Cascade Lakes Highway
Bend Oregon’s National Scenic Byway
The famed Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway extends 66 miles from Central Oregon’s hub in the town of Bend to OR-58 near Odell Lake and Crescent Lake. The scenic byway is locally referred to as the Cascade Lakes Highway and begins at the corner of 14th Street and Galveston Avenue in Bend, Oregon. This corner has a roundabout with a Rising Phoenix sculpture, which locals refer to as the “Flaming Chicken”. “Flaming Chicken” was initially coined in a mocking way but now the chicken has been adopted as an integral part of Bend life. Leaving the flaming chicken, drive south on 14th street on what is locally referred to as Century Drive. Long ago Century Drive was a 100 mile loop road composed of red cinder, thus the name, Century Drive. Most amenities for your 3-5 hour exploration are available on Century Drive, not far from the flaming chicken.
Continuing southwest just beyond mile marker 7, on the right side of the road is the Cascade Lakes Welcome Center operated by the Deschutes National Forest. The welcome center is a wonderful resource for current conditions and recreational opportunities along the Cascade Lakes Highway. On the opposite side of the Highway is FS Road 41 which connects to several access points for the magical Deschutes River Trail which offers excellent hiking and boating opportunities and attractive whitewater features such as Benham Falls and Dylan Falls.
Continuing west beyond the welcome center, you will pass winter sno-parks including Virginia Meissner, Wanoga, Swampy Lakes, Vista Butte, and Dutchman Flat all of which offer winter recreation opportunities. Sno-Parks require a daily parking pass or a seasonal parking pass. Just prior to arrival at Dutchman Flat and access to Tumalo
Mountain, a stunning view of Mt Bachelor opens up. Mt Bachelor is a volcano on National Forest land which also includes Oregon’s premier downhill skiing/snowboarding destination. Mt Bachelor has 4,300 skiable acres, a maximum elevation of 9,065 feet and a vertical drop of 3,365 feet. In addition to skiing, Mt Bachelor offers summer dining, disc golf and stellar views of the nearby Cascade Mountains.
Just beyond the Mt Bachelor turn-off is an access road for Todd Lake, which is the first lake on the Cascade Lakes Highway. This 45 acre alpine lake offers a 1.7 mile loop trail through pristine evergreen forests as well stunning alpine meadows, all with sweeping views of Mt Bachelor at one end and Broken Top Mountain at the opposite end of the lake. The Todd Lake parking area is clearly marked and often crowded. In summer months, snow gates at the end of the Todd Lake parking area are opened, allowing access to Forest Service road 370. 370 is the access road for the amazing Three Sisters Wilderness Area and two well know hiking trails, Broken Top Trail and Crater Ditch Trail.
Continuing beyond the Todd Lake turn-off, the highway descends a steep grade with stunning views of South Sister which is the tallest of Oregon’s Three Sisters Mountains. At the base of the steep grade is an access road to one of the crown jewels of the Cascade Lake Highway, the magical Sparks Lake.
Sparks Lake is a shallow 370 acre lake which is quickly becoming a meadow but for now, is stunningly beautiful. Sparks Lake offers sweeping views of South Sister, Broken Top Mountain and Mt Bachelor all from its placid tree lined shores. This magical lake has excellent boating, hiking and camping opportunities only 25 miles from the city of Bend. Most popular of the hiking trails is the Ray Atkeson Memorial Trail, named for Oregon’s photographer laureate who happens to be one of my personal heroes! This 2.4 mile trail follows Sparks’ rocky shores, soaking in mountain views before looping back through interesting lava features. Parking at Sparks Lake( like most locations along the highway) requires the purchase of either a day pass or a season long Northwest Forest Pass.
Shortly beyond the shores of Sparks Lake is the emerald green water of Devil’s Lake, a small, shallow and remarkably clear roadside lake. The next stop on the highway is a turn-off to Elk Lake Recreation Area. Elk Lake is one of the more “civilized” lakes along Century Drive. The lake covers 405 acres and includes several campgrounds as well as a lodge, dining, facilities, rental cabins and a marina at Elk Lake Lodge. The marina can be seen left of center on the far shore of the lake in the photograph seen at right.
Elk Lake resort offers the only winter lodging available on the upper stretch of the Cascade Lakes Highway.
The next exit off of the highway allows access to the magical waters of Hosmer Lake and is 200 acres of crystal clear, trout filled waters. Hosmer Lake is a motor free fly-fishing only lake which has become very popular amongst paddlers, much to the chagrin of fly fishermen. Excellent campsites and pleasant trails are plentiful as well as magical views of Mt Bachelor, South Sister and Broken Top Mountain. Hosmer is composed of two main bodies of water connected by a long narrow channel, giving it a shape similar to a barbell. The Back bay of the barbell is more peaceful and more shallow with an inflowing stream that paddlers can explore. Remarkable clarity of the water allows paddlers to spy on huge brook trout swimming in the depths below.Next stop on the magical Cascade lakes tour is the turn-off for
Lava Lake and Little Lava Lake. Lava Lake offers a small marina and a rustic camp store. Little Lava Lake offers a more peaceful experience as motorized boats are not allowed at Little Lava. Little Lava has excellent camping options but no electricity. The stars of the show at Little Lava are the views of South Sister, Broken Top and Mt Bachelor as as well as the headwaters of the mighty Deschutes River which is the lifeline of Central Oregon. The Deschutes River starts as a slowly meandering stream and extends 252 miles to the Columbia River.
The Deschutes parallels the Cascade Lakes Highway for several miles until spilling into the waters of Crane Prairie Reservoir. Crane Prairie is an artificial, 4,940 acre reservoir which offers RV sites, a resort, marina and excellent rainbow trout fishing. Beyond Crane Prairie, the highway passes the West Bay of Wickiup Reservoir and the large mouth bass filled waters of Davis Lake before connecting with OR 58. turning left( South) on OR 58 will lead to an intersection with Highway 97, where drivers should turn left( North) to return to the city of Bend,Oregon.
for another adventure on the way back to Bend, I recommend a turn off to Newberry Crater National Monument.
Newberry Crater is in an extinct volcanic basin which contains tow stunning alpine lakes, Paulina Lake and East Lake. The National Forest Service has a visitors center there and there are services available along the shores of both lakes. The Big Obsidian Flow has an interesting side trail with well curated interpretive signs along the way. There is a steep but safe road to the summit of Paulina Peak which offers fantastic, panoramic views of the lakes below as well as the Central Oregon Cascades. Also worthwhile is a quick stop at Paulina Falls, a set of twin 80 waterfalls near to Paulina Creek’s exit from Paulina Lake.
Another worthwhile stop on the route back to Bend is the vaunted High Desert Museum, which is a remarkable educational resource for Central Oregon.