When my partner, Justin, and I bought a camper van on Craigslist a few years ago, we had no idea how much it would impact our lives. Sometimes it seems we’re on the road as much as we’re at home in Manzanita — blazing Oregon’s back roads in search of that perfect campsite and time spent around a fire with close friends.

Recently, we packed up our “adventure mobile” with fly rods, bikes and a few camping buddies. We headed out to Cascade Lakes in Central Oregon, where we’d spend several days fly-fishing, mountain biking and canoeing. Oh, not to mention the hours spent in the many brewpubs — but it’s Oregon, so that goes without saying.

Having grown up on the Oregon Coast, there’s something about the high-desert landscapes that capture my imagination and draw me east of the Cascade Range again and again. The smell of juniper and sage, the dry mountain air and the expansive night sky create a magical alchemy vastly different from my lush, green corner of the state. Once you dip your toes in a mountain lake, you’ll understand why it’s such a thoroughly enchanting place.

The Scenic Route: To get to our campsite, we drove the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, which winds past lake after pristine lake, with stunning views of the Cascade Range in the distance. I’d recommend budgeting plenty of time for frequent stops to take photos and gape at all the scenery along the way.

On the Water: After our early-morning coffee at Little Cultus Lake Campground, we set out in a canoe to explore the lake before it got windy. At 175 acres, Little Cultus is smaller than some of the other lakes in the area (hence the name) but no less beautiful. What it lacks in size, it makes up for with solitude. We had the lake all to ourselves. Justin made a few casts, hoping to lure one of the Rainbow or brook trout, which are plentiful here.

Casting a Line: Next we headed to Gold Lake Campground in search of more fishing and camping. Gold Lake is situated 28 miles east of Oakridge and is for fly-fishing only. If you plan to fish, consult the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife regulations for the most up-to-date information. And for those of you seeking quiet, this is the place, since only nonmotorized boats are allowed on the lake.

Dinner Looks Good: It is easy to see why brook trout, which are common in the Cascade Lakes region, are considered by some to be the prettiest member of the trout family.

Golden Hours: The sun was setting as we carried our canoe down to the water from our campsite at Crane Prairie Reservoir for an evening paddle. Crane Prairie is home to a stunning variety of nesting and migratory birds, and is a prime spot for watching wildlife. We saw a family of deer picking their way along the edge of the lake, and the air was full of the sound of birdsong. Watching the full moon rise as the sky turned purple made for one of the most memorable moments of the trip.

Camp Life: The campground at Gold Lake is strikingly beautiful, set amongst a towering alpine forest near the Cascade crest. We enjoyed fishing from our canoe, foraging for huckleberries and hiking one of the many trails easily accessed from our campground. This area is also popular in the winter for its cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails.

Drink Like a Local: We were thirsty after hitting the bike trails at Phil’s Trail Complex outside of Bend, so we changed out of our sweaty clothes in the van and headed to Crux Fermentation Project. Crux serves delicious, unique beers as well as kombucha on tap. We gorged ourselves on plates of yummy Hawaiian food from one of the nearby food trucks. Children ran freely on the sunny lawn while their parents sipped cold ones, and a group of joggers clad in colorful spandex rewarded themselves with a postrun beer. What’s not to love?

No Bad Views: After camping just outside of Bend, we woke up early to check out Tumalo Falls. From the day-use area, it’s only a short walk to a viewing platform that rewards you with great vistas of the falls and the surrounding valley. You could easily spend the good part of a day here on the multiple hiking and birding trails — just another example of how much magic is around every corner in Central Oregon.

These maps and directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, or other events may cause road conditions to differ from the map results. For travel options, weather and road conditions, visit, call 511 (in Oregon only), 800.977.6368 or 503.588.2941.

About the Author: Ashley Mersereau

Ashley Mersereau is a self-taught jewelry artist, freelance photographer and sometimes writer. She lives on the Oregon’s North Coast, where she runs her small business, Roots & Wings Jewelry, and finds constant inspiration in the nearby forests and beaches.

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  1. Erik Blair says…

    This is the kind of article I love to read. Inspiring, thoughtful, tasty and riddled with nostalgic hints that make me want to go to Oregon right now!

    Great pictures, solid story.


    Written on May 24th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  2. Cheri Smith says…

    Good article Ashley! We live in Bend and have an ’85 VW Westfalia. Many of our weekends are spent cruising up the Cascade Lakes Hwy until we find that perfect campsite. The #vanlife is good in Bend!

    Written on June 14th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  3. Walter Matera says…

    Should work just as well with a teardrop trailer. We can hardly wait!

    Written on June 14th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  4. Irene Schmidt says…

    Great article. Made me remember some wonderful camping trips to Oregon – and reminded me it’s time for some new ones! I’m always looking for secluded and QUIET places to camp. I’ve had too many experiences with people who think campgrounds are “party central” – ugh.

    Written on June 14th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  5. Gail Lesko says…

    I too enjoyed this article, always looking for quieter places to kayak and observe wildlife. We haven’t camped in yrs., but getting the itch too again. Thanks for sharing your relaxingly perfect experience!

    Written on June 15th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  6. Candice Stansell says…

    My husband and I are looking for a van/ 4×4 club near us in Springfield OR if anybody knows of one; we would appreciate the info. We don’t really 4×4 in our converted van but do like to go off road where RVs can’t go ;) I enjoyed the article and had not heard of Gold Lake Thank you!

    Written on June 15th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  7. Joe and Cindi Petrusaitis says…

    I had my first taste of a trout at Lava lake in the Cascades back in the 70’s.Tumalo St.park is also a nice rest stop after sampling the Breweries in Bend!

    Written on June 15th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  8. John G says…

    Thank you for a great article and excellent photos. We live in Sisters. This will draw me more to the Cascade Lakes Hwy.

    Written on June 21st, 2017 / Flag this Comment
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