Tubing, floating, surfing + paddling the Deschutes
October 27, 20239 minute read
Some call them lakes, we call them gems. Whether you’re craving an action-packed day zipping around on the water or a peaceful afternoon paddling to the sounds of chirping birds, there’s a Cascade Lake for you. Surrounded by ponderosa and lodgepole forests, volcanic peaks, diverse wildlife, and abundant recreational opportunities—Central Oregon’s Cascade Lakes are a testament to our region’s unrivaled natural beauty and the perfect destination for those seeking an escape in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.
It’s a good idea to start out early. Expect lakes to be most crowded late morning to mid-afternoon. Help reduce human impact on these special waters by practicing Bend’s Leave No Trace principles, packing out all trash, staying in designated areas, leaving wildlife alone, and being respectful of other lake users. And don’t forget to pack the insect repellent! Early summer can be an all-out mosquito fest at these lakes as the snow melts from the Cascade Mountains and hungry skeeters begin to hatch.
There’s a little bit of everything at Elk Lake. Anglers, windsurfers, kayakers, and paddleboarders all share the remarkably clear water. The Three Sisters tower over the north end of the lake while Mt. Bachelor makes its presence known on the eastern horizon. It’s easy to get comfortable here. Elk Lake Resort rents private lakeshore cabanas. You can even nab your very own floating dock complete with tables, chairs, umbrellas, a BBQ, and a gazebo for up to 24 people. Throughout the summer, the resort puts on a weekly concert series with free live music by talented local and regional musicians. Hike a section of the nearby Pacific Crest Trail, just one mile from Elk Lake.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, treat yourself to a bite at the resort’s restaurant, serving burgers, sandwiches, salads, and other American fare with indoor and outdoor seating. When you’re ready to rest your head for the night, take your pick from cabins, camping cabins, glamping tents, RV spots, and tent sites. Elk Lake is one of the few Cascade Lakes that also offers winter operations. From Dutchman Flat Sno-Park, cross-country ski or snowmobile out to the resort for a hot meal or a weekend stay in one of the cabins. You can book a return ride on their snowcat.
With a charming lodge, rustic cabins, dockside restaurant, cocktail lounge, boat dock, and hiking trail—Suttle Lake knows how to embrace the Central Oregon lifestyle. Rent a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard (or bring your own). Motorized boats are also allowed at Suttle Lake. Fish for kokanee, brown trout, and native whitefish. Go for a run on the flat, 3.6-mile trail that loops around the lake. Hit up the swim beach for a refreshing dip. And it’s not just about outdoor recreation here. The boathouse serves up satisfying lunch fare with outdoor seating while Suttle Lake Lodge hosts beer and wine tastings, farm-to-table dinners, live music, movie nights, workshops, an artist residency, and other fun events throughout the year.
Offering rental cabins, RV and tent camping, a marina, a lakeside grill, and a general store—it’s easy to settle in at East Lake. The lake is one of two exceptional trout lakes in the caldera of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which just happens to be the largest ice-age volcano in Oregon. Picture wooded shorelines, sandy beaches, and brilliant blue-green waters. East Lake entices anglers with kokanee, rainbow trout, Atlantic salmon, chub, and brown trout. One of the most traditional fisheries in Oregon, the lake regularly produces brown trout over 10 pounds. In fact, the lake record for brown trout is a whopping 22.5 pounds. Impressed yet? There’s more! Fed by snowmelt and underground springs, explore the water by renting a fishing boat, pontoon boat, kayak, or canoe from East Lake Resort. The Big Obsidian Flow Trailhead and Interpretive Site is a great place to learn about the local geology and to see a recent (in geological time) 1,300-year-old obsidian flow.
East Lake shares this outstanding geologic area with neighboring Paulina Lake. A 20-mile Crater Rim Trail circumnavigates both East Lake and Paulina Lake and is popular for hiking and mountain biking. The larger of the two, Paulina Lake is also the deepest at 250 feet. Paulina Creek flows from the lake into a narrow gorge through the caldera’s west wall creating a lovely twin waterfall. There are a couple of small hot spring pools along the lake’s northeast edge accessed by the Paulina Lakeshore Loop. Just look for the marked spur trail that leads to the hot springs.
