Head into the Sisters Wilderness and you’ll have a hundred-and-one options in terms of deep-wilderness adventures. It’s somewhat harder to find simple day trips that don’t require packing for nights in the mountains. And that’s why I want to highlight the Hand Lake hike, which is a quick family friendly day trek through an alpine forest.
From the trailhead the path starts nearly level, sheltered by a mixed-conifer forest. It’s only a half-mile walk from the start of the hike to Hand Lake, which is a lovely, shallow, and relaxing place to stop for a swim. And while it’s close to Scott Lake, it considerably less busy, even in July and August, which are the best months for a refreshing dip. Along with the lake there’s a rustic old wooden shelter, a lush meadow, and views of surrounding wilderness.
The hiking adventure doesn't stop here though, but continues by turning right and following a trailed signed for Robinson Lake. Walk back into the shade of a thick forest that’s rich with bunches of beargrass. The trees start to thin as the path gently ascends and opens to reveal an old lava flow. It’s a fascinating sight – the old ropy lava appearing to have just cooled, situated between grass and wildflowers.
Skirt the flow and keep your eyes peeled for a rock cairn that marks where the trail turns right and crosses the lava via an old wagon path. Once across the old flow the trail bends and loops back towards the lake. Stick to the trail instead of bushwacking and you’ll come across a spot by the lakeshore that (when the water level is low enough) you can take the plunge and swim over to a small hidden inlet. After shaking yourself dry, don’t forget to look up one last time before heading back to the trailhead – the ridge of the Three Sisters, lifting over the treeline, is worth a backwards glance.
As an interesting historical note, pioneer and mailman John Craig used to walk this trail back in the 1870s. He traveled by horse, wagon, or by foot to carry packages and letters over the terrain. He disappeared on this route in 1877 while heading east with a backpack of Christmas mail in a heavy backpack. Today a wilderness ski tour called the John Craig Memorial Race honors the brave mailman.
Note that free self-issue permits (available at the trailhead) are required for day and overnight hikes.
Directions from Sisters: Drive on Highway 242 west over McKenzie Pass. Look for the Hand Lake Trailhead on the right between mileposts 73 and 72. It’s about 4.5 miles west of the pass. There’s a small parking turnout and a sign at the start of the trail.