If you just want a gourmet taste of the Cascade Lakes Highway, a shortened version of the loop manages to take in some of the highlights. The following tour can be enjoyed in several hours, even allowing for several stops. In contrast, driving the entire loop takes a whole day with only limited time spent out of the car.
Begin by taking U.S. 97 south of Bend 13 miles and taking the exit for Sunriver. After about 1.5 miles, the turnoff to Sunriver Resort will be on your right; stay on the main road as it curves to the left. Follow this road (Rte. 40/ Spring River Rd.) to Cascade Lakes Highway (Rte. 46) and turn right to reach Little Lava Lake. The Deschutes River begins its 252-mile course to the Columbia from here. Head just down the road to Lava Lake, where there’s a small rustic resort, camping, and a store with a grand view of South Sister from the store’s porch; in the summer your attention could be diverted by the hummingbirds that flock to a hanging feeder.
Follow the highway north to the shores of Elk Lake, a favorite of windsurfers and sailors. The year-round cabins at Elk Lake Resort (541/480-7228) are popular, as is picture-taking from the lake’s beach picnic grounds on the southernmost tip of shoreline. Here you have the full length of Elk Lake before you, with South Sister and Mount Bachelor in the background. During the snowbound months of winter, access to Elk Lake is by snowmobile, Sno-Cat van, or dogsled (really!) to a world of groomed cross-country ski and snowshoe trails amidst spectacular alpine scenery.
Not far away, the red volcanic cinder highway contrasts with the black lava flows en route to aqua-tinted Devils Lake. From the northern end of this lake, on the other side of the highway, you’ll find Devil’s Pile, an agglomeration of lava flows and volcanic glass where Apollo 11 astronauts reportedly culled a rock to deposit on the lunar surface. The road winds around to the Mount Bachelor Summit ski lifts. From the deck in front of the sport shop–cafeteria complex, you can see the Three Sisters and Broken Top.
You might want to hike the short trail to Todd Lake, canoe Sparks Lake in the shadow of Broken Top and South Sister, or visit the Ray Atkeson Memorial, dedicated to Oregon’s photographer laureate. All are located between Devil’s Pile and the ski lifts. From Mount Bachelor it’s a 20-minute drive back to Sunriver.
Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Oregon.