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Autumn on the byway

It’s no wonder people flock to the Bend area during summer. Besides its extensive network of well stocked fishing lakes, miles of biking and hiking trails, and rock-climbing walls, this part of Central Oregon boasts no fewer than five Oregon scenic byways, ranging in ecology from high-desert badlands to grasslands to mountain lakes. Yet many of those activities are just as available in the autumn, my favorite season, when the light is more interesting for pictures and the crowds are gone.

Last fall, my wife and I drove the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, which begins and ends in Sisters. This fall, we decided to take the shorter Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, a 66-mile route from Bend to Sunriver, encompassing more than nine high-elevation lakes.

Although not as varied in its autumn colors as the lower canyon of the McKenzie Pass byway, this route taken on an October weekday when tourism had thinned to a trickle was an unhurried excursion in mild temperatures under a cloudless sky with light breezes.

The route’s only failing is that the roads you follow are not that well marked, although a good map will keep you on track. Two-thirds of the loop is on Highway 46, but I never saw that number on a sign. Instead I followed the scenic byway markers, which were frequent and easily seen.

From Bend, the loop follows the routes of old wagon roads and Indian trails, and traverses forested slopes explored by Nathaniel Wyeth, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, among others. Although many of the lakes require turnoffs, most are no more than a mile from the highway, with campgrounds and short trails nearby.

The first major attraction is the Mount Bachelor Ski Area, whose dark, 9,065-foot visage rises to the left within the first 20 miles. In the summer it’s possible to ride to the top on a chairlift for panoramic picture-taking, a meal at the lodge, a hike on one of the summit trails or even a round of disc golf, but not at this time of year, our one disappointment on the tour.

In the next three miles, the highway enters a pumice field where 9,175-foot Broken Top can be seen on the right, while on the left a mile or two down the road, Sparks Lake appears, shining in the distance until a long curve takes you to a turnout just above the northern shoreline where a short path leads down to a narrow beach. The lake covers 250 acres in a normal year, but is depleted this year because of drought. Even in wet years, it is gradually turning into a marsh because it has no outlet. Nearby, off Sparks Road, the popular Green Lakes Trailhead leads into the 200,000-acre Three Sisters Wilderness, giving access to 111 more lakes, a haven for serious hikers and backpackers.

West of the trailhead is Devils Hill and Garden, with its odd combination of modern and ancient uses. Astronauts have trained on its lava fields not far from pictographs of prehistoric people who inhabited the region 8,000 years ago.

Just beyond Sparks Lake is smaller Devils Lake, an emerald gem with a shoreline of marsh grass fringed by lodgepole pines.

The most inspiring place to take a breather and eat lunch is 390-acre Elk Lake, which comes soon after the road turns south. The South Sister, at 10,358 feet, dominates the skyline, with Mount Bachelor to the right. The lake, surrounded by lodgepole pines, firs and hemlocks, is a favorite spot for canoeists, hikers and anglers during the summer. There is a resort there with cabins on a peninsula offering stunning views, but it was closed the day we went. However, the picnic area on the west side of the lake remained open, offering its own magnificent vistas to entice day visitors as gray jays came by for a handout and woodpeckers hammered on tree trunks in the woods.

A mile south of Elk Lake is Hosmer Lake, a fly-fishing mecca with a 3.5-mile trail connecting it to Elk Lake. After passing Lava Lake next, with its own resort, and Little Lava Lake, boasting the headwaters of the Deschutes River, the loop begins to descend through mature groves of Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine.

After 11 miles through the mixed coniferous forest, you can take an interesting two-mile side road to a secluded, wooded cove at Cultus Lake, separated by a cliff from nearby Little Cultus Lake.

Once back on the main road, you soon approach another of the tour’s highlights, Crane Prairie Reservoir, where a 440-yard trail goes to Osprey Point, a hangout for migratory ospreys and Canada geese. Eagles, blue herons and sandhill cranes also frequent the lake, but none were in evidence the day we visited. However the short trail is worth hiking for its information panels about area wildlife and view of the lake. It also has a quirky “haiku board” of humorous poems. Even without its diving ospreys, this part of the lake, surrounded by woods and a long meadow, is a place to linger.

After Crane Prairie Reservoir, we turned east on Highway 42, which eventually veers north to Sunriver to connect with Highway 97 back to Bend. Technically, the byway is not a loop, but continues south to connect with Highway 58 west of Crescent, but turning at Highway 42 to make it a loop catches all of its main attractions and gets you back to Bend.

The best spot to conclude your visit and end your byway tour on a high note is the Sunriver Nature Center and Observatory on the community’s west end. The nonprofit center, open to the general public year-round, charges modest fees of $4 for adults, $3 for children ages 2-12, with free admission for those younger. Winter hours starting Nov. 4 are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Before then, they are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Inside the main building, are displays of local wildlife, including one about Lake Aspen, an artificial body of water created by the Sunriver development. There also is an exhibit of meteorites from across the world, which ties in with the nearby observatory that hosts stargazing events two nights a week and daytime viewings of the sun once a week at a cost of $8 for adults, $6 for children ages 2-12, with those younger getting in free.

Outside the nature center is a botanical garden, enclosures holding rescued raptors and an easy trail along the banks of Lake Aspen from which you can see waterfowl feeding in the water or resting on the grassy banks. The center conducts research on local flora and fauna and is a frequent destination for school field trips, Curtis said.

Jay Bowerman, son of legendary University of Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, is the center’s principal researcher. He said Sunriver is one of only two developments he knows of in the U.S. that have an associated nature center dedicated to education and preserving the environment where the community is located.

All these attractions can seem a lot to absorb in one day, especially if you choose to explore any of the trails near the many lakes you’ll visit, but you can always split the tour and do half one day, half the other, as my wife and I did with the McKenzie-Santiam loop last year.

Although the weather has cooled in the Cascades since mid-October, the Cascade byway remains open. For its scent of crisp mountain air, the views of calming lakes under an expansive sky and flashes of autumn color, this loop’s grandeur just might be enough to carry you through the winter. But don’t wait. The road beyond Mount Bachelor closes after the first snowstorms.

Steve Dieffenbacher is an author, retired Mail Tribune page designer and travel/nature columnist. He can be reached at dieffsr@gmail.com.

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A note on the haiku board along the 440-yard trail to Osprey Point at Crane Prairie Reservoir offers visitors amusement and grist for thought. Photo by Steve Dieffenbacher
Sun glitters off the water at Sparks Lake along the byway. Photo by Steve Dieffenbacher