Three thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption in Central Oregon pushed a giant flow of lava southwest toward the McKenzie River. The lava scorched the forest and redirected the flow of the river, creating what’s known as Clear Lake. Today, the pristine lake is home to a remarkably preserved ancient forest beneath its sparkling turquoise waters. It’s a premier spot for playing on the water — fishing, canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddling. It’s also known for its hiking and biking on the world-renowned McKenzie River Trail. And with visibility of up to 200 feet, Clear Lake is considered one of the best spots for freshwater diving in America. No matter how hard you plan to play or lounge, here’s how to make the most of a road trip to Clear Lake after the snow melts this summer and fall.
Day 1 — Hiking, diving, camping
Before you set out, make sure to pack for the weather — at 3,000 feet above sea level, snow is possible at Clear Lake in the winter and spring, but the area warms up in the summer. It’s a couple of hours from Portland, Salem and Bend, just off Highway 126 and deep in the Willamette National Forest — so expect to fully unplug and recharge. Make your basecamp at Coldwater Cove Campground (open late May through mid-October) on the east end of the lake, with amenities including a general store, boat ramp, fish-cleaning station and restaurant (open May through September). Or consider the Clear Lake Resort at the north end, which offers boat rentals, deluxe cabins and a restaurant, all open year-round. Stop at the McKenzie River Ranger Station (open Monday through Friday) for permit information, maps and other resources.
After you get settled, get the lay of the land with an invigorating trek along the 4.6-mile Clear Lake Loop Trail, a flat, family- and pet-friendly trail that winds through old-growth forest on the western edge of the lake. Take your time exploring the geology here, with help from interpretive signposts. If you’re a diver, make sure to bring your own equipment to spend the afternoon exploring from underwater, being especially mindful of safety precautions. Rent gear and get pro tips at a local dive shop such as Salem Scuba, NW Scuba in Portland or Central Oregon Diving in Bend, which offers guided dive trips, including one to Clear Lake’s petrified forest (Aug. 10, 2019). Also check Oregon Dive Sites for insider tips from fellow dive enthusiasts. Experienced divers may swim out to the “sunken forest” in the main pool of the lake, where 80-foot tree trunks are visible and cold water flows up from the basalt rock bed below. With no motorized boats allowed, the lake is calm for paddlers and divers of all stripes. Cap your day with s’mores under the stars.
Day 2 — Fishing, paddling, biking
What’s a trip to Clear Lake without a boat? Rent a rowboat at Clear Lake Resort (first come, first served), or bring your favorite type of non-motorized watercraft with you for a $5 launch fee. From out on the lake, there’s plenty to see. Stand-up paddlers, canoers and kayakers will enjoy the lake’s just-right size — 142 acres and about 175 feet deep. Anglers will find brook trout and cutthroat trout here, as well as rainbow trout, stocked annually — perfect catch for dinner around the campfire. Visit the general store at the campground with lunch provisions, and enjoy a picnic on the water or on shore.
Work up a sweat in the afternoon with an excursion along the world-famous McKenzie River National Recreation Trail, a world-class destination for hikers and mountain bikers. The 26 miles of singletrack runs across lava fields and through old-growth forest along the eastern section of the lake. (The trail is best accessed June through October, but visitors can snowshoe along sections in the winter.) While the terrain along the north is quite technical and extreme, hikers and newer mountain bikers will enjoy the passage to the south, across bridges and streams, alongside pools and cascading waterfalls. Cyclists may rent a bike or book a shuttle to the top of the trail through McKenzie River Mountain Resort. Bend-based Cog Wild bike shop and Horse Creek Lodge, 20 miles southwest of Clear Lake, also offer shuttle service. Road bikers may want to gear up to ride the McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway for a few weeks before it opens for car traffic in late May or early June, depending on snow conditions.
Day 3 — Road tripping, eating, exploring
There’s nothing like waking up with sore muscles from adventuring in the great outdoors. Give yourself a day to recover with a day trip eastward into Central Oregon. On the way to Camp Sherman, 25 miles northeast of Clear Lake, stop at the lovely Head of the Metolius Observation Site. Here the Metolius River makes its bubbly headwaters at Black Butte, where it seeps through porous rocks to flow to the other side. Back in town, find what you need at the historic, 100-year-old Camp Sherman Store on the banks of the Metolius River. Satisfy your hunger at the deli with a menu of fresh sandwiches, breakfast burritos, pastries, coffee and burgers. And visit the local experts at Metolius River Outfitters fly shop, within the general store, for gear and information on fishing lessons.
After Camp Sherman, head into Sisters, 20 miles southeast, for plenty of outdoorsy charm, Old West spirit and a love for the arts. Pop into the boutiques and galleries, bike through the compact downtown, and consider planning your trip around major annual events such as the Sisters Rodeo (June), Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show (July), Sisters Rhythm & Brews music festival (August) and Sisters Folk Festival (September). To avoid summer-time crowds, come in the fall and be rewarded with stunning fall foliage and less-trafficked trails.
If you go:
Check road and weather conditions before hitting the road and stay informed about Oregon’s boating and fishing regulations. Always remember to practice Leave No Trace practices when out in Oregon’s natural areas by picking up your garbage, staying on trails and being considerate of all users.