Bend, Oregon ~ Day 3 (of a July trip)
* Photos by me unless I credit Alan
The city of Bend, on the eastern slope of the Cascades, sits at about 3600 feet, and the surrounding area rises to even higher elevations, covered by deep snow for several months of the year. I’ve grown familiar with these winter landscapes, having celebrated several year-end holidays with my family there. The cold terrain has its own kind of pristine and sparkling beauty, but many of the byways and trails outside of town are unpassable until late spring. So except for a few brave forays out on skis or snowshoes or cleats, I tend toward hovering inside near the fire.
As a result, I knew little about the fair weather beauty along the 66-mile long Cascades Lake National Scenic Byway leading out of town. Around each turn, road signs point into the dense forest, beckoning toward hidden pleasures lying in wait: a thousand trails, over a hundred lakes, and a variety of landscapes and viewpoints beyond.
In mid-July, we pull off the Byway onto a pitted rocky road leading out to the Ray Atkeson Trail and Sparks Lake. The short hike and lake lie nestled between South Sister, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor, though they remain hidden by the surrounding forest. Fortunately the recent smoke cleared, but the day was already hot by noon.
The trail dips and rolls through rugged crevasses, canyons, and rocky corridors created by old volcanic flows. Dead trees lean or lie scattered like bones, bleached white over time, alongside the vibrant green and tenacious hemlock, pine, cedar and fir. It is silent but for the occasional passing hiker; the animals and birds stay hidden from the midday heat.
After some miles of parched rock-strewn landscape, we come upon the lake, brilliant greens and blues, a jagged shoreline, and forests beyond. Fed by snowmelt and rain, the lake shrinks all summer, draining out through underground cracks and crevasses. They say you can hear the water gurgling as it seeps into the water table below. At mid-summer, the lower water levels reveal the contours of the lake floor’s variegated shades of color and otherworldly patterns. Earth science or magic, or some of both.
As we hike along the dusty trail, mountain tops peek through the trees momentarily, but the path winds around so much I don’t know what direction I’m facing or what peak I might be looking at. Finally the path opens into a stunning view of South Sister and Broken Top, where I can stand absorbing and contemplating this stark, thrilling scenery.
Ray Atkeson (1907-1990), for whom the trail was named, was Oregon’s Photographer Laureate (I didn’t know there was such a thing!), and has been described as the Ansel Adams of the Pacific Northwest. I could see why this was one of his favorite places to shoot, and even more impressed knowing that back in the 20s and 30s, travel was more challenging and the equipment quite heavy. He shot photos in all seasons, weathers, and times of day, giving him an ever-changing canvas to work with, and a broad palette of colors.
It’s pretty easy to avoid big crowds in this wide open part of Oregon, and there’s enough space for everyone. But Oregon summers have become terribly, strangely hot and smoky (like other western states), so I may have to re-think my visits, and go at more temperate times.
These days though, there’s no predicting anything, so if and when opportunity knocks, I’ll be happy to be back on the road.