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Lava Lands Overland Trail

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

In the heart of central Oregon and Cascadia, lies the Lava Lands Overland Trail. Those seeking out emerald forests and the geological wonders created through volcanism will rejoice at this off road adventure. If snow capped volcanoes, lava flows, volcani craters, and lava caves are your thing-- well, hop in your rig and point it to central Oregon!

Route Overview

Adventure Rating: Epic

Trip Length: 245 miles / 4-8 days

Season: Early to mid-summer to October (can vary depending on snowpack at higher elevation trails). Forest Road 370 near Todd Lake may not open until mid-summer during year's of above average snowfall, and is typically gated/closed upon the first thread of snow in Fall. Please use the alternate track to bypass road 370 if it's gated.

Avg Technical Rating: 2

Peak Technical Rating: 4

Typical Terrain: Gravel roads, dirt forest roads, some bumpier tracks with rocks (road 370), and a small amount of pavement.

Recommended Vehicle: Stock 4x4 Recommended Gear: n/a

Adventure Vans: TBD, we believe Sprinter 4x4s should be able to manage most of the route, but we recommend avoiding forest road 370 and utilizing FR-370 Bypass referenced in the alternative routes section below.

Alternative Routes: Yes! See the bottom of route guide for more details. Permits: A $5 day use fee is required if you plan to visit the Lava Lands Visitor Center or Lava River Cave within Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

 

Route Details


The Lava Lands Overland Trail sits in the middle of the Cascade Volcani Arc, which stretches from Mt Lassen in Northern California to southwestern British Columbia. The Cascade Range has a dozen peaks that exceed 10,000 feet, including the Three Sisters, which act as a centerpiece for the route. Volcanism is all around in this part of central Oregon. From crystal clear lava bed lakes like Clear Lake, massive lava flows, giant cinder cones like Mt Bachelor, and mysterious lava caves. Yes, the earth is alive and breathing in Cascadia!


While the route can be explored in either direction, we begin our adventure to the east at Blue River Lake and the McKenzie River (DP1). The pavement along the first few miles soon gives way to dirt and begins climbing up the ridge towards Frissell Point. If you're up for a bit of scrambling by foot, the views at Frissel Point provide an excellent sneak peak for what's to come-- awesome snowcapped volcanic peaks, expansive pine forests, and lava flows all around! The route follows the ridgeline past Carpent Mountain Lookout until arriving at the absolutely impressive Wolf Rock (DP3). Wolf Rock is the remains of a volcanic plug of an ancient volcano that has succumbed to eons of erosion. Oregon's largest rock monolith towers 1,000 feet above the forest floor below and is quite the sight to behold. From here the route continues northward until reaching the McKenzie Highway and McKenzie River Trail (DP5). The 26 mile McKenzie River trail is one of the most popular trails in Oregon, and for good reason. The trail passes through enchanting old growth forest, several log bridges cross the river and creek, and a series of aquamarine volcanic lakes make this a hike for the ages-- just be prepared for heavy crowds on weekends and holidays. Even walking a few miles of the trail is worthwhile, and we highly recommend it (mountain bikers welcome too!). As you cross the highway, you're now on the old Santiam Wagon Road (DP6). Unlike other wagon roads in the area, the Santiam's purpose wasn't to move settlers west, but rather for cattle ranchers to move their herds from the Willammette Valley into more fertile grazing areas to the east. At this point in the route, you should see lava flows and snow capped (volcanic peaks maybe not in later summer!) all around. If you're up for a brisk 3.5 mile out-and-back hike, the view from Sand Mountain Look (DP7) is the perfect 360 degree vantage point to bear witness to the surrounding volcanism, including the impressive Mt Washington (DP9), and to think this is really just the beginning of more views like this to come! As you make your way south, the Skylight Cave (DP11) is a local favorite for taking photos, where the sunlight comes through a series of holes within the roof of a lava tube. Expect things to be a bit more rugged and bumpy on this leg of the route, but nothing that a stock 4x4 can't easily handle. From here, you'll cross the Highway 242 before wrapping around Trout Creek Butte. The Three Sisters, and especially the North Sister (DP12) come into exquisite view with all of their glory. If you can, try to go earlier in the season when snow still remains atop the summits of the Three Sisters. Jefferson View Shelter (DP15) is a favorite rest stop for snowmobilers during the winter months, but it also makes for a great campsite, with next level views of the Three Sisters and Mt Jefferson to the north. Three Creek Lake is just one of many alpine lakes in the region, and the volcanic bluffs shrouded with pine trees make for a picture perfect scene that can only be found in Cascadia. The route passes Todd Lake and then jumps on the pavement of Cascade Lakes Highway for several miles. If you're up for a more technical option that skips the pavement, be sure to check out the Alternative Routes section below! And yes, even though you're on pavement now, the scenery is still exquisite. You'll pass numerous lakes along the way, most of which have a campground adjacent to the lake-- just expect these to be busy, especially on weekends.


