Backpacking to Russell Lake

Whitewater Trailhead

Russel Lake offers untouched wilderness and unpopulated natural scenery. This is also a great spot for stellar astrophotography. 

This hike begins 7.5 miles down Whitewater Road at the Whitewater Trailhead, about 10 miles east of Detroit Lake. The road is bumpy, but can be navigated at slow speeds, even without four-wheel drive. Make sure to fill out a wilderness pass once you arrive at the trailhead.

The trail is very well maintained, with incredible views along the way. About 4½ miles in, the trail intersects the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – make sure to turn leftward, toward the mountain, otherwise you might end up in Mexico!

Once on the PCT, you will descend into Jefferson Park, which looks like something out of a fairytale. You will pass several lakes, including Russell Lake, which each have small campsites, so head out early in order to secure a camping spot. Enjoy clear, starry skies at night, and beautiful fog over the lake, in the morning.

There are many hikes to explore in this area. One great option is to head up the PCT through the park – you might meet some friendly PCT hikers, along the way.

To catch peak wildflower season, plan a trip in late July – for astrophotographers, as well, this is when you can catch the darkest skies in Oregon.

Pack List

  • Tent
  • Warm sleeping bag (preferably zero degrees)
  • Camera
  • Tripod if you want to catch the Milky Way
  • Water
  • Food
  • Rope to tie up your food
  • Good company
Show More
RT Distance 12 Miles
Elevation Gain 1800 Feet
Activities Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Spring, Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Out-and-Back
Easy Parking
Family Friendly
Picnic Area
Swimming Hole


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Overall rating: 

Update 2018

I just hiked up to Jefferson Park (Aug 2018) - please note that the Whitewater Trailhead and trail are CLOSED indefinitely due to a fire last summer. I hiked up the South Breitenbush Trail #3375 and it was ROUGH - a steep, rocky trail climbing lots of elevation. But totally worth it. In order to get to the trailhead follow Hwy 46 and turn onto FR 4685 follow this road for about 4-5 miles and you will see a big parking area on the right. There are some other trailheads on this road that are a little confusing as they are called the "South Breitenbush Gorge Trails" DONT TAKE THESE ONES! Enjoy the gorgeous hike - its a butt kicker for sure. Be careful on the way down as the rocks are loose, ankle busters. I camped at Bays Lake and it was glorious. Happy trails!

Permit Required starting in June 2016

New for 2016, the USFS is requiring online reservations to be made for any of the designated lakeside campsites in Jefferson Park between Memorial Day and Halloween - see for more info. Jefferson Park area is one of the best overnights in the Oregon Cascades! Each of the lakes is beautiful on its own, and the views of Jefferson - right in your face the entire evening - are unparalleled. The hike up from the Whitewater trailhead is relatively easy (certainly some elevation gain, but nothing too extreme) and the road is actually in pretty good shape. Snow lasts into mid-June, making this a great option for a May snowshoeing or backcountry skiing trip (think Memorial Day weekend - if you're out by Monday night, no permits required! Plus, there are no mosquitos and way fewer people spending the night up there when there's still snow on the ground). For a side trip, check out Park Butte about a mile to the north - it's difficult to actually reach the summit, but there are some nice views of Jefferson Park itself from the butte. Also, give yourself time for a nap and plan to spend the night staring at/photographing the Milky Way. There's basically zero human light and the snow-covered mountain reflects all the starlight. The single downside to this hike is that I still haven't found a great post-hike brewpub option along Hwy 22!

Love it

Mt Jefferson area is my most favorite of any place in Oregon. It is very beautiful with lots of subalpine lakes. If you are conditioned and willing, hiking up onto the glaciers is insanely beautiful. Though there are very few trails up the mountain. I didn't use a trail and just adventured up the side. Not an easy task and getting down is sketchy and very very steep in spots. So be forewarned, it is risky. I recommend this hike to everyone, and is something all hikers should experience.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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