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Elk Lake Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

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Elk Lake Creek. (Matt Reeder)
The Elk Lake Trail climbing through a talus slope near the Battle Creek crossing. (Matt Reeder)


Hike Description

Remote and wild, the Elk Lake Trail follows Elk Lake Creek through the Bull of the Woods Wilderness Area 8.9 miles to Elk Lake. While a 17.8 mile round trip hike is too much for most hikers to cover in one day, the Elk Lake Trail is excellent for backpackers. Furthermore, the trail intersects the Welcome Lakes and Mother Lode Trails, so loops are possible and recommended. Should you choose to hike just the Elk Lake Trail, be forewarned: the trail between the Welcome Lakes Junction (2.2 miles from the trailhead) and the Battle Creek Shelter (4.9 miles) fords Elk Lake Creek twice and Battle Creek once and suffers from a lack of maintenance. Be prepared to get wet and climb over downed old-growth trees, which can be a problem for backpackers.

While there are two trailheads for the Elk Lake Trail, the northern one is the only one that will not destroy your passenger car. Since this is the recommended approach, the hike description begins from this trailhead. Alternately, those who have a high-clearance truck or SUV may start at Elk Lake.

The following comes from the entry for the Battle Creek Shelter:

The trail begins in a reforested area but quickly climbs to an overlook of a waterfall and deep green pool on Elk Lake Creek. From here, descend slightly into deeper forest and cross into the Bull of the Woods Wilderness Area at the crossing of Pine Cone Creek. At 2.0 miles, cross first Knob Rock Creek then Welcome Creek. Note the two 10-15 foot waterfalls on Welcome Creek just above the trail. Shortly afterward, come to the junction with the Welcome Lakes Trail. Continue downhill (straight) and soon after, you'll be at the first ford of Elk Lake Creek. While the wide creek may appear to be only inches deep (in summer, at least), you'll soon find it is calf to knee-deep! The incredible clarity of Elk Lake Creek is truly astounding.

Continue on the far side of the creek and climb slightly into deep old-growth forest. If you pay close attention to the trees above you, you'll notice rings that once held telegraph wires. There are quite a few along the Elk Lake Trail. Also note how this stretch of trail suffers from a large number of downed trees, many of them quite big. You'll have fun climbing over downed trees, until you get tired of it and realize there are still more trees to climb over. 3.1 miles from the trailhead, come to a low bluff overlooking an incredibly deep and clear pool on Elk Lake Creek. Often it is possible to see fish swimming 10+ feet down in the pool. Marvel at the emerald color of the pool. This makes a great lunch and turnaround spot, but we're continuing towards the Battle Creek Shelter, so we'll be on our way.

Not long after the deep green pool comes the second ford of Elk Lake Creek. Once again, the water is stunningly clear and far deeper than it appears. This ford is slightly deeper than the first, but in summer and early fall should be easy enough for any adult. Remember to bring trekking poles or a hiking stick; you'll appreciate having an extra point of contact or two, as the rocks in the creek are large and quite slippery.

Back on your original side of Elk Lake Creek, the trail turns slightly uphill (note: while the trail gains a total of only 500 feet, there are many small ups and downs, and the constant climbing over downed trees can quickly sap your energy). Downed trees become more and more of a problem. At about 4 miles into the hike, the trail becomes difficult to follow as brush has overgrown the trail in several sections. Trust your instincts here and continue ahead, but not without first looking for blazes and sections of tread below you. The closer you get to Battle Creek, the more the trail suffers as it heads down into the bog that is the confluence of Battle Creek and Elk Lake Creek. The Elk Lake Trail is not always easy to follow here, but if you get away from the trail, STAY CLOSE TO ELK LAKE CREEK. Eventually, the trail comes to Battle Creek, which is just as wide as Elk Lake Creek and just as deep. Ford Battle Creek and negotiate the mess of downed trees on the other side, and you'll very quickly be at the site of the old Battle Creek Shelter, which collapsed under deep snow in 1988. This is an excellent spot for backpackers, as there is room for about 5-6 tents, easy creek access, two fire pits and often plenty of available wood. The former shelter site also marks the junction of the Elk Lake Trail with the Mother Lode Trail, which climbs up out of the Battle Creek canyon to Bull Of The Woods lookout.

The Battle Creek Shelter makes an excellent stopping point for lunch, but backpackers are advised to continue on to Elk Lake if you still have the energy. Follow the trail as it leaves Elk Lake Creek and turns uphill. While never steep, the trail climbs gradually for much of the remaining 4 miles to Elk Lake. Along the way the forest deepens considerably. Just before reaching Elk Lake enter a grove of giant old-growth. Shortly afterward, the trail ends at the Elk Lake Trailhead on FR 4697 above beautiful Elk Lake. Elk Lake is a beautiful spot: a large, deep lake high in the woods north of Detroit flanked by 5,558 foot Battle Ax. There is a primitive campground on the far end of the lake. Backpackers wishing to continue to different destinations have options: return the way you came, follow the road to Elk Lake before turning north on the Bagby Trail, or following FR4697 up to Beachie Saddle and dropping down to Jawbone Flats on closed road FR2209. All of these make for excellent backpacking trips. Alternately, if you have friends with high-clearance vehicles, you can arrange a shuttle to meet you at Elk Lake.


  • Green Trails Maps: Battle Ax, OR #524
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, Bull of the Woods Wilderness, Opal Creek Wilderness, Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area
  • Geo-Graphics: Bull of the Woods and Opal Creek Wilderness Map
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Clackamas River Ranger District
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mt. Hood National Forest

Regulations or Restrictions, etc.

  • Most of the hike is within the Bull of the Woods Wilderness Area. All wilderness area restrictions apply.

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • 100 Hikes In The Central Oregon Cascades - by William L. Sullivan (1st Edition, 1991) [Begins at southern trailhead. Detailed writeup only in 1st Edition.]

More Links


Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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