Nestled within the high Cascades of Oregon, just off Highway 126 and about a 75-mile drive from Eugene, lies a natural wonder that’s often heralded as one of the clearest lakes in the United States.
Clear Lake, spanning a considerable 142 acres and plunging to depths of 175 feet, isn’t just another beautiful spot on the map.
Its shimmering waters hold tales of volcanic fury, ancient forests, and the relentless march of time.
This mesmerizing combination not only sets Clear Lake apart from its counterparts but also places it high on the bucket list of every individual with a penchant for the outdoors.
Formation of Clear Lake
Approximately 3,000 years ago, the terrain where Clear Lake now rests was a vastly different world.
Dense forests flanked the roaring McKenzie River, and there wasn’t a hint of the lake that we see today.
That all changed with the eruption of Sand Mountain.
As lava spewed forth, scorching everything in its path, it hurtled towards the chilly waters of the McKenzie River.
Upon contact, the lava ceased its destructive journey, but its impact was profound.
The river, once free-flowing, found its course blocked, leading to the birth of Clear Lake.
What Makes Clear Lake Unique
The forests that once stood proud along the riverbanks were consumed by the rising waters, their trunks preserved for eternity in the icy embrace of the newly formed lake.
Today, those very trunks are a haunting and ethereal sight, standing still and silent below the water’s surface.
But the wonders of Clear Lake don’t end there.
The lake bed is blanketed in volcanic silt, so dense and pristine it resembles the white sands of a tropical beach.
For the adventurous, diving into these waters is akin to entering a submerged wonderland, where time stands still.
What Makes It So Clear
Clear Lake’s exceptional clarity, often compared to a pane of glass, owes its existence to the unique geological processes that shaped it.
Meltwater from the snow-capped peaks of surrounding mountains seeps through ancient lava fields, undergoing a natural filtration process that spans 7,000 years.
By the time this water finds its way to Clear Lake, it’s devoid of most impurities, bestowing the lake with its signature clarity.
Activities at Clear Lake
1. Boating, Kayaking, and Canoeing
When it comes to waterside activities, Clear Lake truly shines.
Picture yourself smoothly gliding atop serene, crystalline waters, with the surreal underwater landscapes visible below.
For those not bringing their own vessels, rowboats are available for rent at the Clear Lake Resort.
The lake’s size—142 acres and approximately 175 feet deep—is perfect for stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, or canoes.
Two boat ramps cater to visitors, but if you’re looking for a quieter launching spot, try the one at Cold Water Cove.
The lack of motorized boats ensures peaceful, undisturbed paddling, enhancing the chance to spot eagles, ospreys, and other wildlife.
Clear Lake offers an abundance of brook, cutthroat, and the annually stocked rainbow trout.
Those new to the sport or looking for local insights can pop into the general store at the resort.
Though the inviting clarity of Clear Lake might tempt many to plunge in, swimmers should note that the water temperature rarely rises above 40°F.
This frigid temperature makes swimming almost impossible unless you’re prepared with appropriate gear and a daring spirit.
4. Scuba Diving
Clear Lake’s unrivaled clarity has made it a premier diving destination.
Visitors can dive into its depths and experience an otherworldly realm, complete with 80-foot-tall sunken tree trunks and the mesmerizing sunken forest.
The visibility often extends over 100 feet, allowing divers to peer up from the underwater spring holes at the lake’s base.
Divers should either be certified or opt for a guided experience.
Gear is available for rent in Salem, Portland, and Bend.
Nature enthusiasts will be spoilt for choice here.
The 4.9-mile Clear Lake Loop Trail offers an easy, family-friendly trek winding through dense old-growth forest along the lake’s western edge.
Interpretive signs pepper the trail, shedding light on the area’s fascinating geology.
Those yearning for a more challenging adventure might opt for the McKenzie River Trail, a 24-mile stretch that showcases everything from lava fields to breathtaking waterfalls like Sahalie and Koosah Falls.
6. Camping and Lodging
For a genuine Clear Lake experience, consider camping at Cold Water Cove Campground, open from late May to mid-October.
This prime location offers stunning vistas of the turquoise lake against a backdrop of ancient lava fields.
Single and double campsites are available, all equipped with picnic tables and campfire rings.
But if rustic luxury is more your style, Clear Lake Resort’s scenic cabins provide a cozy retreat year-round.
