BEND, Ore. — With so many recreation-minded visitors descending on Central Oregon this summer, I’m almost hesitant to point this out: Besides Sparks, Elk, Cultus and other popular, crowded, bustling lakes, there are hundreds of named and unnamed wilderness lakes for the taking.
The only difference is, you can’t drive directly to them.
The good news: If you’re willing and able to hoof it a few miles and forgo all the amenities you usually take to the lake and instead bring a good map, GPS, drinking water and mosquito repellent, you’ll be pleased as punch once you arrive at one of these lakes and discover you have it all to yourself, or nearly all to yourself.
In the interest of spreading the wealth a little, and possibly thinning the crowds even a smidgen at the already popular spots, I’ll divulge the treat that is Doris Lake, which I went to with my friend and occasional trail-running partner, Jeremy Dickman, on July 11.
It wasn’t my first such wilderness lake outing this summer, though. On July 4, my wife and I hiked to tranquil Horse Lake, a distance of about 3.7 miles each way depending on the source.
That morning, we found just one car at the trailhead, located directly across Cascade Lakes Highway from Elk Lake Resort’s entrance. After a few hours of hiking, swimming, lazing in the sun and swatting at mosquitoes, we returned to find three vehicles at the trailhead, including our own. I tell you this because my jaw about hit the floorboard as we drove to the exit and spied Elk Lake Resort overflowing with vehicles, both shoulders crammed with cars and threatening to overflow onto the highway’s shoulders.
I’m no hater. I’ve whiled away many a sunny day at Elk Lake’s Sunset Beach with my family, especially when my kids were too young to hike more than 200 yards.
Still, so many souls congregated around one body of the water in the middle of all those miles of wilderness teeming with lakes just feels strange.
Ours is a car-dependent culture, but surely some of the people up there would choose to recreate away from the masses if they knew where to go. My next-door neighbor, a Bend lifer, had never heard of Lucky Lake, another gem located a little farther, near Lava Lake, but he was all ears when I mentioned it to him.
Why endure huge crowds when you can pretty much have your choice of lake — small, medium or large — all to yourself?
That’s not saying I wanted to go by myself. The evening before I’d planned to go to Doris Lake, I read an essay about cougar sightings and attacks. (Note: Never read essays about cougars before you go hiking, unless you like having the heebie jeebies.) Mind you, the essay was not about the Central Oregon Cascades.
Nevertheless, the second I finished my reading, I texted Dickman to see if he and his dog, Gary, might want to join my dog, Kaloo, and me, thereby watering down the odds of my being eaten by any one hypothetical cougar. Of course, looking at it another way, I may have doubled the number of human and canine feasts for an army of cougars.
It wasn’t cougars we encountered, however. It was mosquitoes. By most sources, late July is when the mosquito population begins to ease up around area lakes. Unfortunately, July 11 is not late July, and we dealt with more mosquitoes than my wife and I had encountered a week earlier at Horse Lake.
The Six Lakes Trailhead is located about 35 miles from Bend on the west side of the highway, near Elk Lake. If you pass the Hosmer Lake turnoff, you’ve gone too far. I know because that’s exactly what we did on our first attempt to find it.
From very near the start, I was glad that we’d planned to make this a trail run, because the mosquitoes were all around us, undeterred by the repellent. I’d probably jinxed us, saying how promising things seemed because there were none around the parking lot, as if mosquitoes hang out in parking lots.
Perhaps they were waiting to pounce once we were higher up. It wasn’t a long wait — the trail begins climbing rather quickly, and we took a walk and photo break before the first mile was behind us.
Our dogs were in heaven, though, as streams parallel much of the trail. They were wagging and running and splashing with abandon, but we had to remain watchful. My dog is half-border collie and tends to herd Gary, a chocolate Lab, directly toward our knees. I kept a leash handy in case we encountered horseback riders. I never had to use it, but I saw, and jumped over, the evidence some had been on the trail.
A little more than a mile after setting out, we arrived at Blow Lake. We stopped and took some photos while the dogs took a quick dip, but our true destination lay ahead.
The stretch of trail between Blow Lake and Doris Lake is nicely forested, and there are plenty of little creek-side patches of grass and flowers for added scenery. It would have been nice, especially for my lungs, to pause and enjoy it, but as one couple we passed mentioned, the mosquitoes were kind of bad.
After climbing a little higher, we arrived at Doris Lake sooner than expected — about a half-mile sooner. The sign at the trailhead told us it was 3 miles to Doris. My map said 2.7. My GPS, as well as Dickman’s, told us it was 2.4.
We chose to go to one of two cool points at the southeast tip of the lake. Between the points is a shallow, sandy-bottomed bay with slightly warmer waters than the main body of the lake. I stayed in a good long time, dipping underwater completely any time a mosquito or other insect tried to strafe me.
We hung out on shore a while, eating cookies and marveling as Gary tried to drag ashore a log-sized branch. Once Dickman’s bald head began sporting multiple, butte-sized welts, we knew the mosquitoes had won and that it was time to go. We doused ourselves with more repellent, which helped, as did an intermittent breeze, for the much easier run back to the trailhead.
Of course, Doris is just one of the many lakes in the Cascades. If we’d gone farther west, we’d have ended up at the mother lode of backcountry lakes: the Mink Lake Basin. There are numerous lakes west of Cultus and in the Mirror Lakes region. Buy a decent map and start exploring.
Though I mentioned mosquitoes quite a bit, it’s now late July, and anyone who sets out for Doris — or Horse or any of the scores of other lakes up in those hills — should have a better time of it than Dickman and I had.
I’d bring some repellent, though, if I were you.
If you go ...
Getting there: From Bend, take the Cascade Lakes Highway approximately 35 miles to the Six Lakes Trailhead, located on the west side of the highway south of Elk Lake. If you pass the Hosmer turnoff, you’ve gone too far.
Difficulty: Moderate. Well-defined trail with minimal blowdown, but some hikers may find the distance and gain in elevation challenging.
Cost: Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day pass required