The Matthieu Lakes are two beautiful little lakes situated on the Pacific Crest just south of McKenzie Pass. Here, you hike along the edge of some of the most recent lava flows within the continental U.S. Lava poured out of some of the neighboring features as recently as 1,500 years ago. The lakes are picturesque and the views are dramatic, making this one of the more popular hikes along McKenzie Pass.
Begin your hike from the Lava Camp Lake Trailhead, just east of the Dee Wight Observatory. Two trails leave from the trailhead, the Millican Crater Trail and the Lava Camp Lake Trail. Take the trail to the right, the Lava Camp Lake Trail, and quickly dive into the wilderness. You will also quickly enter the burn scar of the devastating 2017 Milli Fire. That fire torched 24,000 acres and stretched from the Cascade Crest to within 10 miles of Sisters. The fire is fairly recent, so don’t be surprised to find blowdown across many sections of the trail as burned trees begin to fall as their condition degrades.
In only a ¼ mile, you encounter the Pacific Crest Trail. You will also reach the edge of the lava flow that poured from Yapoah Crater and buried the landscape heading north. A few trees are starting to reclaim this river of rock, but it will likely be millennia before the forest covers the landscape once more.
Upon hitting the PCT, turn to the left and follow the trail to the south. Much of the first mile and a half or so of the hike travels through the burn scar. 0.6 miles after merging the PCT, you will leave it again as you reach the intersection with the North Matthieu Lake Trail. Stay to the right and continue hiking along the edge of the lava flow.
A half mile further down the trail will get you to a small pond and finally begin leaving most of the burned area. Just past the pond, the trail starts to climb its steepest section. Climb 200 feet up a ridge in less than a quarter mile. On top of the ridge, you will find a nice little basin in which sits North Matthieu Lake. If you are planning on camping, there are designated camping spots and no fires allows near the lake.
Follow the trail as it rounds the east shore of the lake and traverses the base of a ridge to the east. 0.6 miles after leaving North Matthieu Lake, you will again encounter the Pacific Crest Trail. Don’t head back yet though. Make a right on continue to the southeast on the PCT. It is less than a tenth of a mile to South Matthieu Lake.
South Matthieu Lake is much smaller than North, but its higher alpine setting offers some dramatic views of North and Middle Sister to the south. If you like, you can hike around the lake and climb a small ridge on the south shore to get even better views. Once you’ve soaked up all you can, and maybe even soaked your feet in the cool icy water (jump in weenie, I dare you. Double dog dare), head back to the PCT and continue to the north.
Quickly after leaving the lake, you will complete a small climb as you traverse a barren ridge, scattered with cinders and lava bombs. As the trees clear around you, make sure to turn around, as the best views of North and Middle Sister are found here. The mountains aren’t even 5 miles away and loom over you. As you continue hiking to the north and rounding the shoulder of the ridge, Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt Jefferson all come into view as well.
As you follow the PCT back towards the trailhead, there are a few places where the trail is traversing a very steep hillside. It probably doesn’t help either that this happens back in the burned area, so the view has opened up and the lack of ground cover makes it appear that the trail could slide away from the hillside. It probably won’t, so you should be fine. It is 2 miles along the PCT before you reach the intersection with the North Matthieu Lake Trail again. Head to the right and march that final 0.9 miles back to the trailhead. Just don’t forget to turn at the Lava Camp Lake Trail or you will become hopelessly lost and probably die of exposure. Or you will pop out on the highway and have to walk further. Both are equally bad.
Head up Highway 242 towards McKenzie Pass, 14 miles west of Sisters or 22 miles east of the intersection with Highway 126, 5 miles east of McKenzie Bridge. Take the turnoff marked for Lava Camp Lake and the PCT south of the highway, half a mile east of Dee Wight Observatory. Travel 0.3 miles down the dirt road and then make a right, following the directions to the trailhead. The road is passable for most passenger cars, but does have some bumpy areas.
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: Whenever McKenzie Pass is open. The Pass usually opens sometime between Memorial Day and the 4th of July, depending on the snow year, and closes again between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Bugs: Mosquitos can be bad during the melt season, usually June-early August, then will mostly clear up moving into August.