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In pursuit of adventure, we searched for a campsite on the hills of the Santiam Pass. Based purely on location alone, we chose Big Lake Campground near Sisters, Oregon. What we found is a paradise of white mountains and blue water surrounding a campsite filled with flowers.
About Big Lake Campground
Big Lake Campground has 49 sites for RV or tent camping. It’s located on the shores of Big Lake, between Hoodoo Ski Park and Mt. Washington. The campground does not have electric or water hookups, but does have several water faucets and vault toilets. There is also a day use area featuring picnic tables and a boat ramp.
Big Lake is located in the Willamette National Forest near the Mt. Washington Wilderness. Several trails crisscross the region, including the Patjens Lakes Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Arriving at Big Lake Campground
Most of the sites at Big Lake can be reserved in advance via Recreation.gov. The rest are available first-come first-serve (FCFS). Since every site in a 10 mile radius was completely booked, we headed up hoping to luck out on a spot. It was Thursday, so our chances were good. I would not expect to find a FCFS site on a weekend, but you might get lucky! The best time of day for finding a FCFS site is from 10 am to 1 pm. This is when most campers are leaving (check out is by 1 pm).
On a Thursday in mid-June, we found quite a few available sites. We arrived around 12:30 pm and had our choice of maybe 10 sites. As a big RV pulled out of a site, we ran down to check it out. Site 30 was amazing! It has a lovely view of Big Lake and the site is filled with blooming bear grass flowers.
After securing our site we checked out the nearby amenities. Water and trash service were both within sight. The bathroom was a few sites away, but we found that it was a nice walk and not too much of a burden (despite having a potty training 3-year-old with us).
Swimming in Big Lake
We were delighted to discover a secluded swim area just down the hill from our campsite. The swimming area is big enough for 1-2 families. There’s a path from the road as well, so it’s open to anyone, but on our first two days it felt like ours. Our kids loved swimming with the soft, sandy bottom. It was so clean that sediment didn’t even stir up as you walked through it. Take some life vests and cool off after a nice hike!
There is also swimming available at the day use area, and many of the campsites also have swim access. It was the perfect way to cool off on our trip, which saw temperatures as high as 91°F.
I carried a book and a chair down to the shore while the kids played. My husband jumped in, too. He and our teen daughter swam out a little ways and said it was still sandy without any debris.
Amenities at Big Lake Campground
As a developed campground, Big Lake has the usual amenities of vault toilets, water sources, and trash service. It does not have electrical or water hookups for RVs, but most campsites can accommodate an RV and we saw lots of them. We saw equal numbers of tents and every site that we could see had 1-3 spots for tents.
There are two camp hosts, one near the entrance and one in the middle at site #31. The main campground host sells wood and ice (ice!!) for reasonable prices. This saved us from driving in to Camp Sherman or Sisters for ice. On our visit, wood was $7 a bundle and ice was $4 a bag.
Did I mention the view?
Best Sites at Big Lake Campground
First, understand that we didn’t get to see every campsite. We drove through several times, and walked through a couple of times, but the campground was full and we could see what we could see from the road. But in a nutshell…
Most spaces are along the lake, but many of them are actually set back from the lake a bit without a real view or access to the lake.
- spaces 10-15 are completely lakeside. Jump in and go. Absolutely gorgeous view. No privacy. Sites are smaller than other sites.
- 22-24 have lovely views with good privacy. These are set back from the lake a bit and do not always have lake access.
- Site 30 was our site. Our tent pad had a great view (no view from the fire pit or picnic table). Lake access and tons of bear grass flowers.
No View or lakeside access:
- Sites 1-9 are across the road from the lake. These aren’t lakeside, but very close to lake access.
Most of the other sites didn’t appear to have a view, but it was hard to tell for sure from the road.
Sunset and Sunrise at Big Lake Campground
I couldn’t stop taking photos of Mt Washington. I must have taken 100 photos, including sunset and sunrise.
Bear Grass at Big Lake Campground
In late June, the bear grass is stunning in full bloom. We had no idea there would be bear grass flowers, and we were absolutely delighted to find them blooming right in our campsite. Bear grass only grows in upper elevations in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a member of the lily family, although it looks nothing like a lily. The leave blades can be sharp, but the flowers are tall and softly scented. Flower stalks can grow up to nearly 6 feet tall! While we didn’t see any that tall, I did see some that easily rivaled my own 5’5″ height.
What to do nearby
Everything! There’s so much to do in the area. Hiking, fishing, boating, kayaking, caving, mountain biking, and OHV trails are all plentiful. Hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail or fish the pristine waters of the Metolius River.
Speaking of the Metolius River, you can visit the headwaters! The river appears to come straight out of the hillside. There’s a short, paved 0.25 mile walk from the parking lot to the viewpoint. Enjoy a picnic and stretch your legs.
The Camp Sherman store is the nearest store and is also a fun place to visit. Picnic tables fill a grassy lawn outside. Walk across the road to a fish viewing platform.
How to reserve a site
If you go, and we hope that you do…
You can reserve a site in advance at Recreation.gov. You can also try for one of 13 first-come, first-serve sites. Sites are $24 per night.
Amenities: drinking water, vault toilets, ice & wood for sale at host site
Nearest store: Camp Sherman Store is 15 miles away. They stock most basics including medicines, baby diapers and wipes, sunscreen and more.
Nearest gas: Camp Sherman Store
Tips: take lots of bug spray. Some sites had a strong mosquito population. Our site wasn’t as bad as others, but we still went through a lot of bug spray.
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How are mesquitos at end of Aug? Now
Ooh, good question, I’ll see if I can find an answer for you. We went in late June and they were bad near the water, but further into the campground they weren’t bad at all.