One of the least scenic aspects of the Dixie Lakes Loop are the Dixie Lakes themselves. These two small lakes are little more than ponds and sit just far enough off the trail to make them difficult to visit. But don’t let that discourage you, because there are three other awesome lakes you can splash around with on this excursion into the Mt Jefferson Wilderness.
The hike begins from the Duffy Lake trailhead right near the border with the Mt Jefferson Wilderness. The trail quickly dives into a beautiful mixed conifer forest and begins the long but slow climb up to Duffy Lake. The trail is lined with Bear Grass, so if you time your hike right, and it happens to be one of the years when the grass blooms, except to find beautiful stalks of white flows along the path. Mosquitos are also big fans of the area, so if you are here before August, make sure to bring bug spray. And long sleeves and pants. And a mosquito net. And hey, maybe even pull a small trailer spraying DDT so you can walk in a cloud of the chemical. However you feel comfortable.
The trail slowly climbs pretty much the entire 3.3 miles to Duffy Lake. You will come across a few trail junctions along the way, with a trail to the Big Meadows Horse Camp heading to the right almost immediately after the parking area. You will also pass junctions to the Turpentine Trail 1.5 miles in and the Lava Lakes trail right before reaching Duffy Lake. 2.5 miles from the trailhead, you will come to a crossing of the North Santiam River. This is a pretty wide crossing and you will probably have to wade across it. It usually isn’t’ anything more than ankle deep or so, but could always be more. If you are planning your adventure after about mid-July though, the river will likely be dry and this will be nothing to worry about.
As you reach the lake, there will be a whole big junction of trails. The trails to your left are user trails and will make their way to the lake. It’s not far so pick your way through some trees and pop out on the shores of this beautiful blue lake. Duffy Butte’s rocky summit spire will dominate the skyline to the north. This is also were you will start seeing the first impacts of the devastating 2003 B&B fire, which burned much of this area. The water is also surprisingly pleasant, so if you feel like a swim, you should go for it. There are lots of good camping places along the lakeshore if you brought your gear.
Once you are through with Duffy Lake, keep to the trail that follows the south shore of the lake. The trail works its way around the half mile long lake before it will start climbing again, this time on its way to Mowich Lake. Once you pass Duffy, its only about ¾ of a mile to Mowich, but the trail will switchback up a saddle and climb about 300 feet along the way. It will also pass in and out of some burned areas, and don’t be surprised if you have to step over some logs that have fallen across the trail.
Once you pass through the saddle, you will so Mowich Lake down in a basin below you. This is probably your best chance to get down to the water, as the trail climbs away from the lake as you proceed, so it’s worth trudging down to it. The lake sits in a glaciated basin, with the deepest waters right in front of you and then petering out as you move away. Red Butte sits at the head of the valley and there is even a small island on the far side. There appear to be some nice camping areas along the northwestern shore of the lake, if you are looking to make this into a backpacking trip.
After leaving Mowich Lake, the trail continues to climb for the next ¾ of a mile along the eastern slope of the basin. The B&B fire did a pretty good job of wiping everything out here, so expect to walk through the skeletal remains of a forest. But, that as also opened up some views to the lake below and it is a good chance to see the forest slowly regenerating following that fire.
Two hundred and fifty feet about Mowich Lake, you will reach the junction with the Dixie Lakes trail, heading to your right. Take that and continue hiking along the bench that Dixie Lakes are nestled on. You will remain in the burned area for about the next mile, but will get an occasional view of Three Fingered Jack through the remains of the forest. The Labor Day wind storm of 2020 also did quite a number on this area. While much of the other trails have been cleared out, this one is still a mess of downed trees and log jams. You will be constantly climbing over logs and finding your away around giants clogs of trees. I suspect that this is a less popular trail than many of the others in the area, so it may still be a little while before the Forest Service gets it cleaned out.
You will pass by the Dixie Lakes about 0.6 miles after you turn onto the Dixie Lakes Trail, but you would be forgiven if you miss them. Soon after passing by South Dixie Lake, you will begin the descent down the bench towards the Santiam Lake Trail. There is more blowdown along this section, but it is not as bad as above. As you reach the bottom, you will pass through a beautiful meadow, teaming with wildflowers into August. The Santiam Trail junction is just ahead.
Once reaching the junction with Santiam Lake, make a left and prepare yourself for one more climb. It’s only a couple hundred feet, but you will probably be getting tired and any uphill is starting to suck. But plod on, it will be worth it.
You will reach Santiam Lake about 0.6 mils from the previous trail junction. The trail will stay up above the lake and pass it by, so look for some side trails heading down to the lake after you pass by the signing informing you of no fires with 100 feet of water. The best spot to be on the lake is along the western shore. That way you can see Three fingered Jack rising above its crystal blue water. This lake also makes an ideal swimming spot and has several good camping locations along its shores.
Once done, head back the way you came, but this time stay on the Santiam Lake trail and pass by the Dixie Lakes Trail. Once you pass the Dixie Lakes Trail, its only ¾ of a mile back to Duffy Lake. There is also a beautiful meadow right before you reach the Duffy Lake trail, with Duffy Butte rising above it. Once you reach the Duffy Lake trail, make a right and retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Whew, you did it.
To reach the Duffy Lake trailhead, take Highway 22 six miles north of Santiam Junction or 26 miles southeast of Detroit and then head East on Forest Road 2267. The road is paved but only one lane with turnouts. Follow the road for 2.6 miles before making a left towards the Duffy Lake Trailhead. It’s only 0.3 miles to the trailhead from here, but he road changes to gravel and gets pretty bumpy. Most cars should be able to navigate it though, if you go slow enough.
Passes: A Central Cascades Wilderness Permit is required to access this area between June 15th and October 15th. The permits will be available from recreation.gov and will go on sale in early April. A Northwest Forest Pass is also required to park at this trailhead.
Dogs: Allowed and must be on leash or under voice command at all times.
Open Season: Most of trail should be melted out sometime in July.
Bugs: Mosquitos can be really bad here during the melt season, primarly June and July. They start to clear up in August.
Flowers: Different flowers will bloom depending on elevation, but July and early August are usually peak months.