“You’re kidding me!” Lydia cried in exasperation. “We’ve ridden all the way to Horse Lake only to find there’s no way to get to the water?”
“You just have to know how to do it,” I replied. “There are a couple of ways to get to the lake, but they’re not obvious.”
Horse Lake is a pretty, mid-size lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness about four miles northwest of Elk Lake. The loop trail to the lake is a real delight, traveling at first through open east-side forest of hemlocks and lodgepoles. Then it crosses the crest the Cascades and the forest gets denser, with huckleberries and other brush in the understory. The change in the forest is gradual, but noticeable.
In addition to visiting Horse Lake, this loop trail takes you past Sunset Lake and several small, unnamed lakes, and through Island Meadow, an island of grass in a sea of conifers. You’ll also travel briefly through the area burned by the Elk Lake Fire, with its stark, dead tree trunks, thriving young lodgepole pines, and views of South Sister, Broken Top, Mt. Bachelor, and Elk Lake.
Ironically, though, the Horse Lake Loop doesn’t actually take you to the lake. From the trail, you can’t even tell there’s a lake nearby. To actually get to the lake you have to detour onto either the Horse Creek Trail, which runs along the east side of the lake, or the Park Trail, which runs along the west side. If you follow these trails, keep a sharp eye out and after awhile you’ll spot the unsigned fishermen’s paths that can take you to the lake shore.
To get to Horse Lake you can start at either the Elk Lake Trailhead or Quinn Meadow Horse Camp.
From Elk Lake Trailhead, pick up the trail on the west side of the parking area. Almost immediately the Island Meadow Trail #3 goes off to the left. This is your return route, so for now continue straight. In 0.3 mile, the Elk-Devils Trail #12 to Quinn Meadow goes off to the right. Stay left, and in another 1.2 miles the trail crosses the PCT and the trail number changes because you’ve entered the Willamette National Forest. Continue straight for another 2.0 miles, at which point you’ll turn left on the Red Hill Trail #3515. In another 0.2 mile you’ll be as close to the lake as the loop trail will take you, but you won’t have a lake view. Detour to the right on the Horse Creek Trail #3514. Follow it 0.5 mile and turn left on an unsigned trail that will take you to the shore of Horse Lake.
After enjoying the view, return to the Red Hill Trail #3515 and turn right. A second possible detour to view the lake is in 0.2 mile, where you’ll veer to the right on the Park Trail #3530. Shortly after this junction the trail passes a large meadow (a good lunch spot). Just past the meadow, turn right on an unsigned spur trail that will again take you to the shore of Horse Lake. After that, retrace your steps to the junction of Trails #3530 and #3515. Continue around the loop by turning right on Trail #3515, and in 0.2 mile turning left on the Sunset Lake Trail #3515.1. After 1.4 miles you’ll reach Island Meadow. Turn left at the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail #2000 and follow it 1.4 miles, then veer right on the Island Meadow Trail #3 to return to the Elk Lake trailhead.
From Quinn Meadow Horse Camp, pick up the Quinn Creek Trail #1 near campsite 1, ride 0.9 mile (crossing under the highway) and turn left on the Elk-Devils Trail #12. Continue 1.5 miles to reach the junction with the Horse Lake Trail #2. Turn right and follow the directions above.
Ride Statistics: It’s 9 miles round trip from the Elk Lake Trailhead, or 15 miles round trip from Quinn Meadow Horse Camp. Elevations range from 4,950 to 5,300 feet. The ride is moderate difficulty. Hoof protection is recommended.
Getting to Quinn Meadow Horse Camp: From Hwy. 97 in Bend, take Exit 138 (Colorado Avenue) and head west. Follow the signs toward Mt. Bachelor, which will put you on Hwy. 46 (Century Drive/Cascade Lakes Hwy.) Continue for 30 miles and turn left into the horse camp.
Getting to Elk Lake Trailhead: Follow the directions above to Quinn Meadow Horse Camp, but instead of turning into the horse camp, continue on Hwy. 46 for 2.5 miles and turn right into the trailhead, directly across the road from the entrance to Elk Lake Lodge.
Permits: A Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking at Elk Lake Trailhead, and there is a camping fee for Quinn Meadow Horse Camp. Day-use parking is not permitted at Quinn Meadow.
Season: Summer through fall
Facilities: Toilet and parking for several trailers at Elk Lake Trailhead. Camping facilities, including potable water, toilets, and manure bins at Quinn Meadow Horse Camp. Stock water is available on the trail.
More Information: The Horse Lake Loop is covered in the North Cascade Lakes chapter of Riding Central Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, (Ponderosa Press, 2012).