Sparks Lake a great destination for fall hiking | Explore Central Oregon

Noble Horvath

Last Saturday, I awoke with a plan to clean, mow the lawn and generally “be productive” — that dubious phrase commonly heard in adulthood — necessary, but also a very bland way to start the weekend. Fortunately, my wife and daughter began discussing their plans for a hike. Cleanliness may […]

Last Saturday, I awoke with a plan to clean, mow the lawn and generally “be productive” — that dubious phrase commonly heard in adulthood — necessary, but also a very bland way to start the weekend. Fortunately, my wife and daughter began discussing their plans for a hike. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but life is short and winter is coming.

They’d decided to go to Sparks Lake, a spot so popular during the summer and tourist season, when it is chockablock with paddlers, tourists, photographers, etc., that in truth, I hadn’t bothered to go there in years. That policy goes back six or seven years, to the summer day I arrived at the boat ramp area to find a stomach-turning number of people and precious few places to park.

But this was the last Saturday in September, the rain a day or two earlier had abated, and my gut told me their plan to get an early start would be well rewarded. So I butted in on their plan. The lawn could wait, but the opportunity to visit Sparks Lake late in the season, when the water is low and so are the numbers of people, just couldn’t.

Nestled below Mount Bachelor, Broken Top and South Sister, Sparks Lake is located about 25 miles from Bend, and though the weather in town had improved considerably, we weren’t halfway there before we started to notice, and become concerned about, the low-hanging clouds eclipsing the views ahead. We soldiered on.

As we neared the turnoff from Cascade Lakes Highway to Ray Atkeson Memorial Trail, it was in the 30s, according to the car thermometer. I’d opted for jeans and a flannel, but my wise wife went better-prepared and even threw in an extra jacket for me.

Perhaps a little less wisely, but forgivable considering we hadn’t been to Sparks Lake in several years, we opted to take our Prius instead of our RAV sitting at home in the driveway. The unpaved road has some exposed rock, we were soon reminded, along with depressions and washboard sections. If you go, and you have the option, plan to take something that rides a little higher.

Less popular this time of year does not mean completely devoid of people altogether: When we reached the small parking area, we scored the last parking place in the small lot.

Setting off down the Ray Atkeson Memorial Trail, we came immediately to a sign presenting our options: the shorter 1-mile loop or the full loop, 2.3 miles. We opted to see how we were feeling when we reached the point of having to decide — if you go, it’s denoted by its trailside “shortcut” sign.

Sparks Lake falls clearly in the easy category, which means that by the time we had to decide whether to continue on or opt for the short cut, we weren’t the least bit tired.

The rain that had been falling in the forest prior left the air cool and the forest damp, giving things a decidedly autumnal feel, which made the stifling heat and smoke of mid-September seem a distant memory.

The air was remarkably fresh, and I stopped often just to take it in. If nothing else, 2020 will be the year to remind us of the importance of having fresh air to breathe.

Amid the stress of recent social and political stress, we’d all be well-served by remembering just to stop and take a deep breath now and then, if and when we can.

Often during our hike, I could hear the voices of other trail users also afoot. It’s easy to feel that ol’ societal pressure to keep moving, get out of the way, next customer, please.

But I urge you to let go of that illusion. Stop and look at where you are: a pristine forest on the shore of a shallow lake affording stunning views of Broken Top, Devils Garden (a lava flow) and South Sister. Take in the volcanic walls of Davis Canyon as you pass through, which you’ll reach no matter which path you take. The loop trails at Sparks Lake make for a mighty fine place to stop and breathe in the mountain air, bask in the stillness and observe the dew drops nestled on needles.

Sparks Lake was a favorite of landscape photographer Ray Atkeson (1907-90), for whom the trail is named. You’d do worse than to try and see what he saw — Atkeson was Oregon’s photographer laureate, after all.

Scenic and peaceful though the hike was, the path soon returned us to our car. Already I could hear the call of food cart pods and coffee shops beckoning us back to town.

Not gonna lie — civilization has its merits, too.

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