Summer is ending. And, as much as that means the start of football season, the coming of the World Series and time to ramp up for ski season, it also means that, soon, the Cascade Lakes Highway will be snowed in.
Like a summertime daydream, much of the Cascade Lakes Highway only exists during the months when temperatures rise above freezing (i.e., May through mid-October). Once the snow begins to blanket high elevations, county snowplowers simply wave the white flag and hand over the highway to winter—as well as the massive tracts of prairies, high-altitude lakes and backcountry cabins. (OK, fine, it isn't like it disappears, and it is a wide-open wonderland for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers during from November until April.)
These next several weeks, though, are a remarkable time along the Cascade Lakes Highway—and the dozen-plus lakes that the road serves. The rumbling parade of RVs and the anxious din of vacationing families have quieted, and the lakes are bath-water warm. A "quick" trip around the 100 (or so) mile loop is a great way to close out summer—or, to extend the season for a bit longer.
Of course, biking is one way to go. Starting on Century, aptly named for its original dirt road loop which stretched a 100 mile-long ribbon into the mountains and back again, the ride is a steady thigh-busting climb out of Bend. After Mt. Bachelor, though, the road mellows (relatively speaking) to a pleasant roll through pine trees and ponderosas.
In the mid-'60s, NASA astronauts reportedly trained their legs and lungs by running and biking this very route to prep for the legendary "right stuff" Apollo missions. In 1971, Jim Irwin took a volcanic rock from the dome near Devils Lake along on Apollo mission 15; it is the only earth rock on the moon's surface.
Of course, driving is easier—and you can carry whatever gear you want. Fishing poles for Hosmer Lake, trailering a sailboat for Elk Lake, bringing a stand-up paddleboard for Todd Lake, a waterski boat for Cultus Lake; it seems as if each lake has paired itself with a certain water sport.
One of the most accessible lakes is Elk Lake. It is perhaps harder to be further from the ocean than landlocked on a mountaintop, but the "resort" there concludes its summertime music series this Saturday with an annual luau (4 – 8 pm; call 541-480-7378 for reservations) and music from Bill Keale, who is perhaps best known for his slack guitar collaboration with his ukulele-playing cousin Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole ("Somewhere O'er the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World").
(Note: Many of the Cascade Lakes have "resorts." Mind you, though, resort means something entirely different than a Vegas or Palm Springs resort. There are no mud baths here, no swimming pools, no phosphorescent-colored drinks in tall glasses. But there is tranquility and natural beauty; more like a 1962 summer camp, with low-key restaurants and rustic cabins for rent. The "resort" at Cultus Lake is one of my favorites, serving strong coffee and pancakes the size of a manhole cover.)
While the better-known lakes have their well-talked-about-and-known charms, perhaps the end of summer is a good time to consider some of the other, B-list lakes. Little Lava Lake has particular allure: There are easyily accessed primitive campsites lining the dirt road approaching the lake, and there is easy going, late-season fishing, with trout nestling among the marshy reeds. Geographically (or geologically?) speaking, the lake is particularly significant: The Deschutes River begins here, flowing languidly away from a lush green marsh and then tracing a crooked path down the mountain and toward Sunriver before bending north toward Bend and, ultimately, The Dalles. (What better way to mark the end of summer than visiting the start of the Deschutes River?)
Further along Cascade Lakes Highway is another lesser-known lake, and one of my favorite late-season stops: The south sibling of Twin Lakes. An exactly one-mile pine needle swept path traces the lake's circumference, and there are a few small, private white sand beaches, perfect for late-day picnics. On a recent afternoon, the lake was occupied only by one father-son pair lazily rod-and-reel fishing from a canoe and a middle-age couple playing cards on the deck adjacent to one of the lakeside cabins (rentable through mid-October; starting at $70/night; (541) 382-6432 for reservations). With barely a murmur besides a soft wind rustling the leaves and a perky blue jay chirping out single notes—it seemed like the ideal place and way to say goodbye to summer.