It was hot at our Montana home, a stifling summer heat. We wanted to take our horses, Jake and Cody, and ride somewhere with cool, shaded trails. We wanted a camping area with corrals, water for the horses, horse water, and, if we were lucky, electricity and showers!
Thirty miles west of Bend, Oregon, at an elevation of 5,100 feet, Quinn Meadow Horse Camp fit the bill. This camp is located between Devils Lake and Elk Lake in Deschutes National Forest, which spans 1.8 million acres just east of the Cascade Mountain Range. Surrounded by fragrant pine trees and the gorgeous South Sister Mountain towering nearby, this clean, picturesque camp met most of our wish list. There was no electricity and no shower house, but the primitive outhouse was extremely clean.
Quinn Meadow offers 26 sites with either two or four corrals; however, not all sites are created equal when it comes to accommodating a living-quarters trailer. At 28 feet on the box, our trailer isn’t particularly long, but backing into a narrow entrance while trying to avoid trees and shrubs can be challenging. Some sites are easier to get into than others.
For tips on getting a living-quarters trailer into some of the campsites, find the Quinn Meadow group page on Facebook. There, you’ll find pictures of the campsites, plus information from the 118 members. To reserve your spot online, visit recreation.gov. Go to Camping & Lodging, then type “Quinn Meadow Horse Camp” in the search box.
Each campsite has a picnic table and fire ring. There’s also a water pump in camp with some of the tastiest water ever. However, the hand pump has no threads, so water must be bucketed. This isn’t easy, especially if you’re camped some distance from the pump.
Shawna Smith is the woman behind this tidy, beautiful camp. This vivacious camp host is in her fifth year in this role. With her were her five dogs and two horses. One of the horses was her beloved 26-year-old Norwegian Fjord named Honey.
We visited with Shawna about the trails and the camp, and asked her what drew riders to this area. “If they haven’t taken time to come here, they should,” she said with a smile. “The beauty is immeasurable.”
We enjoyed our stay here, especially the early mornings when the temperature would be in the low 40s or high 30s. We would sit beside our little fire sipping coffee and watch our fellow campers walk by with wheelbarrows and buckets of water, or head off on morning rides. There were some delightful families and older couples, but overall, most of the riders were hardy groups of women of all ages.
Jake and Cody’s pens weren’t in the shade, so we decided to rig a tarp over them as we’d seen other campers do for their horses. It seemed like a good idea until Cody began chewing on the tarp. After a couple days, the tarp was history, and they were back in the sun.
Quinn Creek/Appaloosa Loop
There are several enjoyable rides from camp. An enticing introduction to the area riding is the 7-mile Quinn Creek/Appaloosa Loop. If you like, you can take side trails to add additional miles.
To access this loop, take the trailhead between Campsites 14 and 15. Follow Quinn Creek Trail #1 south past two trails to the left, then cross a new bridge over Quinn Creek that was recently installed by the Backcountry Horsemen of Oregon.
This portion of the trail follows the idyllic, clear Quinn Creek as it meanders and ambles through the valley. We encountered two kayakers who had worked their way up the creek from Hosmer Lake. These were the first kayakers our horses had seen. The horses snorted their disapproval at the odd shaped logs with human torsos attached.
After leaving the creek, we worked our way up a series of switchbacks. While the horses rested, we gazed past trees and caught a distant view of Hosmer Lake.
After a few miles, we came to the junction of the Metolius-Windigo Trail #99. More than 100 miles long, the Met-Win Trail runs north and south in this section of the Cascades. It was created in 1980 to provide long-distance riders an alternative to the Pacific Crest Trail.
We turned right on the Met-Win Trail and followed it downhill for a few miles towards Hosmer Lake and Lava Lake. The Met-Win Trail is open to bicycles outside the wilderness boundaries. While riding here, we only came across two bicyclists; both were very courteous.
After a while, we turned around and rode the Met-Win Trail north to continue our loop. While traveling through a pine forest, we caught glimpses of Bachelor Butte, a dormant volcano rising to 9,065 feet above sea level.
Eventually, we came to Appaloosa Trail #13.2. Taking this trail to the left will return you to Quinn Meadow Horse Camp. However, we rode to the right in search of the junction that would take us to Sparks Lake. At this junction, there’s only a sign for Hosmer Lake; however, this is the way to Sparks Lake also. We turned left at this spot and rode downhill a short distance to the shore of Sparks Lake.
This is a superb spot to water the horses and have lunch. Our eyes feasted on the rich sapphire lake in front of us. Walk a short distance to the left and South Sister Mountain will come into view. This is a dormant, snowcapped volcano, rising to 10,358 feet above sea level.
After lunch, we returned to the Appaloosa Trail and rode back to camp, completing the loop.
Devils/Quinn Loop Ride
Once again, Jake and Cody had their morning nap interrupted for another ride. This time, it was the 9.5-mile Devils/Quinn Loop. We rode out of camp on Trail #13.1 next to Campsite #15. This trail loops around the mysterious lava outcroppings and hidden springs that create Quinn Creek. On moisture-laden years, an abundance of springs dance out of, under, and around the ancient lava flows. The overall effect is like a hidden, magical fairyland.
We turned left at the next junction and followed Katsup Pond Trail #13 for approximately three miles to the Wickiup Plains Trailhead. This section of the trail showcases interesting lava formations.
Cross the parking lot at the Wickiup Plains Trailhead, and find the trail exiting on the other side. This trail passes through a highway tunnel. Photo alert! Take a picture of the rider in front of you while riding through the tunnel. Horse and rider will look heaven bound!
