Before its eruption and subsequent transformation into a large caldera, the area we call Mountain Lakes Wilderness was a 12,000-foot mountain, one of the giants of the southern Cascades. Glaciation then carved up the caldera, leaving a scattering of small alpine lakes instead of one enormous body of water, such as Crater Lake National Park to the north.
Only eight prominent peaks remain of the caldera's rim. Unique to the National Wilderness Preservation System, this area is the only Wilderness with a perfectly square boundary. Long appreciated for its wonder, Mountain Lakes was one of the three original Primitive areas created in 1930 in the Washington-Oregon region. Mosquitoes fly thickly from snowmelt to mid-August, and provide food for the rainbow and brook trout in the lakes.
The 8.2-mile Mountain Lakes Loop Trail winds along the southern rim of the caldera, connecting three trails in the interior of the Wilderness: the Clover Creek Trail (4 miles) from the south, the Mountain Lakes Trail (6.5 miles) from the west, and the Varney Creek Trail (4.5 miles) from the north. Beyond the eastern boundary lies private land.
Remember: The wilderness is an environment that is unpredictable so bring clothing and supplies for all types of weather and situations.
At a Glance
Mountain Lakes Wilderness is easy to reach. The hub of the maintained trail system is the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail in the core of the Wilderness. It traces an 8.2 mile path around the caldera rim. You can reach Mountain Lakes Loop trail from the north by way of the Varney Creek Trail (4.4 miles); from the west on the Mountain Lakes Trail (6.3 miles); or from the south by way of the Clover Creek Trail (3.3 miles).
Aspen Lake, Lake of the Woods North, Lake of the Woods South, Pelican Bay. Download free U.S. Forest Service Topo maps.
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Mountain Lakes is unique, yet its geologic history is similar to that of Crater Lake National Park, its famous neighbor to the north. Like Crater Lake, the landscape contains a large caldera (a broad crater-like basin) formed by the explosion and collapse of a volcanic cone. Unlike Crater lake, the caldera is filled with many smaller lakes rather than one big one.
It all started several million years ago with a series of volcanic eruptions that built a massive composite volcano. Covering about 85 square miles and towering over 12,000 feet, the peak was one of the giants of the southern Cascades. The same forces that built this great volcano then destroyed it.
Following the collapse of the peak, ice and snow accumulated in the caldera, eventually forming a series of glaciers that breached the caldera rim. As these rivers of ice spread down the flanks of the mountain, they reshaped it.
Today, eight prominent peaks are all that remain of the original rim. Repeated glaciations continued to shape the land, gouging out beds for the many small lakes, each with its own personality and unique environmental setting.