Oregon

Trail Guide: Green Lakes Trail, Oregon

by Arthur McMahon

green lakes trail oregon

Green Lakes Trail is a spectacular hike with amazing scenery, leading to a lake basin tucked between mountains.

Cradled between the Cascade peaks of South Sister and Broken Top (an extinct stratovolcano,) the Green Lakes Basin is one of Oregon’s most beloved hiking destinations. However, don’t expect solitude as this trail is popular among day hikers, backpackers, trail runners, and horseback riders.

The beauty of this place is astounding and worth putting up with the crowds. The basin is vast and several trails lead to and from the area, creating plenty of space for hikers to spread out and find private campsites.

This is an iconic Bend-area hike. Whether you’re in the mood for a day trip or an overnighter, the Green Lakes Trail is an excellent choice. Just be sure to get to the parking lot early in the day.

As always, don’t forget to follow Leave No Trace principles when hiking, like minimizing your impact and properly disposing of waste. Learn more here.

Trail Details: Green Lakes Trail

Details Green Lakes Trail
Distance 9.0 miles
Difficulty Moderate
Duration 4 hours
Trail Type Out and back
Starting Elevation 5,445 feet
Elevation Gain 1,154 feet
Seasons Summer, fall
ADA Accessibility None
Dogs Allowed. Leashes are required in summer.
Trail Map Hiking Project
Nearest Amenities Elk Lake Resort
Directions to Trailhead Google Maps
Parking $5 fee or Northwest Forest Pass required
Road Conditions Trip Check
Attractions Waterfall, alpine lakes, mountain basin, mountain peaks
Activities Hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, fishing, swimming

 

The Hike

Green Lake Trail Falls Creek
Photo: Arthur McMahon

The trail begins as a dusty and dry path crossing over Fall Creek on a thin log bridge. But soon after crossing the creek, the route becomes more lush. The trail gradually climbs uphill along the banks of Fall Creek under a shady forest canopy of pines and firs.

There are several waterfalls to see along the first couple miles of trail, including the rampaging Fall Creek Falls, about .3 miles in. The terrain is lush here and there are plenty of places to dip your toes in the glacier-born waters. You’ll actually cross Fall Creek multiple times, but there are bridges for pedestrian and clear areas for horses to ford across.

Midway through the hike, the sky opens to the west. You’ll see a massive lava flow rising above the babbling stream and South Sister towering in the background.

Green Lakes Trail Falls Creek and Lava Flow
Photo: Arthur McMahon

The juxtaposition of the bright blue sky, grayscale lava rock, and crystal-blue creek is amazing, especially considering it’s next to a dark green evergreen forest. Be sure to take plenty of photos.

The trail eventually winds its way back into the forest before opening up into the Green Lakes Basin. The main trail will guide you to the first (and smallest) of the three lakes, but there are several paths that wind around through the basin.

Any way you go, you’ll have South Sister and Broken Top at your sides. You can also see North Sister poking its head over the saddle to the north.

Green Lakes and South Sister
Photo: Arthur McMahon

You can access both South Sister and Broken Top summits from the Green Lakes area. There’s also a trail that leads north to Park Meadow. The Soda Creek Trail is a slightly longer route that returns to the starting point.

Camping at Green Lakes is permitted at one of 28 designated camping sites marked with wooden posts, but you’ll need to get here early to snag one – early-bird backpackers every claim them most days.

All three trails that enter the Green Lakes Basin are marked with a sign explaining the camping rules. Outside of the basin in the Three Sisters Wilderness and Deschutes National Forest, you can camp wherever you find a spot.

“On my recent journey to Green Lakes, I met a forest ranger who told me that all of the basin camping spots had been taken, saving me the effort of hiking to check each and every one. He instructed me to head down the Soda Creek Trail, where there were several great spots just past the basin signage. He was right – I found a fantastic campsite.” – Author

When to Visit

The Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway leading to the Green Lakes Trail is closed most of the year due to snow. It tends to open sometime in May and close in early November.

This is an incredibly popular trail for day hiking and backpacking. The parking lot is usually full on weekends by early morning and many people park along the highway. However, highway parking is technically illegal and you may get a ticket or towed.

It’s best to visit on a weekday and as early as possible, especially if you want to grab one of the highly sought-after Green Lakes Basin campsites.

Directions to the Green Lakes Trail

It’s easy to get here from Bend. Hop on the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway toward Mount Bachelor. Follow the road for about 25 miles until you see the trailhead.

If you’re coming from the Willamette Valley, head south on I-5 past Eugene and take highway 58 east over the Cascade Range. About 11 miles after you pass the Willamette Pass Ski Resort, keep an eye out for the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway on your left. Follow the road for about 45 miles until you see the trailhead.

Leave No Trace

Please remember to follow Leave No Trace ethics when out hiking and camping. Hikers and backpackers need to protect public lands to protect their diversity and ensure they’re available to visit for years to come.

Camping in the Green Lakes Basin is restricted to the 28 designated and marked camping sites. If none are available, you’ll have camp elsewhere outside the basin. Campfires are banned, and dogs must be on leashes between July 15 and September 15.

Tread lightly and be sure to pack out everything that you packed into this special place. Don’t be afraid to leave it cleaner than you found it.

Area Tips and Resources

  • Camping: Camping at Green Lakes is limited and first-come, first-served. You’ll need to fill out a free permit at the trailhead.
  • Lodging: The scenic byway leading to the trailhead is riddled with resorts. A 10-minute drive to the west will bring you to Elk Lake Resort, and there are plenty of additional options near Bend.
  • Food: if you don’t want to stop for a meal at one of the scenic byway hotel restaurants, load up on snacks in Bend. It gets hot at the trailhead, so make sure you have a high-quality cooler if you leave the food in the car.

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