Clear Lake Is Almost Otherworldly in Its Beauty

Clear Lake is a geological wonder — and boasts the most incredible colors, more akin to those in the Caribbean than the mountains of Oregon. . (Photo: Starre Vartan )

Clear Lake in Oregon isn't crowded on a warm summer weekend, which is surprising for someone from the other side of the country who is used to making her way through gobs of people at even the most banal lakefront.

Maybe it's because there are so many beautiful places in Oregon and not that many people. It seems whenever my partner and I head out on an adventure, we end up some place jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and usually there are only a few other folks sharing it with us, or even none at all.

Clear Lake is just such a place. And it isn't just almost unbelievably lovely — it's incredibly interesting too.

The blue-green, clear headwaters of the McKenzie River.
It's always amazing to trek to the headwaters of a great river and see how small they are!. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

The lake serves as the headwaters to the mighty McKenzie River, which is the centerpiece of the McKenzie River Trail, not only considered by many to be the finest mountain biking trail in the world, but also tops for hiking and trail running; you'll enjoy plenty of waterfalls, deep green forests and wildlife galore along its miles of paths that run on both sides of the river and in several places, across it. The McKenzie eventually joins the mighty Willamette River, which has, over geological time, created the Willamette Valley, home to 2/3 of Oregon's population and the cities of Salem and Portland where the river joins the Columbia and flows out to sea. And it all starts in the image above, where two creeks feed into Clear Lake.

The lava and the forest sides of Clear Lake.
The two sides of Clear Lake show the volcanic history of the area. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

Clear Lake is called a "lake born of fire" because it wouldn't exist if not for a massive lava flow. Three thousand years ago, lava from Sand Mountain reached what was a river in this spot and it formed a natural dam. The river backed up behind the flow and the lake was formed. When hiking the trail that circles the lake — about five miles total — you pass through several different ecosystems, from the temperate forest on one side of the lake, to sun-baked lava on the other. My partner, Simon, pictured above, said that this spot on the shore of Clear Lake reminded him of the state of Oregon as a whole — deep green and forested on one side of the state, dry and sun-drenched on the other (Eastern) side.

A bright pink succulent plant sprouts up in front of Clear Lake, Oregon.
Wild-growing succulents in a sunset-variety of colors. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

Of course, many types of plants and trees can grow well on lava, including tiny succulents that I had only previously seen in garden centers — this was my first experience seeing them growing wild. While some of the lava-flow areas were still fairly barren, others had, over time, collected enough soil to foster plant growth, which created a pretty contrast with the rocks.

The shade of a giant tree is especially welcome when hiking over lava in the sunshine.
The shade of a giant tree is especially welcome when hiking over lava in the sunshine. (Photo: Simon Apter)

And of course there are plenty of giant trees, even some at the lake's edge, like this cedar, which is probably several hundred years old. When out in the lava-rock areas, these spots with trees were like oases along the trail.

Starre Vartan swimming in Clear Lake.
A mite bit chilly for swimming, it's not recommended in Clear Lake. (Photo: Simon Apter)

As it says on the USDA forest service page for Clear Lake: "The nearly freezing temperature of the lake makes it unsuitable for swimming." I hadn't read this before we headed out for our hike, and by the middle of our trek I was dying to cool off in the pretty aquamarine waters. It took me awhile before I finally got my whole self into the depths. It felt quite cold, but it was a lake in the middle of summer. I thought, "How cold could it be?" I figured my slow entry was due to the fact that I was getting older, and I actually felt upset that I was all of a sudden so sensitive to cold water. After all, I've been swimming since I was a baby and pride myself on swimming anytime, anywhere. Later o,n the forest ranger told me the water was a pretty steady 38 degrees; I stopped feeling old after that. I found out the lake naturally fluctuates between 31 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

A natural inlet of Clear Lake.
A natural inlet of Clear Lake was quite a lovely surprise. The color was even more intense than what you see here; it practically glowed. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

As we wound around the lake's loop trail, we found one of the lake's natural inlets in the woods. Due to the clarity of the water, we could see all the detail that's normally obscured in a non-clear lake including downed trees, swimming fish, and that incredible color above. In some areas of the lake (from shore, but more easily if you're in a boat), you can even see ancient trees that still stand on the lake's floor. They are remnants, frozen in time by the cold lake water, of the original flooding event 3,000 years ago.

Another example of the beautiful clarity of Clear Lake's water.
You can see up to 150 feet through the water in Clear Lake. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

So, why is Clear Lake so clear? It's not entirely known why, but it's probably a combination of things. The first is that the water that flows into the lake filters through volcanic rock for many miles, as evidenced by the headwaters photo at the top of the post. So the water going into the lake is stripped of all the natural plant material that causes a more typical murkiness to the water. This filtration, along with the lake being surrounded by volcanic rock, keeps additional inputs out of the water, making it ultraoligotrophic — there aren't many nutrients to support life in the water, which in turn keeps it clear. The lake is not "dead" by any means though. Native cutthroat trout live in the lake and it's also stocked with rainbow and brook trout for those who come to the lake to fish.

A close-up of a western Steller Jay.
This Steller's jay's blue color is quite bright and very distinct against its native habitat of hemlocks and cedars. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

Several native Steller's jay were active near the blue hole area. They were the perfect complement to the water nearby. They behave much like the common blue jays do on the East Coast, and are about the same size.

Succulents grow on lava in front of Clear Lake.
Succulents grow on lava in front of Clear Lake. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

It's not just views of the lake's water that is beautiful, or the native plants, but the landscape of the surrounding area as well.

If you want to put Clear Lake on your list of beautiful American places to see, you can find more information about its location and amenities here. There are picnicking spots, as well as boat rental if you want to check out the submerged trees, and there are cabins for rent and a small restaurant if you'd like to spend more than just the day.

Snow-capped mountains in the background, and Clear Lake's boat-rental and restaurant cabin in the foreground.
Snow-capped mountains in the background, and Clear Lake's boat rental and restaurant cabin in the foreground. (Photo: Starre Vartan)