Horse Lake can offer a hiker a genuine wilderness experience, devoid of the crowds common through much of the Three Sisters Wilderness, just minus a some of the scenery. If you are looking for a chance to get away from people for a very pleasant hike through the woods, and maybe even swim in a lake or two that you could have all to yourself, then this is the hike for you.
Begin the hike to Horse Lake from the Elk Lake trailhead, located just across the highway from the Elk Lake Resort. The trail heads out of the northwest end of the parking area and will quickly come to a junction with the Island Meadow Trail. Keep heading straight ahead on the Horse Lake trail for now. This hike is a loop, so you could go either way you want, but for scenic purposes, it is better to hike the trail counter clockwise.
The trail will slowly climb the crest of the Cascades as you work your way around a couple of volcanic vents. The vegetation will also change as you head west, transitioning from lodgepole pines and mountain hemlocks over mostly bare ground to a denser forest with a nice understory of brush and grasses.
You will pass by the Pacific Crest Trail 1.5 miles from the trailhead. In this case, the trail really is located along the Pacific Crest. As you pass it by, the trail will tend downhill for most the way to Horse Lake. At 3.25 miles, you will reach the junction with the Red Hill Trail. Keep heading straight ahead and know you are getting close to Horse Lake.
There isn’t actually a trail that will take you to Horse Lake, even though there are trails all around it. You will have to pick your poison over a variety of user trails. One option is to take the Horse Creek Trail which you will come across about ¼ mile after the junction with the Red Hill Trail. This trail will head up the northeast side of the lake. You can watch for it through the trees and try and find a path down to the water. If you want, there is also a user trail that cuts off from the Horse Creek Trail and circles around the lake, but there are a ton of downed trees along the back side of the lake, making that short little section almost entirely composed of climbing over trees.
The best way to visit the lake, in my opinion, is to keep heading down the Red Hill Trail. You will cross Horse Creek shortly after passing the Horse Creek Trail, but it is easy enough to rock hop over. Just past that intersection, there will be a sign directing pointing at a trail and telling you that it is an unmaintained user trail. Don’t take it. It’s a trap. The trail will take you into a little inholding of high ground surrounded by a swampy meadow before just ending in a mass of trees before you actually reach anything. Continue on the Red Hill trail from just a couple hundred more feet and then take the Park Trail to the right.
Follow the Park Trail as it circles around that marshy meadow area. As you pass the meadow, keep your eyes out for another user trail heading to your right. It’s not marked and not super obvious, as there are a couple of trees across it right near the start, but you can make it out. If you start doing some decent climbing and veering to the left on the Park Trail, you’ve gone too far.
The user trail will take you towards the lake and then right along its southern shore. From here you can see South Sister over the lake and if you continue towards the western end, Mt Bachelor as well. You can also see a cool, rocky peninsula jutting out from the western end. If you don’t mind getting your feet wet, or are comfortable walking across logs, you can mosey out on that peninsula. Just continue along the trail until you come, once again, to Horse Creek at the outlet of the lake. There are a couple logs across the stream, and they are a little bouncy, but not too bad if you have good balance. Climb up the slope on the other side and head out onto the peninsula for some sweet views.
Once you’ve munched some lunch, head back the way you came to the intersection of the Red Hill and Park Trails. Make a right on the Red Hill Trail on continue along the loop. You will reach the intersection with the Sunset Lake Trail in less than half a mile. Take that trail, cause it’s the way back. And Sunset Lake sounds cool.
You will pass by two more lakes and some unnamed ponds along this stretch of trail. But, like Horse Lake, they don’t actually have a trail going to them. About a quarter mile along the Sunset Lake Trail, you will find Colt Lake to your left. This lake is pretty small, and can get pretty low on water later in the year. If you want to visit it, watch for a kind of broad swale off to the left of the trail, right before it starts to climb a steep section that has tree branches and other debris jammed into a gully that has eroded into the trail. Make your way through the trees and you will find yourself at the lake about 100 yards from the trail.
Sunset Lake can be found about half a mile down the trail from Colt Lake. You will be able to see Sunset Lake from the trail through the trees. There are a couple of faint user trails that head down to this lake. It is a fairly small lake as well, but holds water better than Colt Lake. There are also some nice camp sites along the shores of this lake.
Back on the trail, you will pass by a couple on unnamed ponds following Sunset Lake. About ¾ of mile from Sunset Lake, you will pass through a nice open meadow and then reach the junction with the PCT. Keep heading straight ahead on the PCT for another 1.25 miles. There, take the Island Meadow Trail as it heads through the scar of the Elk Lake Fire the final mile back to the trailhead. This section is fairly exposed and can get hot and dusty, but also awards you with the only real views along the hike. So soak it all in and enjoy those last few steps.
The Elk Lake Trailhead is pretty easy to find. Just head 11 miles past Mt Bachelor on the Cascade Lakes Highway. The trailhead will be on the right side of the road directly across from the entrance to the Elk Lake Resort.
Passes:Northwest Forest Pass is required at this trailhead. A Central Cascades Wilderness Overnight Permit is be required at this trailhead between the Friday before Memorial Day and the final Friday of September if you plan on backpacking. The permits will be available from recreation.gov and will go on sale in early April. Otherwise, a free, self-issue day use permit will be required at the trailhead for day hikes.
Dogs: Allowed and must be on a leash or under voice control at all times.
Open Season: The Cascade Lakes Highway is usually open from around Memorial Day through Mid November. There will likely be snow on the trail through June.
Bugs: This area can be horrible with mosquitos. Really horrible. But as you move into later August, they mostly die off.