“I can’t believe how blue it is!” cried my friend Mona. “You said it was amazing, but I really didn’t expect this.”
We had just ridden the first half of the Little Crater Lake Loop, near Timothy Lake. I had ridden in this area before and had visited Little Crater Lake, so I knew what to expect. But clearly, my description of the lake hadn’t done justice to this sapphire gem.
Little Crater Lake is one of the prettiest – and most interesting — lakes you will ever see on a trail ride. This tiny lake, which you can reach from either Joe Graham Horse Camp or Clackamas Lake Campground, is located just off the PCT on the north end of Timothy Lake.
Formed by an artesian spring that gradually eroded the softer soils around it to create a deep pool, the lake is a brilliant blue, so clear you can see the knots on the logs submerged at the bottom of the lake. And the water is a constant 34 degrees year round!
The trail to Little Crater Lake runs along the Oak Grove Fork of the Clackamas River, then along the shore of Timothy Lake and through lovely stands of old-growth forest. The return trail goes over some hills and through some clear-cut areas, so it has less shade but it offers views of Mt. Hood.
To reach Little Crater Lake from either horse camp, take the campgrounds’ connector trails east to the Pacific Crest Trail and turn left. The PCT runs along the bank of the Oak Grove Fork of the Clackamas River for a while, then it follows the shore of Timothy Lake. This segment of the trail is generally flat and offers nice views of the lake. In a little more than three miles, the Old 1916 Trail #537 veers off to the right. This will be your return route, but for now continue straight ahead.
Shortly after the junction with the Old 1916 Trail, the Timothy Lake Trail #528 veers off on the left. Stay right and continue on the PCT for a little less than a half mile, then turn right on Trail #500 toward Little Crater Lake. After a short distance you will come to hitching posts where you can tie your horses. Continue on foot a few hundred yards to the fascinating Little Crater Lake.
For the return trip, retrace your steps back to the junction with the Old 1916 Trail #537 and turn left to follow it back to the horse camp.
Ride Statistics: 10 miles round trip, with elevations from 3,250 to 3,500 feet. Stock water is available on the trail. The best map is the Mt. Hood National Forest Map.
Getting to Joe Graham Horse Camp and Clackamas Lake Campground: From Sandy, OR, take Hwy. 26 west past Government Camp to the junction with Hwy. 35. Follow the signs toward Bend to stay on Hwy. 26. In 8.7 miles after the Hwy. 35 junction, turn right on Skyline Road (Road 42), drive 8.3 miles, then turn left into Joe Graham Horse Camp. Or continue past the Joe Graham entrance for a short distance and veer left to stay on Road 42. In another mile, turn left into Clackamas Lake Campground. Day-use parking is available along Skyline Road just east of the entrance to Joe Graham Horse Camp.
Season: May through October
Campground Facilities: Joe Graham Horse Camp has 14 sites with 2-, 3-, or 4-horse corrals. Clackamas Lake Campground has 46 sites, of which 19 allow horses and 11 have 2-, 3-, or 4-horse corrals. All sites have picnic tables, fire pits, and parking for one trailer. You’ll find potable water and toilets at both camps. Camping fee.
Reservations: Advance reservations are strongly recommended. Go to www.recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777.
More Information: The Little Crater Lake Loop is covered in the Joe Graham and Clackamas Lake Horse Camps chapter of Riding Northwest Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, (Ponderosa Press, 2013).