Within a mile, there’s another intersection; turn left, and follow this trail about 3 miles south to the junction of Quinn Creek Trail #1, and turn left again. While riding south, we traveled through a mostly forested area populated with lodgepole pines and mountain hemlock. This is an easy trail; some portions are along an old wagon road. On an exceptionally pretty section of trail, babbling springs supported lush ferns and other greenery.
After turning left on Quinn Creek Trail #1, we came to another tunnel under the highway; Quinn Meadow Horse Camp lies a short distance beyond this tunnel. Both tunnels on this loop are high enough to ride through.
Elk Lake Lodge Ride
Our third ride from camp was to Elk Lake Lodge, just 3 miles from camp. We left camp on the trail at the northwest corner of camp, passed through the last tunnel on the Devils/Quinn Loop, and turned left on Elk-Devils Trail #12. This is a pleasant ride on mostly forested terrain.
If you desire a longer ride, turn right on Horse Lake Trail #2 and go a little over 4 miles to Horse Lake. There’s a large meadow on the east side of Horse Lake that makes a good turnaround point or picnic spot.
Back at Horse Lake Trail #12, we turned right and rode a short distance to the Elk Lake Trailhead. We crossed the highway and followed the road leading into this popular resort. For fewer crowds, visit on a weekday. At the end of the road is the lake; the lodge is on the left, and hitching rails are on the right.
The rustic lodge has a large deck overlooking the lake bordered with distant pines. It’s a great stop for lunch, drinks, or ice cream while creating mental vignettes of the serene surroundings.
Unfortunately, we had to cut our relaxing drinks and lunch short. An afternoon storm was rearing its ugly head, with thunder and lightning lurking in the background. We hurried over to our horses and zoomed our way back to camp.
The Best for Last
Our last two rides were the most memorable: the Wickiup Plains Ride and the Green Lakes Ride. We trailered a short distance to the trailheads to access these rides.
To park at the trailhead, you need a Northwest Forest Pass; you can get one by visiting store.usgs.gov/forest-pass. To ride these trails, you also need a day permit; for this permit, visit recreation.gov. In the search box, type “Central Cascades Wilderness Permit Day Use,” and select the two trailheads. We were checked for permits at the Green Lakes Trailhead.
We trailered to the Wickiup Plains Trailhead north of camp. The access in and out of this trailhead is somewhat tight. If you have a living-quarters trailer, it would be a good idea to check out the trailhead before your ride to make sure you have enough space to park and turn around. One could ride to Wickiup Plains from camp, but we chose to drive to the trailhead so we could ride farther into the backcountry.
We rode through the first tunnel on the Devils/ Quinn Loop and entered the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, named after the three dormant volcanos. Each one rises over 10,000 feet above sea level. We rode about a mile to the second trail junction and turned right on Trail #12.1, the Wickiup Plains Trail.
In another mile, we turned right on the Moraine Lake Trail. We followed this trail for a half-mile, and then turned left on LeConte Crater Trail. This trail took us to the edge of the Wickiup Plain, an open pumice plain with far-reaching views of the looming snow-covered South Sister Mountain.
In 1.4 miles, we came to the Pacific Crest Trail. You can turn left here to continue on the loop, but we rode right for further exploration of the plains. As you ride along, on your right is the Rock Mesa obsidian lava flow. Here, black, shiny obsidian rock glistens and sparkles in the sunlight. Obsidian was valued by indigenous people to make arrowheads.
After a while, the trail crosses a small stream and then drops into Mesa Falls Creek. On the left is a meadow where we had lunch before turning around.
After lunch, we returned to the LeConte Crater Trail junction and turned right, following the Pacific Crest Trail. Look back for the last views across the plain to South Sister. If you like, you may check your map for additional side rides to Sisters Mirror Lake and Moraine Lake.
We continued on to the Wickiup Plains Trail and back to the trailhead, thus completing a day of high-country adventure.
Our final ride was our favorite ride. For a day of unsurpassed natural artistry, we trailered to the Green Lakes Trailhead with our Northwest Pass and Wilderness Day Permit in hand.
We discovered that the day permit resulted in a better wilderness experience. Prior to permit requirements, this wilderness was being “loved to death.” On this visit, we saw very few people and very little litter.
From the trailhead, you’ll experience an elevation gain of 1,000 feet and trek 5 miles to the first Green Lake. But, oh, what a stunning set of miles! Waterfalls sang and tumbled over rocks. Our progress was slow because we kept stopping to take photos.
After a series of switchbacks, we came to a valley with a stream on our left and beyond that, a lava flow. A brilliant contrast of colors! Black obsidian, bright-blue sky, pastoral greenery, and South Sister Mountain wearing an ermine cap and cape.
Eventually, we came to a trail junction where we turned left. Be sure to continue past the small lake straight across the plain to Green Lake. There, you will enjoy tranquil loveliness. We enjoyed our picnic under the watchful eye of South Sister, and experienced heartfelt gratitude for our horses
and for wilderness we can explore
You may return to the trailhead the same way you rode in, or you can make a loop by taking Broken Top Trail #10 just before Green Lake. This trail is named for Broken Top, a dormant volcano that rises 9,175 feet on the left side of the trail. The top appears to have blown off in a volcanic explosion. Then take Soda Creek Trail #11, which returns you to the Green Lakes Trailhead. This route adds about 3 miles to the trip.
For our final thoughts on our horse adventures in this area, Edward Abbey said it best: “Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”