“Oh, look! There’s a little frog in the water!” Lydia exclaimed. We were standing on the bank of Upper Erma Bell Lake, about to let our horses take a drink. And there, literally hanging out in shallow water not two feet from our horse’s heads, a small frog gazed lazily up at us.
We quietly backed our horses away from the lake and moved farther down the shore so we wouldn’t disturb our little amphibian friend.
This little frog hung out in Upper Erma Bell Lake while we watered our horses nearby.
Seeing the little frog was an unexpected bonus on our ride. But it was certainly not the most interesting thing on this fun loop trail. The Erma Bell Lakes Loop features six pretty lakes, a hidden waterfall, and lush meadows filled with wildflowers in season. What a terrific ride!
The horses enjoy lunch in a meadow on the Erma Bell Lakes Trail.
The ride starts at Skookum Creek Campground, a short trailer ride from Box Canyon Horse Camp in the high Cascades about 80 miles east of Eugene. Box Canyon Horse Camp is across the road from the historic Box Canyon Guard Station, which was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Box Canyon Horse Camp has nice log corrals, and stock water, too.
The horse camp is surrounded by the Three Sisters Wilderness to the east, the Waldo Lake Wilderness to the south, and the Chucksney Mountain Roadless Area to the west. The Erma Bell Lakes Loop lies within the Three Sisters Wilderness.
The Erma Bell Lakes Trail
Here are a couple of Fun Facts to impress your friends with: (1) The Erma Bell Lakes were named for Miss Erma Bell, an early-day Forest Service employee who died tragically in an automobile accident in 1918, and (2) Skookum (as in Skookum Creek Campground) is a Chinook jargon word for an evil god of the woods. Indians avoided Skookum places and considered them to be haunted.
To ride the loop, pick up the Erma Bell Lakes Trail #3563 at the entrance to Skookum Creek Campground (which as far as we could tell is not haunted) and follow it across the bridge over Skookum Creek. In 0.6 mile, veer left on the Irish Mountain Trail #3588. In 0.5 mile you’ll reach Otter Lake.
In another 0.3 mile, turn right on the Williams Lake Trail #3589 and 2.2 miles after that Williams Lake will come into view. About 0.6 mile past Williams Lake, turn right on the Erma Bell Lakes Trail #3563. Upper Erma Bell Lake is on the left in 0.4 mile, and 0.5 mile beyond you’ll find Middle Erma Bell Lake on the right. Continuing another 0.5 mile you’ll pass Lower Erma Bell Lake, and on the way you’ll hear the roaring of the falls as the creek that connects the lakes drops 200 feet in 0.1 mile. Continue on the Erma Bell Lake Trail #3563 to return to the trailhead.
Rhododendrons bloom beside the trail in late June.
Trail Statistics: The Erma Bell Lakes Loop is 8.5 miles round trip, with elevations of 4,550 to 5,100 feet. We give this trail a “Moderate” rating because it has several water crossings. The best maps are the Three Sisters Wilderness and Waldo Lake Wilderness maps. Stock water is available on the trail.
Getting to Skookum Creek Campground: From Box Canyon Horse Camp, turn right on Road 19 and almost immediately veer left on Road 1957. Continue 3.6 miles to the campground and trailhead.
Getting to Box Canyon Horse Camp: On Hwy. 126 between the towns of Blue River and McKenzie Bridge, turn south on Aufderheide Road (Forest Road 19) between mileposts 45 and 46. Continue 28 miles and turn right into the camp.
Season: Summer through fall. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent if you go early in the season.
Parking and Camping Facilities: Skookum Creek Campground has toilets and potable water, plus room to park many trailers. Box Canyon Horse Camp has 11 sites with 2- or 4-horse log corrals, toilets, stock water, fire pits, and picnic tables. The day-parking area has room for 2-3 trailers.
More Information: The Erma Bell Lakes Loop is covered in more detail in the Box Canyon Horse Camp chapter of Riding Northwest Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, Ponderosa Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission from Northwest Rider Magazine, November 2015.