Gem of the Cascades Waldo Lake

Waldo 7-21-2010 4-33-22 PM Tucked away in the Cascades, north of Highway 58, is a lake that is referred to as the “Gem of the Cascades”.  Mo and I have thought often about traveling the three hours or so to this beautiful lake to camp, but for many different reasons, we never quite made it until now.  Waldo Lake, although truly beautiful, is also very well known for it’s mosquito population.  People who know Waldo warn that the only good time to camp there is in late summer and early fall.  However, we thought that with a motorhome for protection, and our desire to be out on the water in the kayaks, it wouldn’t be too much for us to handle.  Besides, it will give us some good practice for Minnesota and the northern Lake Superior region later this season.

We left by 9 this morning, and made it to the Diamond Lake Junction cafe just in time to savor another fabulous breakfast.  The small tables are adorned with handwritten notes from diners all over the country, touting the wonderful food and friendly people who run this tiny, inconspicuous little restaurant.  The cook laughed when we shared our “Bigfoot” breakfast and still needed a good sized to-go box for the part we couldn’t finish. 

Waldo 7-21-2010 1-51-58 PM After breakfast, continuing north on HWY 97 to HWY 58 was uneventful, and in no time we were on the forest service road leading north to Waldo.  After some internet research, and exploring Google Earth a bit, we determined that the Islet Campground would be our best bet.  North Waldo Campground has a boat launching facility, and Shadow Bay at the southern end of the lake is much more thickly vegetated and as it says, shadowy.  When we arrived at Islet, much to our surprise, there was only one campsite taken out of the 48 or so available.  Some Forest Service workers laughed when we asked why, and told us that the mosquitoes kept most people away, and suggested that we take an open, sunny, and breezy site.  This wasn’t a problem, since the campground was empty, and we had great fun picking our perfect spot.  By the time we left the next day, there were still only 3 campers in Islet, and maybe a half dozen or so more north of us in the North Waldo Campground.  Amazing.

Our site was adjacent to the bike trail along the lake, and just a few hundred feet down a gentle slope to our own little sandy beach.  We set up camp, sprayed ourselves down with DEET, and checked out the surroundings.  The sky was brilliant, the forest deep and rich.  The trees were dominantly Western Hemlock and Shasta Fir, with an understory of dwarf huckleberry, a good indication of the cold moist climate at this high elevation.  Our view of Waldo Lake was lovely and we took some time to settle in, relax under the trees in our comfy chairs and appreciate all the perfect amenities of our camp, including a really solid, big picnic table in just the right position by our awning, and a fire circle close by.

Waldo 7-21-2010 2-22-12 PM We unloaded the bikes, deciding that a bike ride would be better during the sunny afternoon when the mosquitoes would be a bit less aggravating.  The trail circles most of the lake for several miles and is a favorite for mountain bikers.  Mo and I have mountain bikes, but I don’t think we would qualify as mountain bikers.  The first part of the trail was nice, but as it ascended to Taylor Mountain it got a lot rougher, with roots and rocks in the path, and some very winding twists among the huge trees.  We rode a little bit beyond the Waldo Campground and then gave up and headed back to camp.  Still, it was a nice ride.

The main reason for coming to this lake, of course, was the kayaking, and I was excited to get out on the legendary clear water.  Waldo Lake is nestled into volcanic andesite rock, and is the second deepest lake in Oregon, second only to Crater Lake.  It is pristine, with some of the purest water in the world, and a recent decision by the forest service to exclude gasoline engines from the lake will help to keep it that way.  The lake has no natural inlets to bring in any kind of sediment or pollutants, and fish stocking ceased in 1990.  There is very little plant growth, and no algae anywhere.  As we paddled along the shore, the views were breathtaking, and the water was as clear as any I have ever seen.  The colors reminded me of the Caribbean, with rich deep turquoise and cobalt blues that were nearly impossible to photograph. The wind came up as we headed back across the lake to our camp, and the sheer size of the lake was impressive. It was a truly amazing experience to have this huge lake and pristine forest almost entirely to ourselves.

Waldo 7-21-2010 7-32-59 PM We arrived back in camp to the mosquitoes waking up and getting busy and ready for dinner.  We did the same, and Mo built a nice fire for our steaks, while I started up the generator to quickly bake the potatoes.  I didn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone with the noise, at least.  Supper was yummy, and we sat for a long time afterward waiting for sunset.  Walking south along the trail to get a better view wasn’t such a good idea, since the mosquitoes were incredibly thick and bothersome out along the beach.  We went back to camp where I sprayed down heavily and walked down to the beach to watch the sun set behind the mountains.

We woke early to a morning chill, had some tea and little donuts before getting out on the glassy lake.  Down on the beach it was a fight between us and the mosquitoes, and I think they could have carried our boats off if they wanted to.  We launched and paddled like crazy to get away from them and for a bit I thought it was going to be a losing battle.  Once we rounded the jetty, however, the winds picked up and we left the bothersome bugs behind.  Again, our paddle was gorgeous, the water incredible, the views of the surrounding mountains magnificent.  The pristine clarity comes with a price, however, and we noticed that there were no water birds around anywhere.  The entire time we were there, we saw just a tiny little duck family by the boat launch.  As much as I loved the clarity, I really missed the birds.  Our murky Klamath Lake certainly isn’t as pristine, but it teems with life everywhere. 

Waldo 7-22-2010 8-51-37 AM We decided to dock the boats in the sunny open boat launch area instead of our buggy little beach, so I walked back and got the car and we loaded the boats on top and went back to camp.  With the sun up and the breezes rising, the mosquitoes dissipated a bit and we enjoyed a great campfire breakfast.

Our spot at Islet Campground, number 42, was probably the very best spot in the entire area.  We hope to go back again sometime in the fall, but have also heard that these camps get very busy when the bug season lets up. 

Packing up was a snap, and we left by noon to head for Mo’s brother’s home in LaPine, just a couple of hours away.  It was time for the bi-annual family reunion, with kayaking, and bocci ball, golf and bar-b-ques.  Our little Waldo Lake overnighter was a great way to start the weekend.

For more photos of Waldo Lake and Islet Campground, click here.