Swim gear check

If you’re just going for a casual dip, then all you need is a swimsuit and, perhaps some aqua socks or sandals if the terrain is rocky. If you’re new to open-water swimming, Bob Bruce, the head coach at Central Oregon Masters Aquatics and aquatic specialist for Bend Park & Recreation District, strongly suggests wearing a brightly-colored swim cap. It’s what open-water swimmers wear. Another accessory he recommends is a special buoy that attaches to your body with a leash. Not only will its blaze-orange color help people — particularly boaters — see you, it’s also a flotation device, should you run into trouble mid-swim. Bruce, who has been a competitive swimmer for more than 50 years, doesn’t open-water swim without one. Wet suits may also be a good choice for lakes 65 degrees and colder; they also provide the added bonus of a bit of buoyancy. Also, practice the buddy system, Bruce said.

Searing summer temperatures are steering droves of people to the Cascade Lakes to cool off — or maybe catch a chill.

Experienced swimmers and timid toe-dippers alike know lake temperatures in Central Oregon can range from a hypothermia-inducing brr! to a refreshing aah!

In the interest of giving you the skinny on summertime dipping, a Bulletin reporter and photographer are bringing you this guide to four popular Cascade Lakes and one overlooked reservoir.

Granted, the temperature-testing methodology was less than scientific. At each body of water, we waded in until the water was chest high. Then we submerged a simple fishing thermometer for a few minutes. This provided a quick-and-dirty reading for those — particularly families — who intend to splash near the shore. Experienced swimmers know, however, that lake water is cooler when they venture into water deeper than 10 feet.

“You can swim in any of the Cascade Lakes, and each lake has its own little flavor,” said Bob Bruce, aquatic specialist for Bend Park & Recreation District and head coach of Central Oregon Masters Aquatics.

Bruce recommends those new to our lakes — and those new to open-water swimming — to stick to the popular lakes. Those bodies of water are typically warmer. In addition to Bruce’s expert experience with local lakes, additional information about the lakes’ geological past and current profile comes from the book “Atlas of Oregon Lakes,” by Daniel M. Johnson, D. Richard Lycan and Richard R. Petersen.


As a rule of thumb, lakes situated at higher elevations generally warm up more slowly than those closer to sea level, Bruce said. Sparks and Devils lakes, located about 26 miles from downtown Bend on the Cascade Lakes Highway, sit at approximately 5,400 feet. The lakes are decidedly cold. Despite both lakes’ inviting appearances — particularly Devils Lake, whose water features a tropical aquamarine translucency — wading into either lake is a pins and needles exercise in masochism.

They owe their frigidness to the springs and glacial creeks that feed them. Sparks Lake is nourished by Soda Creek. The creek’s 50-degree water comes from Soda Springs and glaciers melting on the south side of Broken Top. Once part of a larger and deeper lake before its water was displaced by sediment, Sparks Lake averages 2 feet in depth, with a maximum depth of about 7 feet.

Devils Lake, with an average depth of 3 feet, is similarly shallow and its bottom is also visible. Lava flows formed Devils Lake by entrapping creek waters. It’s fed by Hell Creek and Tyee Creek, which are surface streams. Small springs located on the southwest side of nearby Devil Hill also contribute to Devils Lake’s inflow.

While not ideal swimming destinations, Sparks and Devils lakes are plenty popular with stand-up paddleboarders, canoers and kayakers. When one such paddler was asked how much time she also spent swimming in the water, she held her thumb and index finger an inch apart.

“About that much,” she said. “It’s cold!”


“The crown jewel for swimming is Elk Lake,” Bruce said. “Everybody loves Elk Lake to death.”

Elk Lake, sitting at 4,884 feet and covering more than 400 acres, is popular with swimmers for a few reasons. Located 32 miles from downtown Bend, it’s the first warm body of water you’ll find on the Cascade Lakes Highway. A 10 mph speed limit for motorized boats gives swimmers and other lake users some peace of mind that at any moment they won’t be reduced to chum. While we found particularly toasty temps in the 70s near the resort and on the south shore, Central Oregon Masters Aquatics has recorded much cooler summertime temperatures, ranging from 67 to 69 degrees. The reason for the discrepancy is that COMA, in accordance with standards set by U.S. Masters Swimming (adult swimming’s governing body), takes readings 50 meters or more from shore and half a meter deep. This is the portion of lake that swim competition officials need to monitor to assure swimmers experience as little thermal distress as possible during an event, Bruce said.

