“Have you ever been to Santiam Lake?” my friend asked as she flipped through her phone in search of a photo to show me. “It’s totally awesome!” “No,” I admitted. I told her I had been to nearby Big Meadows Horse Camp and had loved the riding there. But we had skipped the trail to Santiam Lake in favor of a loop ride into the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness.
“You missed out!” she replied, as she turned her phone toward me. On the screen was a photo of Three Fingered Jack spectacularly reflected in the smooth surface of Santiam Lake. I was bowled over. This was something I HAD to see.
So a few weeks later my riding buddies and I headed back to Big Meadows Horse Camp for a long weekend, with the Santiam Lake Trail our top priority. Big Meadows is located just off Hwy. 22 about 75 miles east of Salem. After setting up camp and doing a short afternoon ride, we cooked dinner and turned in, anticipating the delightful riding that awaited us the next day.
Bright and early (well, really, about 10:00) the next morning, we saddled our horses and headed up the Duffy Lake Trail #3427, which departs across from the entrance to the horse camp. This forested trail would take us to Duffy Lake in about 5.7 miles, and there we would turn off onto the Santiam Lake Trail to continue to our destination.
At first, the trail was pretty rocky because years of runoff from melting snow has eroded the soil from the trail tread and exposed the rocks beneath. After a couple of miles, though, the tread improved significantly. We rode through flower-filled meadows and dense forest, gradually gaining about 1,200 feet of elevation on the way to Duffy Lake.
Along the way we passed junctions with several of the trails that we planned to explore later in the weekend. About 1.8 miles from the horse camp we passed the Big Meadows Tie Trail #3434 on the left. We stayed to the right, and in a short distance the connector trail to the Duffy Lake trailhead came in on the right. About 1.3 miles after that, the Turpentine Trail #3490 went off to the left. And in another 1.5 miles, the trail to the Maxwell Sno-Park (Trail #3433) went off to the right. About 0.2 mile after that we reached the west end of pretty Duffy Lake and the junction with the Santiam Lake Trail #3491.
We could have stayed on the Duffy Lake Trail as it runs along the shoreline to the east end of the lake, where a connector trail on the right would have taken us to the Santiam Lake Trail in a short distance. Instead, we turned right on the Santiam Lake Trail, which initially runs through small meadows filled with seasonal wildflowers.
We rode another 1.7 miles from Duffy Lake to Santiam Lake, with the trail only gaining 400 feet of elevation in the process. To our surprise, we discovered that the Santiam Lake Trail takes you past the lake rather than to it. You can’t even see the lake from the trail. However, we could see on our GPS where the lake was supposed to be, so when we saw several user-created trails on the left that headed toward the lake, we followed one of them. We soon reached another user-created trail that ran along the lake shore, but it was brushy and overgrown and wasn’t very horse friendly. After a bit of exploring, we found that the best viewpoint and the best horse-watering spot are on the far end of the lake, so we realized we should have bypassed several of the unsigned trails before we picked one to take us to the lake.
As advertised, the view of the lake was a delight. We were lucky enough to be there on a calm, clear day, so we enjoyed a brilliant reflection of Three Fingered Jack in the lake. (The mountain was named for a three-fingered trapper named Jack who once lived nearby.) All of the riders in our group agreed — Santiam Lake is a wonderful destination, and not to be missed.
Big Meadows Horse Camp has nine campsites, each with a four-horse corral, fire pit, picnic table, and room for one trailer. The camp has a vault toilet, potable water from a hand pump, and garbage cans. All sites are first-come, first-served. A fee is charged for overnight camping. Day use parking is no longer allowed at Big Meadows. Instead, you'll need to park at Duffy Lake Trailhead nearby.
If you ride to Santiam Lake from your campsite at Big Meadows, you will not need a wilderness permit. However, if you ride from Duffy Lake Trailhead, you'll need to apply for a limited-entry wilderness permit from www.recreation.gov.