If the payoff for a hike comes easily, can it be enjoyed just as much as if you reached the spot after hiking arduously for hours?
That was the question I asked myself as my husband and I stumbled, almost too quickly, upon a pristine alpine lake tucked into the southern edge of the Mount Washington Wilderness.
Just a half-mile from the McKenzie Pass Highway sits Hand Lake. It's a small lake that seemingly has it all.
Views of the Three Sisters as well as Mount Washington? Check.
Lush meadow brimming with wildflowers? Check.
Lava rock to explore? Beach area perfect for picnicking? Sweet breeze lifting the hot summer sun? Check, check, check.
The setting was everything we could have asked for during our quick weekday picnic outing. It almost felt too easy. Normally when I encounter a spot of such loveliness, it is after a big workout of scaling some mountain or scrambling through wilderness for at least an hour. But nothing about this expedition was grueling, not even the drive.
Getting to Hand Lake is a pleasure, as it is located along the McKenzie Pass Highway.
This old highway, which you can pick up in Sisters, used to be the main thoroughfare between Eugene and Central Oregon. Now, the twisting, high elevation road is open just a few months a year. The only reason to head down this highway is recreation. And just like the Cascade Lakes Highway, simply driving along the road can be recreation enough. The curves are so extreme, they force meandering. And the views are simply incredible. As the highway cuts between the Three Sisters and Mount Washington, the mountains seem tantalizingly close.
The scenery also help remind visitors that the Cascade range is made up of volcanoes. The road winds its way through giant lava fields and passes by the Dee Wright Observatory, a tower constructed out of lava rock.
Just past the observatory, the road begins to descend, and as it does, the landscape becomes a little more green and lush as it heads closer to the wetter side of the state.
A few miles from the observatory, we found our parking spot on the left-hand side of the road. Parking next to a lovely alpine meadow peppered with flowers boded well for our trip. The trail starts on the other side of the highway.
The trail is a quick half-mile hike through pine trees. It's a shady, fairly flat hike.
Soon enough we came to Hand Lake Shelter. It's a three-sided wooden structure that sits on a small knob overlooking a large meadow. From the shelter, one trail leads down to the lakeshore and another continues on, connecting to a trails that lead to Scott Lake or to the Deer Butte trail.
First, we went down to the shores of Hand Lake. We cut through the meadow and marsh area, dotted with white, orange and purple flowers. The trail peters out, but it was easy to pick our way to the dirt and rock lakeshore.
Hand Lake is a small, crystal clear lake. I dipped my feet into the water and found it warmer than I would have expected. We walked along the edge of the lake and admired views of the mountains.
We found two large flat rocks, perfect for a picnic spot. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sipped water and enjoyed an ideal mix of hot summer sun combined with a cool breeze coming off the lake.
Big bugs buzzed around us, but none were mosquitoes. Just a half-mile from the highway, this spot felt isolated and like a special find.
After our lunch, we had a bit of time to explore another trail that headed around the back side of the lake. We made it to the lava beds that line the north edge of the lake. We wanted to keep going to see what other fun wonders we could find.
But sometimes the demands of home and work force you to cut short an outing. I guess that's when it's good to head to places like Hand Lake, where just a little bit of effort can lead to a beautiful payoff.
If you go
Where: Hand Lake
Getting there: From Sisters, go west on state Highway 242, the McKenzie Pass Highway. After you pass Dee Wright Observatory, begin looking for mile markers. The parking spot is on the left side of the highway between miles 72 and 73. The trail begins on the right side of the highway.