A sunken forest existing beneath the waters of an impossibly crystal clear lake may seem like something out of a fairy tale—or perhaps leftover remnants from the lost civilization of Atlantis. However, the natural world is filled with strange and oddly beautiful things, that, upon first glance, may seem fantastical, but are in fact a result of good old-fashioned volcanic activity.
Such is the case with arguably one of the most beautiful lakes in the U.S. Appropriately named Clear Lake, this Oregon wonder tucked away in the Willamette National Forest is full of both hidden (and not so hidden) wonders.
The History Of Clear Lake
Clear Lake was formed approximately 3,000 years ago when nearby Sand Mountain erupted, causing lava to flow into what was then the McKenzie River. After burning its way through the forest, the lava then hit a pitfall in the form of the McKenzie River, whose cold water stopped it in its tracks. The result? Much of the surrounding forest that lined the banks of the McKenzie was submerged underwater, and behind the backed-up lava wall, a natural dam formed, filled in, and eventually became Clear Lake.
Today, evidence of the eruption still remains in the form of volcanic silt that carpets the surrounding grounds, and many tree trunks that were perfectly preserved under the icy cold lake. The wooden remains of past shipwrecks dotted throughout the area (some over 100 years old), and the lake’s gorgeous clarity and aquamarine color only enhance the overall enchanting and magical atmosphere that surrounds Clear Lake—both above and below the cold, clear waters that owe their clarity to ice and snow run-off from the surrounding mountains.
About Clear Lake
Anyone visiting Oregon’s Cascade Mountains will want to visit Clear Lake and its cold, crystal waters tucked away in the Willamette National Forest—whether it's for the area’s outstanding recreational opportunities or just to grab some stellar pics of this uniquely wonderful lake.
- Getting There: Clear Lake is located less than 100 miles northeast of Eugene, Oregon, and less than two hours from the state capital, Salem. The nearest town is McKenzie Bridge—Clear Lake is just a short 18 miles away via Highway 126
- The Details: The lake lies at an elevation of just over 3,000-feet and is about 150 acres in size, with a median depth of 50-feet (about 175-feet deep at its deepest). The water is extremely chilly and usually hovers around 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit; visibility underwater is up to 200-feet
- Camping And Accommodations: Cold Water Cove Campground (open late May through mid-October) and Clear Lake Resort (open all-year-round)
- Best Time To Go: The best time to visit Clear Lake is during the summer and fall, after the snow melts; in late spring and early summer the forest is carpeted in an abundance of colorful wildflowers, while in October the fall foliage is richly-hued and stunning
- Historical Fun Fact: Clear Lake was discovered in 1859 by an exploratory party searching for a way over the Cascade Mountains. By following a well-used Indian Trail, the group eventually discovered the fantastically frigid lake
Things To Do: In And Around Clear Lake
Clear Lake is widely known as one of the best spots for freshwater diving in the U.S., but taking a cool dip in the lake’s icy waters isn’t the only reason to visit—there are a number of recreational opportunities in the surrounding area that make the pristine lake just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to outdoor adventure.
In The Water
The lake’s chilly waters are not ideal for swimming, but there are plenty of other aquatic opportunities to keep visitors busy.
- Brave the temps and take a dive—it’s way worth it and the absolute best way to scope all of Clear Lake’s underwater wonders. Rent some gear or take a guided tour—either way, underwater adventurers will definitely dig the water world beneath the surface. Note: Prospective divers should be sure to get their gear before heading to the lake, as there is nowhere to rent equipment nearby—cities like Bend and Salem offer many opportunities for both scuba gear rentals and tours
- Motorized watercraft are not permitted on Clear Lake, making it the ideal spot for other water sports like canoeing, kayaking, boating, or stand-up paddle-boating. Rowboat rentals are available at Clear Lake Resort
- Clear Lake is also known for its outstanding fishing—especially of the trout variety. Fish-cleaning station is available May through September at the Coldwater Cove Campground
Above The Water
Though the lake’s crystal clear waters are the main attraction, there are plenty of activities on dry land that make the surrounding area a fun place to visit for outdoor enthusiasts and would-be explorers who want to soak up the distinctive scenery amid the area shaped by a long-ago volcanic eruption.
- Head out on the famed McKenzie River National Recreation Trail which is great for both biking and hiking—and known for some of the most beautiful scenery (including lava fields!) that surround Clear Lake. The entirety of the MacKenzie River Trail is 25-miles and there are several access points that make it easy to get on and off the trail
- Want to learn more about Clear Lake and its distinctive geology, history, and surroundings? Then take a hike on the Clear Lake Loop Trail, a 4.6-mile family and pet-friendly trail that winds its way through the old-growth forest
- Take a drive and explore—there are plenty of scenic spots along the McKenzie River where travelers can find additional hiking trails, hot springs, and fun stops like the Head of the Metolius Observation Site and Camp Sherman, home to the historic, century-old, Camp Sherman Store
- Camp out at Coldwater Cove Campground and enjoy the views of Clear Lake and the lava fields—on clear days, campers may even catch a glimpse of Mount Washington or the Three Sisters
Located in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and nestled within the confines of the Willamette National Forest, Clear Lake is rightfully known as one of the most beautiful lakes in America. In addition to its vibrant blue-green hue and crystalline appearance, Clear Lake is also home to a myriad of wonders both above and below the surface—a true adventure nestled among volcanic terrain that also hosts a treasure trove of recreational opportunities perfect for any outdoor enthusiast and visitor to central Oregon.