Oregon

Old Santiam Wagon Road

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There is so much to explore and discover along the Old Santiam Wagon Road right at Santiam Pass. Roads that go from soft and pleasant to seriously challenging, numerous tiny lakes, and cinder cone buttes yielding stunning panoramas of Central Oregon Cascade peaks. You'll need a capable 4WD/AWD high clearance vehicle, and a willingness to have its sides raked by the stiff bushes which closely line some of the most intriguing trails. As the elevation is quite high, this area is inaccessible in winter, and even during my visit in late May, there were tricky spots of deep snow and mud, and some spur roads still entirely impassible due to snow.

This area runs right along the feet of Mt. Washington, which dominates the scenery and casts its reflection in the many lakes scattered around. Three Sisters also makes some pretty glorious appearances. Other Cascade peaks come into view at times as well, depending on the orientation of the road or how high you are. Almost universally, getting to the top of one of the hills that these roads wrap around will unleash unbelievable vistas.

A massive, devastating wildfire ripped through this area many years ago, and most of the terrain is spiked with the skeletons of dead trees. Lacking the tall forest canopy, the mountains and overall topography is much more visible than in other areas of the Cascades, but be aware that dead trees are much more prone to falling over - be prepared for the possibility of downed trees on lesser traveled trails.

This is far from a wasteland however. Colorful undergrowth blankets the landscape, which is also now dotted with the green of young pines making a comeback.

I found many lovely spots for dispersed camping. Most of the little lakes here and there have at least a site or two right on their shores. I had hoped to camp next to one of the lakes on this trip. It was midweek, the area was deserted, and I could pick any spot I wanted, but the mosquitoes were positively relentless, so I retreated to higher ground away from the waters. I believe the mosquitoes become more tolerable in August when the standing water from snowmelt has dried up. I would still be prepared with multiple repellent options if you plan to camp by a lake.

Cache Mountain is the tallest butte in this immediate area. There is a road to the top but it looked quite rough, very overgrown, and generally more than I cared to tackle in the diminishing daylight when I needed to set up camp for the night. I ended up on the flanks of a smaller butte just south of Cache Mountain, which, as you can see by the pics, provided a pretty darn nice spot to hang out. No mosquitoes here at all. At dawn, I drove up the steep, sandy trail to the top of my little butte and was rewarded with a spectacular 360° panorama that included Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Cache Mountain, Black Butte, Three Sisters, and of course Mt. Washington. 

On my late May trip, it got quite cool at night but not unpleasantly so...I was quite comfortable in a sleeping bag + blanket in the back of my car and it wasn't bitingly cold in the morning. In fact, I broke a sweat hiking around the top of my butte taking photos at sunrise just wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a wool sweater. At this elevation though the temperatures can really drop at night so I would always pack extra layers if you're sleeping over.

There are two good ways to get down into this area. To get right onto the Old Santiam Wagon Road, take the Hoodoo Ski Bowl access road south off of Highway 20 right at the pass. There is a nice paved road all the way to Big Lake, where you'll veer left and proceed east on the wagon road. Again, this road is closed in winter...it's only plowed as far as the snowmobile staging area near Hoodoo.

If you want to explore the little cluster of lakes (Link Lake, Dollar Nine Lake, Hand Lake, Bone Lake, Cache Lake, etc) the best access is via NF 2076 off of Hwy 20 just a little further east. You get to 2076 by pulling into the Mt. Washington Overlook / Fire Interpretive Kiosk. At the far (west) end of the parking lot, you'll see a dirt road winding off into the trees...that's it. The side roads to the little lakes aren't marked so just start exploring this way and that and you'll make your discoveries. If you wind east-ish past Hand Lake then Cache Lake, the road splits. Veering right will wrap you around the east side of Cache Mountain until you get to trails heading up the south faces of these buttes. There are a few different ways to hook up to the Old Santiam Wagon Road from there.

(Again, note, this area is completely snowed in and inaccessible before May)