Western Waters

No one would refuse a July afternoon sprawled on a California beach. But for some of us, hiking to several thousand feet to spend a few days beside alpine lakes takes us far closer to heaven. Chris Liedle is a much-traveled backpacker and outdoor  photographer who is deeply enamored with the mountains and lakes of the Cascades and Sierras, from Washington to California. Indoors, he’s the communications director for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, in Multnomah County, Oregon. We asked Liedle to rank lake and river watering holes of the West.—The Editor

1 Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon
At about 7,000 feet in elevation, the nameless tarns of the Three Sisters Wilderness offer infinity pool-like views of Broken Top and the Middle and North Sisters. Don’t expect pool temperatures though. The tarns never climb above 60 degrees due to their elevation, but they’re perfect for a refreshing dip after a long day on the trail.

2 Eagle Cap, Wilderness, Oregon
Accessible only by foot or horseback, the Eagle Cap Wilderness offers some of the most rugged and best backpacking in the Northwest. Carved by glaciers, deep U-shaped valleys are flanked by salt-and-pepper granite mountains. Pristine high-alpine lakes and moraines await those who are willing to go the distance. 

3 Waldo Lake, Oregon
Waldo Lake in the Waldo Lake Wilderness is one of the largest natural lakes in Oregon and one of the purest in the world. The lack of nutrients and plant life contribute to its purity. On calm days, you can see to depths of 120 feet. To protect its natural beauty, no engine-powered boats are allowed on the water. 

4 Mount Adams Wilderness, Washington
Often overshadowed by Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, Mount Adams offers a quiet retreat on the eastern crest of the Washington Cascades. Car camp or backpack to one of the many lakes in the area for stunning views and reflections of the 12,280-foot mountain. On the way, a stop at Lower Lewis River Falls offers cliff jumping off a 43-foot-high ledge into a deep pool.

5 Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, Oregon
Just 45 minutes from Bend, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway features towering volcanic mountains, jaw-dropping lakes and breathtaking views. During the summer, enjoy first-class hiking, climbing, paddling, fishing, swimming, boating and camping. In winter, ski deep powder at Mount Bachelor or snowshoe up Tumalo Mountain. 

6 Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Oregon
The Lionshead Fire swept through much of the northern section of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness in 2020. The area is closed for the foreseeable future. But put it on the calendar for the coming years. Nestled just north of Mount Jefferson, a dormant volcano, lies a sub-alpine meadow dotted with picturesque lakes.

7 Clear Lake, Oregon
Three thousand years ago, a lava flow dammed the McKenzie River, submerging a conifer forest upstream. Fed by filtered snowmelt, Oregon’s Clear Lake has unmatched clarity, consistently around 150 feet. Because the temperature hovers around 38 degrees year-round, many of the trees that were submerged are preserved. 

8 Maidenhair Falls, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
In the desert, everything revolves around water. Maidenhair Falls is a seasonal 20-foot waterfall in Hellhole Canyon, in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Runoff from the San Diego County mountains drains to the desert floor in Anza-Borrego.

9 Elk River, Oregon
The Elk River is often overlooked by many who opt to visit the Rogue River. Designated a Wild & Scenic River, the Elk winds through deep gorges between the Grassy Knob and Copper Salmon Wilderness Areas. Drive east on a maintained gravel road until you find the perfect spot for swimming or fishing. The Elk River is one of the healthiest, historic salmon fisheries in the West.

10 Smith River, California
Flowing from the Oregon-California border, the Smith River winds its way through the Redwoods to the California coastline. Cast a line or drive out onto one of the many cobblestone river bars and camp or swim at your leisure. For those looking for a more remote experience, raft the North Fork and admire the contrast between light-blue water and orange-colored rock cliffs.