BEND, Ore. — Sparks Lake is so beautiful, it doesn’t need to be interesting — but it is.
The Central Oregon destination is what photographers dream about, with South Sister (10,358 feet), Broken Top (9,175) and Mount Bachelor (9,065) rising in dramatic splendor above crystal water along the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway, 25 miles west of Bend.
But Sparks Lake offers more than good looks. Hop into a kayak or canoe and it’s possible to explore a labyrinth of secret passageways, hidden coves and geological oddities in a body of water more fascinating than the glossy magazine spreads might suggest.
Those geological oddities, by the way, are why it’s a good idea to paddle this lake in the first half of summer.
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When Mount Bachelor erupted 10,000 years ago, it formed a lava dam that began capturing snowmelt and rainwater to become Sparks Lake. But cracks in the volcanic rock mean the lake is gradually draining water through the summer — you can actually hear the water seeping out — leaving a shallow and marshy landscape as early as mid-August.
Dave Nissen, owner of Wanderlust Tours in Bend, said he might stop running tours on the lake by late July or early August due to this year’s low snowpack.
“We go by the mantra, ‘When mom nature can’t handle the boats anymore it’s time to stop,’” said Nissen, who has offered tours on Sparks Lake since 1993. “There are a lot of insects in the nymph stage at the bottom of the lake and when you have people getting their boats stuck and walking across the bottom, it can kill a whole bunch of them, which impacts the entire environment.”
When I visited recently, the lake was at its best. South Sister and Broken Top filled half the sky, both sporting high-elevation snow. The lake, which is fed by snowmelt from both mountains via Soda and Fall creeks, was near its largest size of the year and offered many avenues for exploration.
The first challenge, though, was attempting to find a parking spot. Bend residents do not spend sunny weekends indoors and the gravel road to the lake was lined with cars. Despite the chaos of a rustic boat ramp, once I slid onto the water there was room for a pretty incredible diversity of watercraft.
Canoes and kayaks were the most common conveyances, with stand-up paddleboards a close third. I also saw a rowboat, raft, windsurfer, paddleboat and inner tubes. Although the lake allows motorized boats traveling below 10 mph, in two trips here I’ve not seen one.
The most interesting place to explore, especially this time of year, is the shoreline heading south among the black islands rising from the water.
When lava from Mount Bachelor spread over this area, the surface cooled and hardened the rock — stopping its horizontal movement — but the lava within the flow had to go somewhere. Like giant bread loaves, the hot lava expanded and pushed the rock upward in a process called “inflation,” creating these islands as high as 70 feet.
A few millennia later, the islands are covered with wildflowers, including crimson columbine and purple larkspur, and they’re a popular spot to stop and explore.
Farther south, the lake widened and I passed a cove with a camping spot. A few boat-in camping spots are scattered around the lake and a family brought in its gear via raft (not a conventional way of getting around lakes, but it works). As I passed, their young children were engaged in an intense game of bumper boats — a game I loved at summer camps as I was growing up — with inflatable kayaks. They shouted, shrieked and fell in the water.
The lake extends longer than might be expected, and I followed it down, but my favorite moment was discovering a narrow crack along the shoreline and following it deeper, and then a little deeper, until it felt as though I was in a cave. It was so quiet between the narrow walls that I could hear the gurgling sound of Sparks Lake performing its most interesting feat.
As the water filters out of the lake, it enters a subterranean system of groundwater that connects just about everything in this region of Central Oregon.
From here, the water filters into places like Snow Creek, Quinn Creek and Little Lava Lake — links in the hydrological network — that eventually becomes the source of the Deschutes River.
“Therein lies the magic,” Nissen said. “There’s so much going on in this amazing lake that doesn’t meet the eye.”