After burning the pavement, you'll be back on dirt before you know it and passing by Cultus and Little Cultus Lakes. Lake many of the lakes in the area, Waldo Lake (DP20) was carved by glaciers, and it also happens to be the second largest non-alkalai lake in Oregon and also happens to have a maximum depth of 420 feet. This section of the route literally travels through lava flow after lava flow. It may not always be evident, but take a look at the route in google earth or a topography layer, and you'll see what we're talking about. Eventually, you'll find yourself skirting the southern shores of Wickiup Reservoir, and then the Deschutes River that feeds the reservoir. There are a number of fantastic dispersed campsites and developed campgrounds along this leg of the Deschuttes.


The final leg of the adventure crosses I-5 and heads into Newberry National Volcanic Monument DP22. One could easily spend 2 or 3 days exploring Newberry by vehicle and on foot. The huge Lava River Cave (DP21) is definitely worth a visit, and if you've got some time to burn, consider heading up to Paulina lakes and Paulina Peak (not officially part of the route). The Newberry shield volcano is the second largest volcano in total volume, only second to the Medicine Lake volcano in northeastern California, which also happens to be a shield volcano. The trail system around the National Monument is also extremely popular with the SxS and OHV crowd, so be on the lookout as you make your way through the veritable maze of trails. The route ends on the southern outskirts of Bend.

Alternative Routes

FR-370 Bypass

Peak Technical Rating: 2

Recommend Vehicle: Stock 4x4 or Sprinter 4x4 During year's of average snowfall, it's not atypical for FR-370 to remain closed into July, and into August during year's of heavy snowfall. The FR-370 Bypass is simply a detour around this section of trail if it's gated. Sprinter 4x4s are advised to take the bypass as well, regardless if FR-230 is open.

Kwohl Butte Track

Peak Technical Rating: 5-6

Recommend Vehicle: High Clearance 4x4

Those seeking to get a bit more rowdy while also skipping the most significant section of pavement along the route may want to check out the Kwohl Butte Track. Expect to be slow going with a lot of chunky and sharp lava rock. Sliders and body armos is recommended, and this track is 3-4 notches above the main route, but the views are spectacular.


Camping Recommendations

The Descutes National Forest and surrounding lands are filled with tons of fantastic dispersed campsites. However, certain areas that are closed to the Mackenzie River and various lake do get busy during the summer months, especially on weekends. Some of our favorite camp sites include:

  • Jefferson View Shelter

  • Three Creek Meadow campground

  • Three Creek Lake campground

  • Todd Lake

  • Kwohl Butte Shelter

  • Little Cultus Lake campground

  • Deschutes River along East Deschutes Road (NF Road 44, north of Wickiup Reservoir)

  • Dispersed camping around Newberry National Volcanic Monument


Discovery Points

  • DP1 - McKenzie River

  • DP2 - Blue River Lake

  • DP3 - Wolf Rock

  • DP4 - Clear Lake

  • DP5 - McKenzie River Trail

  • DP6 - Santiam Wagon Road

  • DP7 - Sand Mountain Lookout

  • DP8 - Pacific Crest Trail

  • DP9 - Mt Washington

  • DP10 - Cache Mountain

  • DP11 - Skylight Cave

  • DP12 - North Sister

  • DP13 - Middle Sister

  • DP14 - Chush Falls

  • DP15 - Jefferson View Shelter

  • DP16 - South Sister

  • DP17 - Broken Top

  • DP18 - Devils Lake

  • DP19 - Deschutes River

  • DP20 - Waldo Lake

  • DP21 - Lava River Cave

  • DP22 - Newberry National Volcanic Monument

  • DP23 - Lava Cast Forest Trail

  • DP24 - Boyd Lava Cave

 

Maps + Navigation


Digital Mapping Files


 

Resources


Land Managers

Other Resources

 

Gallery



Terms of Use: Should you decide to travel a route that is published on Overlandtrailguides.com, you do so at your own risk. Always take the appropriate precautions when planning and traveling, including checking the current local weather, permit requirements, trail/road conditions, and land/road closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, and carry the appropriate safety, recovery, and navigational equipment. The information found on this site is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by Overland Trail Guides, the route accuracy and current conditions of roads and trails cannot be guaranteed.



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Joe Ray
Joe Ray
Sep 27, 2023

Be advised that the section of this route between Todd Lake and Three Creeks Meadow (Road 4600-370) is extremely rutted. When I first drove this road 16 years ago, it was a pleasant drive and not too difficult. But it has degraded extensively since then and now (2023) it will keep you on your toes in 4 low for 13 miles with plenty of off-camber sections. Not to mention that the majority of it can be impossible to pass anyone else you meet head-on. Ask me how I know! Plan accordingly, both with your time and the type of vehicle on this rutted jeep track! High profile vans and inexperienced drivers not recommended.

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