Clear Lake vs. Crater Lake
Arguably the most significant similarity between the two is their unrivaled clarity.
Clear Lake, as its name suggests, boasts impressive underwater visibility, often exceeding 100 feet.
This crystalline beauty allows for the submerged sunken forest and ancient tree trunks to be easily visible, making it seem as though they’re suspended in time.
Crater Lake, on the other hand, is often deemed the clearest lake in the U.S. and possibly the world.
It’s not unusual for its blue depths to reveal objects 120 feet below, thanks to its isolated ecosystem and lack of pollutants.
The Secchi disk readings, a measure of water transparency, consistently reflect Crater Lake’s exceptional clarity, which sometimes surpasses even that of Clear Lake.
Both lakes offer a suite of outdoor activities, though they cater to slightly different crowds.
Clear Lake’s calm waters are a diver’s paradise, given its underwater wonders.
Paddling enthusiasts – be it on kayaks, canoes, or stand-up paddleboards – find it an ideal spot.
The lake also teases anglers with its abundance of trout.
Crater Lake, however, tends to draw more sightseers due to its sheer grandeur.
Boating is limited to tours, ensuring its pristine environment remains untouched.
Diving, kayaking, and paddleboarding are completely prohibited at Crater Lake.
Hiking and snowshoeing around its rim, though, offer unparalleled vistas and are popular pursuits.
In terms of amenities, Clear Lake offers both outdoor and rustic accommodations.
The Coldwater Cove Campground provides a genuine lakeside camping experience, while Clear Lake Resort offers cozier cabin stays.
There’s also a general store, boat ramp, and seasonal restaurant to cater to visitors.
Crater Lake, being a National Park, offers more structured amenities.
There’s the historic Crater Lake Lodge and The Cabins at Mazama Village for those looking for comfort.
Several campgrounds, visitor centers, and gift shops pepper the park, ensuring guests have all they need for a memorable stay.
4. Overall Experience
While both lakes promise an unforgettable experience, they deliver it differently.
Clear Lake is an intimate encounter with nature, where visitors can closely interact with the underwater and forested world, either by diving or hiking.
Crater Lake, conversely, is an overwhelming spectacle.
Its vast blue expanse, set against a backdrop of cliffs and the remnants of Mount Mazama, creates a profound sense of awe.
The lake’s sheer size and depth, combined with its unique volcanic history, make it an iconic destination.
Clear Lake is the star, but its surroundings are a stellar supporting cast.
A trip to Clear Lake isn’t just about the lake; it’s about experiencing Central Oregon in all its multifaceted glory.
1. Blue Pool at Tamolitch Falls
For the adventurous, a plunge into Blue Pool promises an invigorating experience; yet even on the warmest of days, it’s a dive that’ll take your breath away — both from its cold embrace and its sheer beauty.
Fed by the springs, the water clarity here can rival that of Clear Lake.
2. Head of the Metolius Observation Site
En route to Camp Sherman, this site is where the Metolius River makes its surprising appearance.
Emerging from the depths of Black Butte, the river seeps through porous rocks, creating a picturesque headwater scene.
3. Camp Sherman
The 100-year-old Camp Sherman Store, sitting by the Metolius River, takes you back in time.
With a deli dishing out fresh sandwiches, breakfast burritos, and more, it’s the perfect pit stop.
And for the angling enthusiasts, the Metolius River Outfitters fly shop inside the store is a treasure trove of gear and expertise.
4. McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway
With views of Cascade peaks, lava fields, and iconic spots like the Dee Wright Observatory, this 82-mile circular route is a journey as rewarding as the destination.
A blend of nature and culture, Sisters, located just 20 miles southeast of Camp Sherman, is a hub of arts, festivals, and outdoorsy charm.
Whether you’re looking to bike through its compact downtown, attend the renowned Sisters Rodeo, or simply explore its boutiques and galleries, Sisters won’t disappoint.
6. Black Butte Ranch
This tranquil ranch on the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway is an adventure hub.
From golfing on its renowned courses to canoeing on Phalarope Lake, it promises a day of wholesome fun.
7. Belknap Springs
A dip in the hot springs here, followed by a meal at its restaurant, can rejuvenate even the weariest of travelers.
With its exceptional clarity and off-the-beaten-path allure, Clear Lake deserves a prime spot on every nature lover’s bucket list.
For those looking to reconnect with nature and avoid crowds at National Parks, it’s a must-visit spot.