Linton Lake is a beautiful, geologic marvel that gives hikers the chance to experience a wilderness experience near a major road. In addition, the relatively low elevation of the lake compared to the mountains to the east means that access is possible earlier in the season, when you may be itching to march up into the mountains. So make the trip up McKenzie Pass and give this little gem a try.
The trailhead to Linton Lake is located at the Alder Springs Campground. The trail heads out across the highway from the campground. It quickly enters a forest of mixed conifers, and rhododendron and bear grass blooms are prevalent if you time your hike right. The trail bobs and weaves over an old lava flow pretty gently for most of the hike, but there is one section, just a little before the lake, where the trail descends steeply and can be on the loose side.
You will catch your first glimpse of Linton Lake just over a mile into the hike. The trail will be perched high above it at first, but will slowly descend as you approach Obsidian Creek. There is a good, backcountry camp site located right at Obsidian Creek, and the official trail ends here. There are some user trails through the willows to the lake, or, if you cross the creek and continue on, more open areas along the lake shore. This lake gets deep quick and has a lot of vegetation on its shores, making it a difficult one to relax and swim around in. But it is pretty.
Linton Lake was formed through a process of fire and ice. 20,000 years ago, much of this area was covered in ice age glaciers. One glacier extended down the majority of White Branch and some older glaciers were located on Linton Creek behind the lake. As the glaciers retreated, deep, U-shaped glacial valleys were left behind. Then, about 1,500 years ago, Collier Cone up on the north side of North Sister erupted, sending a river of lava down the White Branch, burying the river and damming up Linton Creek, creating Linton Lake. The lake has no outlet, as it all seeps into the porous lava along the White Branch.
If you are of the adventurous mind and like chasing waterfalls, there are two located just behind Linton Lake, although there are no official trails to them. And getting there can be an adventure. To reach Linton Creek, continue south along the shore of the lake. User trails seem to go everywhere here, and there really isn’t a good way through the remnants of the 2017 Separation Fire. This hillside is steep and loose and there are big logs everywhere. The closer you can stay to the shore of the lake, the easier it is.
Once through the burned area, you should be able to pick up a trail as it rounds the backside of Linton Lake. There are a couple of draws and small creeks that may try and trick you into thinking they are Linton Creek, but they are not. Don’t be fooled. You will know Linton Creek when you see it. It has lots of water in it.
The easiest way up to the falls is to turn south and start heading up a hillside a few hundred feet before reaching the creek. Again, look for user trails that start heading up the steep slope. This hill will take you to a nice overlook of Lower Linton Falls. If that is not enough for you, Linton Falls is about a third of a mile furtherer up the creek. The ground is fairly open, making the actual walking not too hard (not climbing over trees and everything), but you will still have a nice 500 foot climb. Linton Falls is made up of a series of about 7 different drops. While it is a difficult falls to view, it is the highest in the Three Sisters Wilderness, at around 600 feet.
From Sisters, head over McKenzie Pass on Highway 242 for 26.5 miles, or 11.5 miles past the Dee Wright Observatory on the top of the pass. From the valley, head east on highway 242 for 10.3 miles up towards McKenzie Pass. The trailhead is at Alder Springs Campground.
Passes: A Northwest Forest Pass is required at this trailhead. Beginning in 2021, a Central Cascades Wilderness permit will be required to camp from this trailhead between the Friday before Memorial Day and the final Friday of September. The permit will not be required for day hikers, however. The permits will be available from recreation.gov and will go on sale in early April.
Dogs: Allowed and must be on leash or under voice command at all times.
Open Season: Trails will usually be snow free in May-June. McKenzie Pass is usually closed until mid June, but if you are coming from the Willamette Valley, the lower gate will usually opens in April or May, allowing access from the west to this trailhead.
Bugs: There are usualy some mosquitos in June and early July, but they are not as nearly horrendous as higher up in the mountains.