Mark Morical
The Bulletin

Charlton Lake Loop

Directions: From Bend, take Highway 97 south and Road 40 west from Sunriver. Take a right on Cascade Lakes Highway. After 1 mile, take a left onto Cultus Lake access road. After 1 mile, take a left on gravel road 4630 to Little Cultus Lake. After 2½ miles, park at Little Cultus Campground.

Distance: 18 miles.

Elevation gain: 1,600 feet.

Trail features: A challenging, remote loop in the high country to pristine Charlton Lake.

Rating: Aerobically strenuous and technically intermediate.

Season: Mid-summer and fall.

For more Mountain Bike Trail Guides, see

Early fall — after the bugs are long gone and before the snow flies — is the ideal time to explore the high country of Central Oregon.

For mountain bikers, several high-elevation options exist for venturing away from the crowds and tourists.

Southwest of Bend off Cascade Lakes Highway, the Charlton Lake ride is a good choice for experienced riders seeking a unique, rugged backcountry experience at high elevation.

About a one-hour drive southwest from Bend, the route starts near Little Cultus Lake and takes bikers on an 18-mile loop deep into an alpine forest. The ride offers no mesmerizing mountain views or particularly unforgettable sections, just steady, fun singletrack that takes riders past a pair of pristine lakes.

The trails in the area are popular among equestrians, so mountain bikers should ride under control at all times and yield to horseback riders to avoid any conflicts.

From the Little Cultus Lake campground, bikers can ride a dirt road to Lemish Lake. From Lemish, the loop can be ridden clockwise or counterclockwise. I chose counterclockwise and took a right onto the Charlton Lake Trail.

It was a grind right from the start. The trail features numerous short, challenging ascents that continue deep into the high alpine forest. The singletrack seems to continue forever into a thick, shaded forest filled with mossy trees.

Just after crossing Forest Road 4290, the trail dipped downhill and I arrived at Charlton Lake, elevation 5,704 feet. I had climbed some 1,200 feet and was thoroughly exhausted.

The lake sits in a remote area of the Deschutes National Forest, just a few miles east of Waldo Lake.

The clear, blue water of the lake was completely undisturbed by any human activity. I felt like the only person around for miles, and I might have been, save for the one mountain biker I encountered near Little Cultus Lake and two hikers I would see later near the trailhead.

By the lake, the only sounds I could hear were the wind racing past my ears, the water lapping at the shore and my tires as they whirred along the trail.

The Charlton Lake Trail skirts the west side of the lake, offering unobstructed views of the water, and 6,500-foot Gerdine Butte juts up in the distance to the south.

The trail connects with several hiker-only trails, including the world-renowned Pacific Crest Trail and a path that leads to Waldo Lake a few miles to the west. A number of small, remote lakes in the area are accessible via hiker-only trails.

As I proceeded to the south portion of the loop from the Charlton Lake Trail to the Metolius-Windigo Trail, the uphill continued. I finally decided to turn around and ride back in the direction from which I had come, and take the trail back to Road 4290. I turned right onto 4290 and rode it for a few miles to connect back to the Metolius-Windigo Trail northbound, which would lead me back to Lemish Lake and eventually Little Cultus Lake.

The trail was fast and smooth, and surprisingly not that sandy despite the lack of any recent rainfall, as I weaved past short lodgepole pine trees.

The smooth path transitioned to some faster, more burly downhill sections with lots of roots and rocks, and some extremely steep descents.

I arrived back at Little Cultus Campground about 3½ hours after starting, still feeling isolated in that remote section of the forest.

The Charlton Lake Loop is a perfect autumn outing for mountain bikers looking to escape the crowds closer to Bend and challenge themselves in the high country — before the snow arrives.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,