For over a decade now, I’ve avoided visiting and writing about Marion Lake, perhaps the most popular alpine pool in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
The reason was simple — everybody and their mom knows about it. A generation of Oregonians grew up hiking to this 360-acre lake to fish and camp.
But with a permit system that limits crowding in place — and with the season coming to an end — I decided it was finally time to dive into a place that has so many things in one place, from waterfall hunting to mountain climbing to wildfire scar exploring.
Snow will cover this area in the next month, so think of this as a guide to sneak up there for one last trip or plan a more classic summer trip for next year. I explored the area with my dog Comet in late October, during the unusually warm and dry stretch. It’ll look pretty different now.
You’ll need a permit to hike or backpack here between June 15 to Oct. 15. In the off-season, like right now, the road and trailhead at 3,300 feet will be covered with snow, but when exactly that happens remains to be seen. As of late October, it’s open but there is some snow at or above 4,000 feet near the lake.
The milage and difficulty of this trip will depend on which adventures you take on, but generally, it’s 6 miles round-trip to Marion Lake with 800 feet of climb (moderate difficulty). If you add the recommended climb up Marion Mountain, it’s about 11.5 to 12 miles with right around 2,000 feet of climb (strenuous difficulty).
A lake, mountain and waterfall named for the ‘swamp fox’
The best thing about Marion Lake is that it has so much packed into one destination. A mostly easy hike of 3 miles brings you to the iconic lake, but side trips to a nearby waterfall and a mountain summit make this trip one of Oregon’s best.
The funny thing is, all three places have the same name. Marion Lake, Marion Falls and Marion Mountain are all named for a guy who never visited Oregon. The man in question is Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, who was known as the “swamp fox” for pioneering the use of guerrilla warfare.
As for why the name Marion is so widespread — it includes Marion County as well — it was apparently because Oregon pioneers were enchanted by a book about Marion’s life that was “largely read in Oregon and other frontier settlements, and the praise of Marion in this book greatly appealed to the settlers,” according to the book “Oregon Geographic Names.”
First stop: Semi-hidden Marion and Gatch Falls
The hike into the Marion Lake area is straightforward. From the trailhead, just follow the trail 2.2 miles to a junction. From there, one trail goes left to the northwest corner of the lake, while another, Marion Lake Outlet Trail, follows Marion Creek to the southwest corner of the lake.
To visit spectacular Marion Falls, go right and just a few hundred yards thereafter — and well before you reach the lake — you’ll see a user trail on the right. It’s unofficially marked but hard to miss (unless it’s covered in snow). The trail charges into the forest and toward the creek. After less than a quarter mile, the trail goes over a rise and to the top of Marion Falls, a dramatic 90-foot waterfall. A very steep and sketchy trail leads down to the base of the falls in a misty grotto. Just below, another waterfall tumbles off a cliff — 60-foot Gatch Falls. An even sketchier trail leads to a view of that one. Both trails are very steep and it would be easy to get injured as they get muddy or snowy.
Many waterfall hunters think of this as one waterfall, with an upper and lower tier. But the two names persist in part because of a quirky naming dispute. It’s not worth litigating here, but if you want to dive into the naming dispute between Gatch and Gooch falls, this post in Northwest Waterfall Survey pretty well covers it.
Second stop: Marion Mountain view and wildfire scars
After the waterfall stop, return to the trail and follow it to another junction at the extreme northwest corner of Marion Lake. Here, you’ll have a choice to make: enjoy the lake or take on a climb to the top of Marion Mountain.
From the lake, it’s about 5 miles round-trip with 1,200 feet of climb to the top of the mountain and back down to the lake. You’ll also want a map, because while the junctions are well-marked, you take three different trails to the top. If you’ve got the energy, it’s worthwhile because it’s one of the best views in the Jefferson Wilderness.
At the first junction — at the Marion Lake outlet — turn right onto Blue Lake Trail, which climbs steeply above the lake for a mile to another junction. Then, turn right on Pine Ridge Trail, which climbs less aggressively another 0.8 miles, to a final junction, where you head left up Marion Mountain Trail, another 0.9 miles.
