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home : columns : columns February 5, 2016


7/16/2013 1:06:00 PM
A family-friendly hike to Benson Lake
Benson Lake, just over McKenzie Pass, is a scenic hiking opportunity for the whole family. The summit of Scott Mountain can be seen peeking over the ridge at the upper left. photo by Craig F. Eisenbeis
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Benson Lake, just over McKenzie Pass, is a scenic hiking opportunity for the whole family. The summit of Scott Mountain can be seen peeking over the ridge at the upper left. photo by Craig F. Eisenbeis

This view of the western aspects of the North and Middle Sisters can be seen from a rock promontory on the south edge of Benson Lake. photo by Craig F. Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
This view of the western aspects of the North and Middle Sisters can be seen from a rock promontory on the south edge of Benson Lake. photo by Craig F. Eisenbeis
By Craig Eisenbeis


Many of us who live on the east side of the Cascades tend to forget that there are some great hikes just over the pass. In this case, McKenzie Pass. Benson Lake is a relatively short and easy hike that is a great choice for the entire family, although toddlers may object to a gradual, but long, uphill grade.

The trail is well-defined and mostly smooth, with a conifer-needle carpeting. There are a few downed trees, which must be scrambled over or otherwise circumvented along the route. The lake appears suddenly when the trail finally tops the uphill grade. At that point, the trail curves to the right; and the easiest lake access drops off to the left a short distance later.

The entire hiking distance to the lake is just 1.4 miles, with a measly elevation gain of only 380 feet. The trail begins just beyond the Scott Lake Campground. Scott Lake and nearby Scott Mountain are named for Felix Scott, Jr., who was instrumental in the development of the Scott Trail through this area and over Scott Pass in 1862.

The hike passes through a mature mixed-conifer forest, predominantly featuring fir, hemlock and whitebark pine. The trail has so many nature highlights that you scarcely notice the time passing. Bear grass and lupine dominate the wildflower array, but many other species of flowers are also popping up right now.

If a three-mile hike isn't enough, there are numerous options for a longer trek. Just 1.1 miles up the trail are the rock-lined Tenas Lakes, the largest of which may be reached by a short side-trail to the left. This is an interesting group of at least nine small lakes and ponds. If you want to find them all, it will take a bit of exploring. These lakes are popular swimming destinations, and there are many warm ponds for private and relaxing swimming throughout this entire area.

The summit of Scott Mountain is another popular destination from this trail, and that climb can be connected to an even longer loop return via Hand Lake, totaling almost 10 miles; but we'll save that hike for another day.

With a maximum depth of 55 feet, Benson Lake is 26 acres in size and lies at an elevation of 5,250 feet. The largest of the Tenas Lakes is only 4.5 acres, and the remainder are much smaller. The Tenas Lakes are about 300 vertical feet higher than Benson Lake and have a maximum depth of only 19 feet.

There is much to explore in the vicinity of Benson Lake. For example, a rocky promontory above the south end of the lake provides an excellent viewpoint of the lake and the surrounding mountains. It is not difficult to reach, but there is no real trail to follow. Last week, the lake's outlet was nearly dry, making access to the hilltop viewpoint even easier. Follow a faint user-trail south along the edge of the lake and over a jumble of logs choking the outlet.

Atop this glacier-gouged rock landmark, panoramic views can be seen to the north and south. To the south, all Three Sisters are visible. The profiles of the western sides of the Sisters are entirely different from what we are accustomed to seeing from the east side. Plus, about five miles west of the South and Middle Sisters, you can see The Husband, a rocky 7,524-foot peak which is not visible at all from Sisters.

To the north, Benson Lake lies placidly in a glacier-carved basin, and nearby red cinder-streaked Scott Mountain can be seen peeking over the glacier-carved ridge on the north side of the lake.

Wildflowers are especially prolific in the open areas surrounding the summit of this rocky overlook. If you explore this area, take care not to lose your way on the return, because it is tempting to descend down the back side of the rocks and away from the lake.

To enjoy this hike, take the McKenzie Pass Highway (242) west from Sisters. From the summit of the pass, continue west for another 5.6 miles and turn right (north) at the Scott Lake turnoff. There is a sign advising of the approaching turn, but there is an intervening turnoff, as well; so wait until you are abreast of the brown Scott Lake sign before turning off. The trailhead is 1.1 miles farther, at the end of a good gravel road.

One word of caution for trail enthusiasts: mosquitoes! July is the worst mosquito month of the year in all the wetter mountain areas, and this location is no exception. I was attacked by a swarm of the bloodthirsty critters before my feet even hit the ground. I recommend applying insect repellent before opening the car door.

This is a fee-use area, and there is a self-service kiosk where parking permits may be purchased if you do not have an annual pass. Benson Lake is just barely inside the Mount Washington Wilderness boundary, so wilderness permits are also required and are free at the same location. The kiosk also provides other useful information of local interest.





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