Matthieu Lakes trail has spectacular views

For a taste of the best of Central Oregon try this PCT offshoot

By Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin

If you go

What: Matthieu Lakes Loop

Difficulty: Easy to moderate, 800-feet elevation gain over 6 miles

Getting there: From Sisters, turn left onto the Old McKenzie Pass Highway (state Highway 242). Just after milepost 78, turn left by the sign for Lava Camp Lake. Drive down the gravel road for a few hundred yards and look for a parking area on the right side. If you get to Dee Wright Observatory, you have gone too far.

Cost: No pass required

Contact: 541-383-5300

I don’t think I take the scenic beauty around me for granted. But I do accept the loveliness of Central Oregon as a regular part of life.

When I drive to the grocery store, I see views of snow-capped mountains. This is a fact. The mountains, the rivers, the trees — these are part of our everyday experiences as Central Oregonians.

My good friend Kate Ramsayer, a former environment reporter with The Bulletin who is now a science writer with NASA, came to visit her old stomping grounds last week. While she missed her buddies, she also missed the natural beauty of the area. Living in Washington, D.C., she doesn’t get views of mountains very often — nor does she get to experience the solitude of nature.

So during her short visit, we made time to get outside.

I wanted to pick a hike that would encapsulate the things she liked the most. She wanted Cascade Mountain views. She wanted some kind of payoff at the end. She didn’t want it to be a killer hike, in terms of mileage or elevation gain. And she wanted to go somewhere she’d never been. I began perusing William Sullivan’s guide, “Central Oregon Cascades.” (Does every Central Oregonian have a dog-eared copy of that book?) Thumbing through, I spotted a winner: Matthieu Lakes. It’s a 6-mile loop not far from Dee Wright Observatory up the McKenzie Pass Highway that includes a section on the Pacific Crest Trail. During her days as a reporter, Kate had written a long series about the PCT, so that made our trip feel even more fitting.

The hike

The day, like so many lately, was uncomfortably hot. We grabbed some sandwiches from Kate’s favorite, The Village Baker, then headed out of town.

Getting to Matthieu Lakes Loop is easy. Turn onto McKenzie Pass Highway in Sisters, then turn left onto a gravel road just about a half mile before you get to Dee Wright, following signs for “Lava Camp Lake.”

The path from the parking area led us through a forest, with soft dirt and pine needles underfoot. It smelled good. After a quick 0.2-mile spur, our path joined up with the PCT, and we headed south. We slowly, steadily climbed in elevation as we headed closer to the Three Sisters. Tree roots formed makeshift steps along the trail. After another 0.7 miles, we encountered a fork in the trail — a spot where the PCT hits the old Oregon Skyline Trail. We turned right off the PCT, following signs for Matthieu Lake. The trail bordered a large field of lava on the right.

After another mile or so, we reached the first lake, North Matthieu.

By that time, we were more than ready for our lunch. We left the main trail and walked around a portion of the perimeter of the lake, looking for a perfect picnic spot. The makeshift trail is underdeveloped but clearly receives a lot of use. We found a great lunch spot, with views of the sparkling water and a small island just off the lip of the lake. We saw a dozen bright blue damsel flies and many dragonflies. We were thankful the mosquitoes were fairly benign. After wolfing down our sandwiches, we headed back to the trail.

Bellies full, we began to head up again, this time along the steepest portion of the trail. The path switched back and forth through deeply forested areas before opening up onto a rockier ridge. In all, the trail climbs 800 feet in elevation, or just enough to keep it interesting.

From the top, it was just a few more yards to a glorious payoff. This is the corner where the PCT meets back up with the Matthiew Lake trail and it’s just a few steps from the alpine beauty of South Matthieu Lake.

The lake

Much smaller than its northern brother, this lake is possibly more picturesque. It is small, fairly deep, round, clear and refreshingly cold and features spectacular views of North Sister in the not-too-far distance.

We immediately decided to put our feet in the water. After a decent hike in the heat, we were ready to cool off. The water felt so crisp and inviting that we soon found ourselves wading in thigh-deep and leaning over and dunking our dusty and sweaty heads into the water, laughing as we flipped our sopping hair onto our backs. It felt great. I was envious of the hikers who brought their swimsuits and were doing laps by the time we left.


Headed back, we took the PCT, which quickly led us onto a rocky ridgeline with few trees. The blowing wind made me feel a bit precarious, perched so high with so little cover. But the phenomenal views quickly erased any unease.

To our left, we saw the North Sister looming large over the trail. But the spot also offered us panoramic views of the entire area. There was Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson. From here, we could see the giant lava field that spreads out across so much of the area. In this one place, we had views of what makes Central Oregon so lovely and so original. Lava, trees, mountains, a cool breeze and not one person in sight.

From there, the trail back was easy and quick, but never too steep. We descended steadily about three miles to the parking lot.

Back in the car, we were satisfied, our minds full of beautiful sights, enough to last all the way to the East Coast.

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, ajohnson@bendbulletin.com