For a sneak preview of mountain hiking season, now is a great time to visit the Suttle Lake Trail, which loops around the shoreline of the lake west of Sisters.
At this time of year, there's no one there. No kids playing on the beaches. No campers shouting from site to site. No boats on the water.
And, while most high-country trails are still buried in snow, I was pleasantly surprised last week to find most of the 3.2-mile trail dry and passable. A manager from The Lodge at Suttle Lake had told me in an email a few days earlier that trail conditions and weather can change every five minutes.
That morning, the 253-acre, clear lake felt like a remote, faraway place. The snow lingering under the giant pine and fir trees evoked the essence of elevations much higher than the lake's 3,500 feet. My hiking partner and I saw a couple of river otters swimming, a dozen or so water fowl, and we heard a noisy woodpecker banging on a pine tree somewhere above our heads.
The elevation of the trail hardly varies, making it an easy jaunt for all levels of hikers. It skirts the edge of a few lakeside campgrounds, most of which were still deserted, all of which were nestled in damp, verdant foliage.
We parked on the east end of the lake, at the Cinder Beach day use area near Suttle Lake Resort, heading counterclockwise. We stopped numerous times along the north shore to take pictures across the water of the snow-covered, cloud-shrouded peak of Mount Washington in front of us, and the distant silhouette of Black Butte behind us.
To shatter the illusion that it's a truly secluded alpine lake, road noise reverberates from U.S. Highway 20 which runs just above the north edge of the lake, but that didn't detract too much from the serenity of that warmish, windless, moist-air morning.
At the west end of the lake, the trail was covered in snow, but we just pattered through the Link Creek Campground for a couple hundred yards before finding the trail again. It's impossible to get lost. The trail hugs the lake shore.
In no time, we were back where we started.
The lakeside dining room at The Lodge at Suttle Lake would have made a lovely lunch stop had we worked hard enough to deserve a meal. But the trail was too easy, and it was pretty early in the day.
Besides, our plan had been to have another short hike at the Black Butte trailhead on the way home.
Veering off Highway 20 on Forest Road 11, we could see that the top of Black Butte was still snow-covered. Soon after we turned left again on Forest Road 1110, in the final couple of miles before the Black Butte trailhead, the dirt road grew muddy and rutted and had enough slushy snow cover that my all-wheel-drive Subaru was slipping all over the place. I rethought the idea and called it a day.
This is a good segue into the most recent Deschutes National Forest trail report, which asks hikers and bikers to avoid using soft and muddy trails during this spring thawing season. “If you're leaving tire or shoe impressions, you're damaging the trail tread and setting the trail up for rough tread and rutted conditions into the summer months,” the report says. I suspect that the Black Butte trail might have fit this description. Although, again, I'm sure road and trail conditions will change quickly, depending on which way the weather goes.
Had we known that the Black Butte trail would be a bust, we would have explored the low-elevation trail that links Suttle Lake to Black Butte, called the Suttle Tie Trail .
Also from Suttle Lake, there's an intriguing Lake Creek Trail, which parallels Lake Creek and heads toward Camp Sherman. Both of these trail options are signed from the dirt road near the resort.
By the time we reached the road to Black Butte we had also already passed the turnoff toward the Metolius River Trail, which would have made another good side trip before returning to Bend. The Metolius River trail runs both directions from the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery.
All in all, I had hoped to log a few more miles, but the trail around the lake was just nice enough to make the long drive worth the short hike. I'm especially glad I got to see the site in its serene, off-season silence.