Loving the Van Life at Cascade Lakes

Justin Bailie,  Photographer
May 23, 2017 (Updated July 1, 2020)

Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Stay posted on what Oregon’s phased reopening means for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Here’s what to know about Oregon’s outdoors right now.

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.

About The

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.