There’s a certain softness to the backcountry plateau of the Olallie Lake Scenic Area, as slanted rays of sunlight cut through a hemlock forest speckled with huckleberry bushes and blue lakes that appear around every corner.
The scenery is not overly dramatic in the Olallie — forested ridges and buttes seem to roll across the landscape rather than rising in sheer cliffs or spires. Even when Mount Jefferson comes into view, hovering in the hazy distance, the backcountry remains a place more subtle than spectacular, more peaceful than phenomenal.
Over the years I’ve explored this land of a few hundred lakes and ponds, which is northeast of Detroit and borders the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
The area is well-known for its namesake — Olallie Lake — but I’ve always appreciated a network of trails that weave through a quiet and underrated backcountry in Mount Hood National Forest.
Because of its small size and glacier-flattened plateau, the backcountry makes an excellent spot for a one-night backpacking loop or a longer out-and-back day hike. Many trails are easy to moderate, which makes it a good place for children.
It’s a place ideal for travel in late August and September, as cool nights eliminate the swarms of mosquitoes that make life difficult in June and July. Huckleberry picking tends to peak in mid-August.
The biggest question anybody headed here will consider is which side of the plateau to begin from. A shorter drive but longer hike can be had near Detroit via Red Lake Trailhead, while a longer drive and shorter hike begins from closer to Olallie Lake.
An “Adventure Map” of the Detroit Lake and Mount Jefferson area is highly recommended for navigating the Olallie. The maps can usually be purchased at Salem Summit Company.
Maps: New Adventure Map showcases Opal Creek, Mount Jefferson trails in unique detail
Red Lake Trailhead
Gay Urness looks up at Wall Lake in the Olallie Lake Scenic Area backcountry. (Photo: Zach Urness / Statesman Journal)
The Red Lake Trail on the Detroit Lake side is the main route through the Olallie, running past six of its most beautiful lakes and providing access to a number of different trails that branch off in different directions.
Although Red Lake Trail provides the easiest access from Salem, it’s also slightly tougher, requiring a steep and rocky climb of 1.5 miles and 900 feet to reach the main plateau.
The climb really isn’t a detriment considering it passes some massive stands of old-growth trees, and before you know it, the beautiful and shimmering Red Lake comes into view down a short spur on the right.
Rafting: North Santiam River float brings whitewater action, but still mostly family-friendly
Once you’re upon the plateau, the lakes seem to show up around every corner. Averill Lake, home to the best campsites, comes into view at the 2-mile mark while Wall Lake (2.7-mile mark) and Sheep Lake (3.0) arrive soon after.
Just beyond Sheep Lake is a junction with a trail that leads up the aptly named Potato Butte. The trail is steep and climbs 500 feet in 0.7 miles to viewpoints that look into the face of Mount Jefferson.
Old-growth forest highlights the Olallie Lake Scenic Area. (Photo: Zach Urness / Statesman Journal)
From the junction with Potato Butte, the Red Lake Trail runs another 3 miles or so before ending at Olallie Lake. An out-and-back day hike to Potato Butte is 7.3 miles with 1,700 feet of elevation gain.
Pacific Crest Trailhead via Olallie Lake
Olallie Lake is among the most beautiful destinations in the Cascade Mountains, with the snowy spike of Mount Jefferson rising above the deep blue water and a popular resort with cabins, rowboat rentals and fishing access.
Most people come here to fish for the day or enjoy the resort, but there’s also access to the backcountry. The only problem in starting from Olallie Lake is the drive, which requires around two and a half hours from Salem and finishes with a stretch on gritty gravel roads.
The trail begins at a large parking lot with a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail and after just a few hundred yards, reaches Head Lake, a great place for swimming. The trail climbs slowly and easily for 1 mile to spectacular views of Olallie Lake and Mount Jefferson and in 2 miles hits one of the area’s most interesting bodies of water, Cigar Lake.
Long, slender and rocky, Cigar Lake is shallow and shaped like a barbell. It’s home to nice campsites and from the shoreline, you can climb a steep trail to the summit of Twins Peaks, a butte with excellent views of Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson.
From here, numerous lakes are at hand. Glorious Gifford Lake shimmers bright blue while Lower Lake is deep and peaceful with Olallie Butte rising overhead.
With a good map and hiking shoes, the lakes are your oyster in this mellow Olallie.
There are plenty of other places to access the Olallie backcountry, such as Lower Lake Campground and Trailhead. With a map and a few days, there are lakes, forests and mountain views within reach.
In a nutshell: The backcountry trails of the Olallie Lake Scenic Area are on a high mountain plateau, which is home to hundreds of lakes and generally easy hiking trails
Location: Cascade Mountains
Closest town: Northeast of Detroit
Forest designation: Mount Hood National Forest
Good for kids: Yes
Information: Detroit Ranger District, (503) 854-3366; Clackamas Ranger District (503) 630-6861
Restrictions: Campfires are not allowed anywhere in the Mount Hood National Forest, including the Olallie area this summer of 2
Red Lake Trailhead: About an hour-and-40-minute drive from Salem. From Salem, follow Highway 22 east for 50 miles into the town of Detroit. Turn left on Breitenbush Road/Highway 46 for 18 miles and watch for signs pointing out Red Lake Trail on the right. Turn right at the pointer, Road 380, for just less than 1 mile. Watch for the trailhead sign on the left and park at a pullout on the right. (GPS coordinates: N44 49.278 W121 52.387)
Olallie Lake/Pacific Crest Trail trailhead: About two hours and 30 minutes from Salem. From Salem, follow Highway 22 east for 50 miles into the town of Detroit. Turn left on Breitenbush Road/Highway 46, following signs for Olallie Lake, for roughly 23 miles. Turn right, following signs for Olallie Lake, for Road 4690 and continue onto Road 4220 (again, following signs for Olallie Lake). The final stretch requires about 13 miles of single-lane paved roads and gritty gravel roads and can take up to an hour. When you arrive at Olallie Lake, veer right at yellow buildings. Almost immediately thereafter, turn right into a large parking area of the Pacific Crest Trail. Begin the trail by hiking left. (GPS coordinates: N44 48.669 W121 47.703)
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
Read or Share this story: https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/travel/outdoors/2020/08/26/hiking-guide-oregon-olallie-backcountry-alpine-lakes-huckleberry-forest-mount-jefferson/5627621002/