, to which the man shouted, “I don't care if he's on a leash! I need to be able to see you!"
Now my hackles started going up, until I saw his horse rear up a bit and spin halfway around. As they passed, he told us more calmly that he tells people to “hide in plain sight" when a horse approaches them on the trail. When a horse can hear but not see you — which is what happened when I put more distance between us — the horse can feel at risk.
A woman at the rear of the party was calmer still, telling us something to the effect of, “What they can't see, they think is a predator."
Chris Sabo, Deschutes National Forest trails specialist, is well aware of the various types of users on trails. Having dogs off-leash is permitted in that area, and we were right to clip ours in. Sabo recommends always having a leash at the ready for these kinds of encounters.
“If you are with a dog, it's best to clip in, because the interaction between the horse and the dog — who knows? — it could be a train wreck," Sabo said.
“Etiquette for hikers in the presence of horse traffic is to step down the hillside, if it's safe, of course" and “make yourself a little bit smaller" if you're wearing a large pack, Sabo says, noting that a predator would be more likely to leap downhill at a horse than uphill.
It's also important for hikers and riders to engage in a bit of friendly conversation to make the horse more comfortable.
“When horses and hikers engage together, just make (it) known that you're human, that you're friendly, you're not a predator for the horse. Some can get a little spooked, especially with, again, a backpack," Sabo said. Accent on the word “friendly."
Occasionally, conflicts occur when runners and cyclists sneak up on horses from behind, he adds. “If it hears you coming and it's a well-trained horse, not such a big issue, but for a biker to suddenly pop up ... that really spooks horses pretty bad," he said.