Like other lakes in the Cascade Lakes region, Elk Lake was created by lava flows that dammed several small streams. Elk Lake features an average depth of 18 feet and a maximum depth of 62 feet in its southern portion. The percolation of snowmelt below the lake’s surface through the permeable volcanic bedrock explains most of the lake water. Rock and sand line its bottom. The surrounding Cascade range — which features views of Mount Bachelor and the Three Sisters — offers not only a compelling backdrop, but a useful orientation point to open-water swimmers. Laura Coombs, 33 and a Bend triathlete, often swims at Elk Lake.

“It’s my favorite,” she said. “It’s a mini Lake Tahoe.”

When Coombs embarks on 3,000-meter out-and-back swims, she sight-orients herself with South Sister. She prefers Elk Lake in the morning when the wind is calm and there is less activity. The lake is also enjoyed by sailboat enthusiasts, stand-up paddleboarders and anglers.

Casual swimmers who may find themselves at Elk Lake toward the end of July should take note: The 23rd Annual Cascade Lakes Swim Series & Festival is July 28-30. It hosts around 175 swimmers competing in races ranging from 500 to 5,000 meters and occupies the south half of the lake. While it’s fun to spectate (the sound of dozens of competitors crashing into the lake at once is deafening), getting mixed up in the water with them during the event will no doubt result in a few unintentional kicks to the face.

76 degrees

Stretching 3 miles long with a width of 1.5 miles, Cultus Lake is about 46 miles from downtown Bend. It is one of the deepest Cascade Lakes, reaching a depth of 211 feet on its eastern side, and around 125 feet in its western portion. Its taco shape is common for a lake basin that was carved by glacial movement.

Both streams and underground percolation feed Cultus Lake. The most prominent surface stream is Winopee Creek located at its marshy north shore. Springs are also found along its north and south sides. Cultus Lake drains through Cultus Creek, which eventually pours into Crane Prairie Reservoir, located to the southeast.

“Cultus Lake is a good swimming lake, with the one warning that the powerboat usage there is heavy, and you’ve really got to watch what you’re doing there,” Bruce said.

“I love Cultus but because of the speedboats, I would never swim there alone,” Coombs said.

Cultus Lake is also home to Cultus Resort, which is popular with boaters and jet skiers attracted to the lake’s speed-limitless waters.

(Note: The Cultus Lake Campground is closed for the foreseeable future due to tree hazards, according the U.S. Forest Service. Its day-use area has been reopened.)

For its lack of development, Bruce enjoys swimming in Little Cultus Lake, located about 5 miles to the south, just on the other side of their namesake, Cultus Mountain.

The shallower Little Cultus Lake warms up a bit before Cultus Lake and is accessible by a gravel forest service road.

“Swimming (in Cultus Lake) along the shore is just gorgeous, especially if you go in the morning,” Coombs said.

The reservoir

Wickiup Reservoir is the largest body of water in the Deschutes National Forest when it’s full and the second-largest in the state.

Situated at 4,347 feet and about 60 miles from downtown Bend if you take the Cascade Lakes Highway, it spans a whopping 10,334 acres.

Its 20-foot average depth has delivered reliably warm temperatures since the Wickiup Dam’s completion in 1949. Wickiup has become an ideal location for events such as the Pacific Crest Triathlon & Weekend Sports Festival, which is held every June.

Coombs has swum in Wickiup Reservoir as a triathlon competitor, “but it’s not nearly as pretty as the other lakes,” she said. “The water is kind of nasty.” She’s referring to the less-than transparent water that swirls with sediment and vegetation.

Its water is still safe to swim in; however, the U.S. Forest Service recommends avoiding swimming in portions of the reservoir where blue-green algae blooms have been spotted.

While the reservoir offers ample space for mixed uses, swimmers need to be mindful of powerboats that putter around at 10 mph.

Bruce said there isn’t any particular part of the reservoir that is best for swimming — anywhere with nearby parking will do.

It’s not among his top picks for swimming destinations along the Cascade Lakes Highway.

Wickiup is not Coombs’ top pick either; however, “I’d rather swim in the open water than a pool any day,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com