Late summer in Central Oregon is when most of the snow is off the trails and the high country is wide open. I try to plan for August or September those upper-elevation rides that are not possible at other times of the year because of snow.
The Several Lakes Loop is one I have taken note of on my map over the past few years but have never tried — probably because more than half the route is along a doubletrack dirt road.
But lately I have shed my singletrack snobbery (mountain bikers are spoiled in Central Oregon) and have taken to forest roads that can lead me to places I have yet to see.
This time the sights to see were multiple pristine mountain lakes that rest at the crest of the Cascade Range at about 5,500 feet in elevation southwest of Bend.
The Several Lakes Loop, starting and finishing at Little Cultus Lake, takes riders by Taylor, Irish, Waldo, Charlton and Lemish lakes.
Haven't heard of some of these lakes? That's because most of them are small, backcountry water bodies generally seen only by those who make a point of visiting them. Drivers do not typically spend miles on dirty, rocky, car-wrecking roads to get to tiny mountain lakes.
Better to ride a bike to them.
On a Wednesday, I drove an hour to Little Cultus Lake to start the 22-mile loop. The road was sandy in many places, and finding the sweet spot with the best traction for my bike tires was crucial — usually that was located along tire tracks from cars or trucks.
The road climbed steadily to Lemish Lake. There, bikers can connect to a singletrack trail that will take them southwest to Charlton Lake. But I stayed on the doubletrack (Forest Road 4636), and after a few miles I spotted Taylor Lake on my left.
The clear, green-blue lake sat totally undisturbed in the high alpine forest. When I stopped, I could hear nothing but the wind and distant birds perched somewhere amid the lodgepole pine trees.
I continued on my way, passing Irish Lake on my right and eventually crossing the Pacific Crest Trail, which is restricted to hikers and horseback riders.
After a long, 6-mile climb, Road 514 finally began to descend into a forest burned by a 1996 wildfire. The black, limbless trees made for an otherworldly scene as I descended the road toward Waldo Lake, one of the biggest lakes in Oregon and one of the purest in the world, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Two years ago I rode the 20-mile singletrack loop around Waldo Lake and recalled it being one of my favorite rides. I elected to ride a couple miles of the trail along the north end of Waldo on this outing before finding my way back toward Little Cultus.
After soaking in the pure blues of Waldo, I checked my map to navigate to Charlton Lake. A combination of the paved Road 5898 and the dirt Road 5897 brought me to Charlton, where I connected to the singletrack that would take me back to Lemish and Little Cultus.
The trail was somewhat technical and mostly downhill, littered with roots and rocks that made for a bumpy descent back to Road 4636. Deep in the thick forest, I saw no other bikers or hikers. In fact, except for campers at Waldo Lake, I really saw no one throughout most of the ride.
The entire route gave me that sometimes spooky, all-alone-in-the-woods feeling. Consulting the map was crucial, and locating each trail connection always provided a bit of relief — not that I ever felt lost, but when you see nobody for miles and miles, a rider begins to wonder.
From Lemish Lake I turned back onto Road 4636 and rode fast downhill back to my car. The loop took me about four hours to complete, while enjoying the solitude of a remote high alpine forest dotted with hidden mountain lakes.
Mark Morical is outdoors writer for The (Bend) Bulletin.