Mountain Lakes

Lake Harriette in the Mountain Lakes

  • Moderate (to Eb and Zeb Lakes)
  • 9.6 miles round-trip
  • 1230 feet elevation gain
  • Open mid-July to early November
  • Use: hikers, horses

  • Difficult (to Harriette Lake)
  • 12.6 miles round-trip
  • 1800 feet elevation gain

  • Difficult (Mountain Lakes loop)
  • 17.1-mile loop
  • 2720 feet elevation

Precisely 6 miles square, this pocket Wilderness towers above Upper Klamath Lake like a misplaced chunk of the High Cascades. In its center, a gorgeous 8.3-mile loop trail tours a string of hidden lakes and mountain passes. The price of admission is a 4.4-mile climb through the woods to the start of the loop.

Geologists once thought this isolated highland might be the remains of a huge volcano that exploded in Crater Lake fashion. But the area’s outline is a lopsided square, not a circle, suggesting a cluster of at least four smaller volcanoes instead. Did one of them explode? It’s hard to tell. Any caldera would have vanished in the Ice Age when five glaciers gutted these highlands, leaving lake basins, headwall cliffs, and several exposed lava plugs.

The Mountain Lakes Wilderness was one of eight Oregon areas protected by the original 1964 Wilderness Act. All seven of the other areas have been expanded since then, and more than two dozen new areas have been designated, but this preserve retains its original square boundary—exactly one township. The maximum group size for visitors here is eight people, or if you have pack stock, 12 hearts. Campers can’t be closer than 100 feet to lakeshores, and horses can’t be closer than 200 feet except on trails.

Three paths climb to the central loop, but the Varney Creek Trail requires the least elevation gain. To find it, drive Highway …

… If you’re tired, turn right for 0.4 mile to make your goal Eb and Zeb Lakes, a pair of shallow but swimmable little lakes just 100 yards apart. The shores have pink heather, red huckleberries, and views of Whiteface Peak’s bright rockslides. If you’re up to a longer hike, however, skip Eb and Zeb. Instead turn left at the junction and descend 0.7 mile to Lake Como, a deeper, bigger, blue-green pool with better swimming and lots of small, jumping fish. But don’t turn back yet. If you continue another 1.2 miles you’ll climb to a rocky pass with a terrific view and descend to Lake Harriette—the largest, deepest, and prettiest lake of all.

This chapter taken from the book 100 Hikes in Southern Oregon.