The top was once a fire lookout site, and what a sight it is. Mount Jefferson rises dramatically above Marion Lake to the north, while on the other side Three Fingered Jack rises in the south.
The view gives an overhead look at the wildfire scars that you hiked through on the way up — and the reason for the lack of shade en route. There are actually three wildfires that burned in this area: the 2002 Mount Marion Fire, 2003 B&B Complex, 2006 Puzzle Fire (on the far side of Marion Lake) and the 2015 Marion Fire.
Interestingly, while this area has seen many fires, it’s actually in somewhat better shape in terms of regeneration than other places in the Jefferson Wilderness, such as the Eight Lakes Basin, which was torched by the B&B Complex, and parts of the northern Jefferson Wilderness, which was burned by the more recent 2017 Whitewater and 2020 Lionshead fires.
More:Fifteen years ago, a titanic wildfire in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains forever changed how we view wildfires
More:Jefferson Park still magical two years after Lionshead Fire, but visiting more complex
Third stop: Marion Lake fishing, camping and swimming
Marion Lake has been a busy spot for a long time. In addition to native populations who’d visit the lake for a millennia, by the early 20th century, “extensive development” was planned for the lake in 1913. While most of those plans never happened, the lake did become the site of cabins, a guard station, and, in 1954, a boathouse that moored 140 boats.
The boats and structures were gradually removed after passage of laws creating the Mount Jefferson Wilderness in 1968.
Fishing has long been the most beloved pastime at Marion. When the lake was first surveyed in 1932, it had a population of cutthroat trout. Over time, brook and rainbow trout were stocked as well and were successful due to the lake’s size and abundance of food. Today, both rainbow and brook trout are caught on a regular basis.
I’d be the wrong person to ask about overall fishing strategies here, but the fishing does seem to live up to the hype. Over a few afternoon hours in mid-October, I caught two nice-sized brook trout and just missed two more.
The lake is 180 feet deep and in the heat of summer the fishing is apparently tougher from the shore, prompting some to hike small boats into the lake, which sounds both exhausting and a lot of fun.
As far as camping goes, no campfires are allowed anywhere around the lake, and there are large swaths of the lakeshore that are open to day-use only, meaning you’ll have to do a little extra work to find sites for the night.
Late autumn and winter adventures
One of the nice things about the Marion Lake Trailhead is that at 3,350 feet, it’s a bit lower than other trailheads. That means that depending on conditions, you can often access this area late into autumn or early winter and hike up into the snow.
The need to be careful during the off-season is obvious, but it also gives you the chance to explore the area with more solitude and sights than during the high summer season.
That time an airplane landed in the lake
About six years ago, outdoor author Bill Sullivan wrote this about Marion Lake in a story for the Statesman Journal, about a dramatic plane crash at the lake just under 10 years ago.
“If you had been standing on this peninsula on Aug. 18, 2013, you could have watched a Cessna airplane sputter, lose altitude and crash into Marion Lake.
“The pilot, 28-year-old Trevor Schultz of Lebanon, had taken three friends for a ride in the vintage 1961 aircraft that he had lovingly restored. When the engine died, he skillfully stalled the plane so it hit the lake surface at a very low speed. Although it sank within minutes, all four passengers managed to escape and swim to shore. A Salem Boy Scout troop that had camped nearby hiked them out to the trailhead.
“Ten days later, the U.S. Forest Service had a helicopter lift the sunken plane and fly it to the trailhead.”
In a nutshell: Large mountain lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
Hike: 6 miles round-trip to waterfall and lake; 11.5 to 12 miles to Marion Mountain
Difficulty: Moderate to lake and waterfall, strenuous to Marion Mountain
Red tape: Day-use and overnight permit required from June 15 to Oct. 15 on Recreation.gov via the Central Cascades Wilderness permit system
Trailhead: Marion Lake Trailhead, about 90 minutes from Salem
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.