Waldo Lake Loop
Directions: From Bend, drive south on U.S. Highway 97 to the Crescent Cutoff, on the right in the town of Crescent. Follow the cutoff road for 12 miles, then go west on state Highway 58 over Willamette Pass to the Waldo Lake access road on the right. Follow signs to Shadow Bay Campground and park near the boat ramp. (About 85 miles and 1.5 hours from Bend.)
Features: Singletrack trail around one of the world’s purest, clearest lakes. The trail is mostly solid and smooth, with a couple of technical sections of rocks and boulders on the lake’s west side.
Distance: Entire loop around the lake is about 20 miles; four to six hours.
Rating: Aerobically moderate to strenuous and technically intermediate to advanced.
Editor’s note: Mountain Bike Trail Guide, by Bulletin sports and outdoors writer Mark Morical, features different trails in Central Oregon and beyond. The trail guide appears in Outdoors on alternating Wednesdays through the riding season.
Escaping the daily routine of our lives to get out of town and head into the nearby mountains is a common practice in Central Oregon.
Sometimes it can be disappointing. Campsites along the Cascade Lakes Highway are often more busy and crowded than the park in my Bend neighborhood.
I guess it all depends on where you go.
Waldo Lake is a true getaway destination. The few times I have been there, I felt as if I had the place to myself, save for a few campers on the north end of the lake.
Known as one of the purest lakes in the world, Waldo Lake lies tucked in on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains, its clear, indigo water filling a basin scoured centuries ago by glaciers.
The lake is one of Oregon’s largest at 10 square miles, located just north of Willamette Pass off state Highway 58, about a 90-minute drive from Bend.
The 20 miles of singletrack that encircles Waldo offers some of the best mountain biking in Oregon.
Last week, I made the drive to Shadow Bay Campground on the southeast shore of Waldo Lake, which sits at an elevation of 5,414 feet in the Willamette National Forest, just west of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The massive parking area near the boat ramp contained one car, and nobody was around. The only sound was that of swarming mosquitoes.
I had ridden the Waldo Lake Loop only once before, and that time I did it counterclockwise. This time, I decided to try the loop clockwise.
After dousing myself with insect repellent, I pedaled deep into the forest on the south end of the lake. I eventually came to a spot where I could see South Sister and Middle Sister far in the distance, the latter appearing as a perfectly pointed peak.
For the most part, the trail on the west side of the lake was smooth and fast, whether cutting through the deep forest or skirting the edge of the lake. Mountain bikers must be careful not to stray onto hiker-only trails that lead into the Waldo Lake Wilderness — bikes are prohibited in wilderness areas. Waldo Lake is one of those areas that the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization, seeks to protect, but that mountain bikers still want to access. The two sides are beginning to realize they are not so different.
Last month, Sierra Club Director Michael Brune visited Waldo Lake to meet with members of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA), the mountain bike advocacy group based in Bend. The two groups discussed a new partnership to protect roadless ancient forest areas while ensuring continued access by nonmotorized recreation groups. According to a news release from the Sierra Club, it is expected that the new collaborative approach will hasten cooperative efforts, and it is hoped that it will reduce lawsuits and conflicts and lead swiftly to protections for remaining roadless areas.
“Once we started to understand each other and what our shared values are, we realized we have a lot more in common than previously thought,” said COTA chairman Woody Starr.
The Oregon Sierra Club’s Keep Waldo Wild campaign seeks to add legislative protection to approximately 76,000 acres in the Waldo Lake area. But the Sierra Club is mindful of mountain bikers, whose numbers have surged in recent years. The plan would exclude logging and motorized vehicles, but it would not restrict bikes from any additional trails.
“The area is heavily used by the mountain biking communities from Bend, Oakridge and Eugene,” notes the Sierra Club website. “These user organizations are strong environmentalists and are active stewards of the trails they use.”
The partnership is a breath of fresh air in what has been a heated conflict over the years. Perhaps the sheer beauty of Waldo Lake had something to do with the increasing goodwill from both sides of the issue.
As I continued pedaling on my ride last week, I arrived at the northwest corner of the lake, where the North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River surges magnificently out of Waldo Lake. There, I connected to the north-side trail, which runs through an area that was burned in a 1996 forest fire. I weaved through charred trees while stealing glances at the clear, unspoiled lake. Diamond Peak rose brilliantly in the distance above the far shore.
I reached the North Waldo Campground on the northeast corner of the lake, where a few campers were enjoying kayaking and swimming. I chatted with one kayaker who was taking out.
“It’s so clear, it feels like you’re floating on the air,” he said of paddling Waldo.
The east side of the loop included a fast and fun series of climbs and descents, nothing too demanding. Before long, I arrived back at Shadow Bay Campground, completing the 20-mile loop in less than four hours.
For me, it was a nearly perfect mountain biking experience: solid, smooth singletrack around a purely beautiful alpine lake, with no brutally painful sections.
Hot, sweaty and weary after the long ride on a day temperatures reached the mid-80s, I was ready for a swim.
Waldo’s water is more pure than laboratory-grade distilled water, according to the Sierra Club. Two-thirds of the lake’s water is direct precipitation, and the remaining third is from snowmelt and subsurface water flowing from old-growth mountain hemlock forest along the Cascade crest.
As I emerged from the cold, refreshing lake and walked back toward my car, I noticed a U.S. Forest Service sign noting that the visibility in the lake on a calm day can reach 100 feet deep. The clarity gives Waldo its indigo appearance. The sign calls Waldo a “fragile and rare resource.”
It is certainly one worth protecting. And with a growing spirit of cooperation, it appears we can do so without excluding mountain bikers.
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,