Simply put, if completed in full, this is arguably one of the most bruising, arduous, unique, and spectacular non-summit reaching hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades. The 8-mile hike skirts the northern shore of Waldo Lake and then turns north around Rigdon Butte and Lakes, making it by far the best introduction to the wild landscape that surrounds Waldo Lake.
Departing from North Waldo Campground, the trail quickly emerges from the lake’s mountain hemlock forest into the barren landscape created by the Charlton wildfire that burned through 10,400 acres of wilderness on the lake’s northern shore in 1996. Passing charred forest remains, fresh wildflowers, and opal coves, you’ll eventually make your way to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Willamette River and to Dam Camp Park, where several backcountry campsites make for ideal backpacking.
Turning north near Dam Camp Park, the hike gets more interesting and certainly more challenging. What makes this trail so strenuous is the nearly constant mid-summer sun exposure and trail conditions around Rigdon Butte and Lakes; these are virtually unmaintained and frequently require scrambles over fallen snags. The challenge of this loop is rewarded, however, by the truly unique landscape. Lava rock, forest fire remains, wildflowers, undulating land masses, jagged outcroppings, lush meadows, and numerous cool high-mountain lakes all meld together.
Note: For an alternate and less strenuous experience, simply hike the 3.0 miles (one-way) along the lake’s northern shore to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Willamette River.