Cascade Lakes Hwy-to-Waldo Lake Backcountry Route (NF600>NF514)

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This excursion picks up from the end of my Broken Top Wilderness excursion . After having spent the day exploring around Broken Top, NF 370 and various side roads, I decided to head down along the  Deschutes River to look for camping. We made the Broken Top trip on a Saturday, and many prime dispersed campsites were already occupied, but I finally found a spot along a calm, wide, reedy stretch of the river. With the seasonal campfire ban in place, I had time to hike a bit through the woods and grassy meadows adjacent to my site and enjoy the serene central Oregon beauty.

This was the first time I'd been out dispersed camping when a campfire restriction was in place. I really enjoy having a fire in my camp and I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with myself during the evening hours without a fire to attend, but in some ways it was kind of nice. Without any concerns about building and maintaining a fire in addition to cooking dinner, it was pleasantly freeing to just hike around, take photos, or simply sit and relish the scenery. I ended up going to bed much earlier than usual and I ultimately felt much more rested and energized the next morning, having slept more hours than I ever had on one of these trips.

As usual, I woke up with the first light of dawn, quickly broke camp, and drove off to shoot some sunrise photos. Alas, the smoke from wildfires in Washington and California that had plagued the Oregon sky for much of summer 2018 had settled back in the night before. The smoke was thick: the sun was barely visible as a dull orange disc through the dirty yellow haze. Thus the rather dull, uninspiring lighting in the photos above. When it became apparent that I wouldn't be capturing any marvelous dawn masterpieces, I gave up and moved on with the day's itinerary, working my way towards Little Cultus Lake.

If you prefer organized campgrounds to wild camping, the campground at Little Cultus Lake is really cute. The sites are scattered along the shore of this crystal clear lake, with a small volcanic butte casting its reflection in the water's surface. The campground was right along my route - in fact I had to literally drive through the campground - so I stopped in a little day use area here to make some coffee and oatmeal, and had my breakfast contemplating the lovely (if smoky) views of the lake.

If you drive all the way through the long meandering campground, NF 600 eventually continues on westward. This is an unmaintained dirt road and was thoroughly entertaining to navigate. Like many such roads in central Oregon, the roadbed is a sand-colored ultrafine silty ash, frequently eroded to expose jagged rocks,  ruts carved by water runoff, and the occasional deep pits dug by spinning truck tires. This is especially common on any sloped areas, of which there are many. Good ground clearance, AWD/4WD, and appropriate tires definitely recommended. Nothing truly "technical" however...the Forester managed i without incident from one end to the other, and in only one spot did I need to back up and try a different line in order to ascend a particularly chopped up slope.

Even on a smoky day, this was a positively enchanting drive. This narrow dirt road twists through alpine forest, winding around trees and boulders, up over little hills and down little ravines, as it crests the Cascades, bringing you from the central Oregon high desert back over to the Willamette Valley side of the range. You'll intersect the Pacific Crest Trail, and discover two sweet little lakes - Taylor Lake and Irish Lake. These lakes were lined with some of the nicest dispersed camping sites I've ever found. I spent a good deal of time checking out some of the sites and just taking a break from driving.

Eventually the road drops down into a burn area where, some years ago, a fire left behind a graveyard of trees, now slowing filling in with new green growth. The hovering smoke that day transformed the area into a surreal and almost cinematic post-apocolyptic wasteland. By this point I was getting nearer to the popular and busy recreation areas of Waldo Lake, but the smoky devastation felt somehow more profoundly isolated, almost an eerie last-man-on-earth feeling.

Soon after entering the burn area, the road branches into the southbound NF 517 (which becomes 514) and a dead-end spur to the northwest. Heading south on 514 will eventually dump you out onto the paved roads accessing Waldo Lake, which you can follow down to Highway 58 for the return to Eugene.

Route Summary
From Cascade Lakes Highway, follow your nav to Little Cultus Lake, then drive all the way through to the far end of the campground and just keep going. When the road branches in the burn area, head south towards Waldo Lake. Obviously you could also run this route in the opposite direction coming from Eugene towards the Cascade Lakes area by taking the Waldo Lake access off Highway 58 (NF 5897), driving to the north end of the lake, and look for NF 514 heading off into the woods to the north, then make the right turn at NF 600.

Note: This route is inaccessible from probably November until the end of May. Both the Waldo Lake Road and Cascade Lakes Highway are closed for the season due to snow.

VIDEO OVERVIEW OF THIS EXCURSION (large player will open):