Boating enthusiasts, we have the lake for you! Cultus Lake welcomes high-speed motorized watercraft in addition to non-motorized boats. Here, you can take a pontoon boat, sailboat, jet ski, ski boat, fishing boat, canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. Water skiers, wakeboarders, and tubers—this is where you’ll find all of the high-adrenaline action. Glacier-fed, Cultus Lake waters are cold and deep reaching a maximum depth of 211 feet. The lake has a reputation for producing trophy-size lake trout (Mackinaw). It’s not unusual to catch 10-pound lake trout.
Old-growth forest is a rare find in Central Oregon, but visitors to Cultus Lake can enjoy large, old-growth ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and western white pine—some rising an impressive 120 feet. The restaurant at Cultus Lake Resort serves up summer classics like tangy BBQ, smoked meats, ice cream, and cold beer. For a mountain lake getaway, rent one of their rustic cabins along the shore or reserve a site at the campground, and soak up the views of Cultus Mountain and South Sister.
Wickiup attracts a variety of nesting and migrating birds making it one of Central Oregon’s best wildlife viewing sites. The relatively shallow reservoir was dammed to store irrigation water so plan to visit Wickiup in the earlier half of the summer as water levels dramatically lower as the lake is drained for ranches and farms.
The second largest reservoir in Oregon and the largest of the Cascade Lakes, Wickiup covers an area on the Deschutes River which was known as the “Wickiup’s”, historically serving as a camping area for Native Americans during the fall. Today, it offers birding, fishing, boating, waterskiing, windsurfing, paddling, swimming, and camping opportunities. Unofficially dubbed “the best lake for brown trout fishing in Oregon” because of its rich, highly productive, relatively warm water and cooler deep channels—choose from six campgrounds around the lake each featuring a boat ramp for easy lake access.
One of Central Oregon’s most peaceful and scenic Cascade Lakes, Hosmer Lake is a paddler’s dream. While the lake features a campground, there’s no defined hiking trail, so the best way to explore is by paddling through its winding canals and ponds. You’ll be treated to incredible views of Mt. Bachelor, South Sister, and Broken Top. Spot bald eagles, red-winged blackbirds, osprey, and deer along the lily pads and pines. The lake is also a prime spot for fly fishing with big Atlantic salmon, brook trout, and rainbows visible in the shallow, clear water. In early summer, when the water level is at its highest for the season, you can paddle to a small waterfall through a narrow channel.
Another favorite spot for fishing and paddling, Sparks Lake is a stunner of a Cascade Lake. Only non-motorized boats are allowed, creating a slower pace and a quieter scene. Surrounded by meadows, marshes, and wetlands—South Sister, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor dominate this spectacular setting. Dark green forests, bright green meadows, and deep blue skies leave a lasting imprint. Sparks Lake is large and shallow with a maximum depth of 10 feet making some sections along the shoreline too shallow for paddleboard fins by late summer. Open to fly angling only, anglers will enjoy fishing for cutthroat trout and brook trout.
Sparks Lake is a peaceful paradise full of wildlife and wonder. Scan the lakeside meadows for grazing mule deer or black-tailed deer, and for the low flight of northern harrier. Birders will fall in love with Sparks Lake. Osprey, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, golden eagles, and common nighthawks circle above your head. Look for old snags pitted with trunk cavities that invite tree swallows and mountain bluebirds. Search willow thickets for yellow warbler or MacGillivray’s warbler. Three-toed woodpeckers make their home in the surrounding forest. You may even spot river otters, California gulls, and great blue herons around the lake.
For those who prefer to hike to their lake, No Name Lake doesn’t disappoint. While the lake’s name may be lackluster, it more than makes up for it with its natural beauty. Part of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System—which helps keep Central Oregon’s most popular areas beautiful by reducing overcrowding and other negative impacts from human use—you’ll need to obtain a permit online before you head to the trailhead. There are several different trailheads where you can start your hike. High-clearance vehicles are necessary to start from Crater Ditch Trailhead and Broken Top Trailhead. Todd Lake Trailhead is an accessible option but presents a longer 14-mile round-trip hike.
Our favorite starting point is the Tam McArthur Rim Trailhead because you get to enjoy fantastic views of the Three Sisters, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt. Jefferson on a 12-mile round-trip hike with 2,500 elevation gain. If you’re into the cold plunge thing, you’ll love taking a dip in No Name Lake right under the summit of Broken Top. Or, save your swim until you’re back at the Tam McArthur Rim Trailhead where Three Creek Lake lies. Three Creek Lake features first-come, first-served campgrounds, boat rentals (only non-motorized boats are allowed on the lake), and a general store.