Diamond Peak Wilderness

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Just south of Diamond Peak in the central Oregon Cascades, right along the Pacific Crest Trail, lies a cluster of tiny, mostly unnamed lakes, along with the somewhat larger Summit Lake. I decided to make this area my destination for an overnight trip from Eugene and then see what else I find along the way.

With much of this excursion area on the west side of the mountains, the landscape is more densely forested than the other central Oregon outings I've documented. That said, it's high elevation, and the vegetation is noticeably different from the rainforests further west...the trees aren't as tall, there's greater variety of trees including cedars, pines, and what I think was Grand fir, instead of the usual Douglas fir which dominates the hills closer to home. The undergrowth is far less dense and it's feasible to explore on foot without following an established trail (though do so very carefully as it's just dense enough you could very easily lose your way too). I found a few nice views of Diamond Peak, but it ends up being hidden by trees or ridgelines most of the time. There are plenty of dispersed camping options scattered around, as well as numerous campgrounds if that's your preference.

The initial drive into the area via Oakridge is lovely, skirting the shores of Hills Creek Lake, which is an unusually picturesque man-made reservoir. You can either follow NF 23 on the east side of the lake which then veers south towards Diamond Peak, or take NF 21 down along the west side, eventually veering east towards Diamond Peak.

Now, if you've read many of my excursion write-ups, you know I generally like to just define an area and leave it up to you to explore and discover, but in this case I'm going to make a specific itinerary recommendation. While both routes are lovely, getting into the area via NF 23 is more enchantingly spellbinding, with tantilizing glimpses of Diamond Peak, pleasant meadows spotted with (seasonal) wildflowers occasionally breaking up the forested lands, and roads carved into steep hillsides revealing dramatic valley vistas. At the top, you can explore the lakes via challenging dirt roads (4WD/AWD and high clearance definitely needed for that bit). You can then work your way back towards Oakridge via NF 21 (and/or side routes that trace the ridgelines above). The loop works in either direction but I've done it both ways and coming in via NF 23 is distinctly more satisfying.

NF 380, which winds through the numerous mini-lakes towards Summit Lake, is where the driving gets interesting. Up to that point, it's either paved roads or fairly straightforward, well-maintained gravel roads. Once you hit the lakes, I believe it crosses a county line, because the gravel instantly ends and the road becomes deeply rutted silty dirt. On the sloped areas of the road - and there are lots of them - much of the dirt has eroded to reveal large jagged rocks.

Once this road gets to Summit Lake, it splits east and south. The road to the south is a fun drive, very closely following the banks of Summit Lake, sometimes just a few feet from the water. The Pacific Crest Trail parallels the road here so be on the lookout for hikers. On my mid-July trip, I chatted with a PCT hiker who had departed from the Mexican border back in April and was making the trek all the way to Canada...wow. Once the road veers away from the south end of Summit Lake, it must re-cross a county line because it's back to graded gravel. I ventured as far as Timpanogas Lake but ultimately the Summit Lake area was the most interesting.

If by this point you're up for more driving challenges, I would suggest going back up along the Summit Lake shore, then heading east on NF 398 towards Crescent Lake to really get your "off-road" experience. Silty, rutted, rocky, steep climbs and drops...while this terrain is probably a walk in the park for a Jeep, this was by far the most startlingly difficult road I have ever tackled anywhere, and I was glad I had recently lifted the Forester a bit and replaced my all-season tires with all-terrain tires. I orignally didn't intend to go so far east on this trip but was having so much fun driving this road that I ended up taking it all the way to Crescent Lake (it's only something like 8 miles but it felt like an epic adventure). Crescent Lake is a popular, well-known recreation site encircled by paved roads so there's little here in terms of softroading and no dispersed camping permitted along its shores. From this point you can double back on NF 398 if you feel like doing the road in the opposite direction, or you can simply follow the paved road heading northeast along Crescent Lake back up to Hwy 58 for a quick return to civilization.

If you do work your way back into the Diamond Peak wilderness and complete the loop on NF 21, be sure to stop at Indigo Springs campground. This is a tiny primitive campground but it also has a small parking area with a very short trail to Indigo Springs, where a gushing gurgling stream emerges right out of the ground. Since I prefer dispersed camping, I normally drive right past any campgrounds I see and I would have missed this charming little stop. But on my way up, I had stopped at the Middle Fork Willamette Ranger Station near Westfir to inquire about campfire restrictions, and after chatting a bit about where I was headed, they recommended stopping to check out the springs.

They also warned me about moquitoes, and boy were they right. I wasn't too concerned since I wasn't planning on camping near any of the lakes, but turned out that didn't matter. Every single place I emerged from the car, be it near a lake, in the woods, in a meadow, atop a sunny butte far from any water, I was instantly swarmed with hordes of voracious mosquitoes. I've generally had good luck using natural citronella-based repellents so that's all I had with me, but it was no match for these beasts. I came home from this 24-hour trip with over 70 bites. So, while I would highly recommend exploring this area, I would suggest avoiding it in July when the mosquitoes are at their worst, and make sure you're equipped with a serious chemical repellent.

Summary of my recommended route:
Take Hwy 58 to Oakridge, and turn south on Hills Creek Road. Follow it (now called NF 23) along the north shore and as it gains elevation winding up through the hills. Turn right on NF 2149 (the dispersed campsite in the photo above is along this road where it crests a ridgeline) then eventually turn right towards NF 2160 (there is a sign at this junction). Follow NF 2160 south then veer left onto NF 380, which will get you to the little lakes, the challenging terrain, and Summit Lake. Explore 398 in both directions along the shores of Summit Lake, as far as Crescent Lake if you're up for it. Work your way towards NF 21/Rigdon Rd to eventually loop back along the western shore of Hills Creek Lake and up to Oakridge/Hwy 58.  I did it as an overnighter, leaving Eugene late morning, and returning the next day also late morning, but I'd say this is do-able as a day trip from Eugene with an early start and late return.