Anne Aurand / The Bulletin

Returning from a long vacation and road trip around the West with my family recently was bittersweet. The sad part was the vacation was over; the nice part is, Bend is a pretty great place to play in the summer.

Hot days call for cruising up the Cascade Lakes Highway.

As soon as we unpacked our camping gear and restocked the fridge, and before I had to return to the office, we raced up to Sparks Lake, an easy half-hour drive. But everyone goes there, so I don’t need to tell you about that spectacular swimming and paddling lake.

The Cascade lakes offer other good places to play, a little off the beaten path, a lot less populated.

On our second outing, a few days after we paddled at Sparks Lake, we aimed for Little Cultus Lake. We hit the road at 9 a.m. last Thursday. (I must add, in one acceleration near Mount Bachelor, my husband passed six SUVs carrying kayaks. I bet they were going to Sparks or Elk lakes. I know they weren’t where we ended up.)

To get to Little Cultus Lake, you have to rattle yourself over three miles of dusty washboard road. The lake is quieter than its bigger cousins in the region, nestled in the pines, with a quaint campground on its shores. From Little Cultus there are hiking, mountain biking and water recreation options. It’s got a gentle sloping bottom, making it idea for wading and swimming. Lots of people fish there.

But when we reached the boat ramp/day-use area, found in the middle of the campground, it was only 10 a.m. and still cool and breezy. Dressed for swimming, none of us was ready to submerge in the chilly water yet.

So I asked my husband, Brent, if he would be willing to drive his nice clean truck just a wee four miles farther down the road to Irish and Taylor lakes, remote lakes that border the Three Sisters Wilderness. Why not explore a little, get farther away from other people, and let the day heat up a bit before we get wet? He agreed to go, although now he thinks I should wash his truck because it’s coated in dust.

Let me tell you, that last four miles is the crux of this adventure. It takes a half hour to get from Little Cultus to Taylor Lake, and requires a high-clearance vehicle. We rolled at speeds between 5 and 10 mph to avoid total vehicle destruction. Somewhere after the Lemish Lake trailhead on the left, the single-lane road gets exceptionally rough. My daughter, Adi, whacked her head on a side window when the truck violently lurched over a bump. She cried. The rocking and rolling continued forever. Adi’s owie quickly improved.

“Why can’t you drive any faster?” Adi asked Brent.

“Well,” Brent said, “because we’d break the car. Hey! It’s a great way to see wildlife! We’re almost there.” Brent asked me if I regretted the idea of Irish and Taylor lakes as a destination.

“I won’t if we have fun at the lake,” I said.

“Why can’t they make this road better?” Adi asked. Brent told her it’s good to have roads like this in some places, because there are nice easy roads to lots of other places (like Sparks and Elk lakes). Plus, it’d be worth it when we got there and had the lake to ourselves, he said.

Taylor and Irish lakes are near the ridge of the Cascades and the Pacific Crest Trail. Taylor Lake is the first of the two lakes we reached, on the south, or left, side of the road. Irish Lake is a little farther on the right. The PCT skirts its west shore. At Taylor Lake, we parked in the kind of ideal, primitive, dispersed campsite that we had sought out so many times on our recent road trip. Big trees enveloped an open spot that abutted the blue water’s shore. No one was there.

The wind was the only sound that passed over the shallow, clear lake. The water was a tolerable dipping-into temperature, as the day heated up to the low 70s.

Brent, Adi and Kenai the dog, in the canoe with the cooler of food, started gliding away from our launch point. I tentatively powered the paddleboard we borrowed from a friend.

As soon as we immersed in the serenity of being on the water, it was all worth it. Such is way, it seems, with just about any boating outing. Lots of work, high rewards.

As I grew more confident on the paddleboard and caught up to the canoe, something weird happened.

I heard loud country music. Seriously.

Taylor Lake is shaped a little like a very disfigured “Y” and down one arm, someone else had set up a camp, parked a red canoe like ours on their beach, and pointed some powerful speakers toward the lake. Unbelieving, we laughed. But, we agreed, when you drive to this kind of spot, you don’t expect to have to be quiet and considerate of the neighbors, and we couldn’t blame them. It’s just too bad it was country music.

We spent a couple of hours paddling the entire shore of the lake, which has a couple of hidden arms that wrap around peninsulas of land. We took turns on the paddleboard, threw a stick for the dog. We ate our lunches on the boat and the paddleboard, since the mosquitoes on the wooded shores across the lake were moderately fierce. (Another week or two and they might wane.)

I had planned to swing into Cultus Lake Resort before we returned to town to get milkshakes, as we so frequently did on our recent vacation, which partly explains how I gained six pounds in half as many weeks. But my daughter fell asleep in the car, and as any parent knows, you never ruin an opportunity to drive with a sleeping kid. Even without a milkshake, for a few hours the Cascade lakes allowed me to pretend I was still on vacation, before I drove home and got back to work.

If you go

Getting there: From Bend, follow the Cascade Lakes Highway west for 46 miles. Turn right on Forest Road 4635, when you see a sign for Cultus Lake. In less than a mile, turn left on Forest Road 4630, where you see a sign that says Little Cultus Lake, three miles, and Irish and Taylor lakes, seven miles.

Cost: Free

Difficulty: Easy

Contact: Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District, Deschutes National Forest, 541-383-4000.

Note: If you plan to pass Little Cultus Lake and continue to Irish and Taylor lakes, you absolutely need a high-clearance vehicle to navigate the very rough stretch single-lane road. Four-wheel drive may be desirable.