Clear Lake – Main Pool Sunken Forest

The main pool of Clear Lake has a huge sunken forest in the bottom of it.  Visibility of 100+ feet means that you can see the surface when you’re at a max depth of 100 feet in some of the deep underwater spring holes at the bottom of the lake.  A short surface swim is needed to reach the sunken forest.  You don’t have to worry about motorized boat traffic on Clear Lake because all engines are banned on the lake.

 

Clear Lake’s main pool from the shallows at the entrance.

Site Highlights:

The three big draws at the main pool on Clear Lake are the visibility (100+ feet of viz!), the sunken forest (80 foot tall tree trunks submerged underwater by a lava flow damming up the river!), and the huge potholes in the bottom of the lake where clear, cold spring water flows up from the basalt rocks underneath.  Sometimes you will also see a few trout and some freshwater shrimp at this site.  The craziest thing at this site by far is looking up when you’re 100 feet underwater and seeing the surface.  A lot of people will tell you that diving in Oregon is no fun because you can never see more than 20 feet but we’re here to tell you that at Clear Lake, you can see at least 100 feet when you’re underwater.

Nearest Town:

Clear Lake is in the middle of nowhere.  The closest towns of any size are Eugene/Springfield, Albany, Bend, and Salem.  Smaller Oregon hamlets like Rainbow, Marion Forks, and Sisters have basic services like gasoline and convenience stores or restaurants but they are all a long drive away.

GPS Coordinates:

44.371117 N, -121.995891 W

Special Directions to Site:

If you are coming from Salem or North, you will take the North Santiam Highway (State Highway 22) from Salem toward Bend.  At Santiam Junction, follow the signs for Eugene onto US 20 West and then onto State Highway 126.  If you are coming from Albany or Corvallis, US 20 East to Santiam Junction is the fastest way to go.  Then follow signs for Eugene down State Highway 126 (McKenzie River Highway).  Coming from Eugene and the south, take State Highway 126 out of Springfield up the McKenzie River.  If you’re coming from Bend, follow US 20 East to Santiam Junction.

Once you’re near the lake, you will see signs for the Clear Lake Resort.  You will turn onto National Forest Road 775 (paved).  Note that this is a one-way road!  It is well signed.  Then follow the road down until you are near the lodge and you find paved parking.

Parking:

In the fall, winter, and spring, there is usually ample parking at this site in free day-use parking spots to the south of the lodge at the resort.  In the summer, it can become very difficult to find parking here.

Day use parking is free but fills up fast in the summer. Winter is a good time to dive to beat the crowds at Clear Lake.

Site Orientation:

This site can get a little complex once you’re underwater because of how big it is.  Generally, you want to go north and west to find your way back to the exit.  When you enter the water, you want to head east and south to find the potholes and the sunken forest.  If you go too far south, you will end up at the other end of the lake and have either a very long surface swim, or a very uncomfortable hike back to your car.

Entrances and Exits:

The best place to enter and exit is to the south of the day use parking area.  There is a small path through the forest for about 200 feet to get to the entrance.  The entrance is easy to walk into although at times there can be a submerged log or two to stub your toe on.  Most people shouldn’t have any trouble with this entrance and exit.

Salt/Fresh:

This is a freshwater dive.

Shore/Boat:

This is a shore dive although you can put in non-motorized boats on the lake.  A boat could be useful if you want to more directly access the underwater forest without as much of a surface swim.

Checking out a cold freshwater spring in a deep pothole in Clear Lake. Be aware that when you go into these potholes, your chance of a frozen or free flowing regulator increase because of the depth (increased air consumption) and the temperature (ice cold water out of the springs).

Normal Conditions:

This lake is usually a pretty calm place.   There is more boat traffic in the summer although none of it is motorized.  Lots of anglers come to fish the lake so watch out for lures and line.

Normal Visibility:

Visibility here is usually 100+ feet.  It’s not unheard of to find 200+ feet of visibility in the fall before the winter rain and snow starts.  If you stir up the bottom, in most the lake the water will clear pretty quickly.  However, you should try to maintain good neutral buoyancy control to not spoil the viz for anyone else diving or people who are swimming or boating.

Normal Temperature:

We have seen it as high as 42F and as low as 31F at this lake.  Sometimes a very cold layer of water (thermocline) can be in the top few feet of the water column.  The water coming out of the springs in the potholes at the bottom of the lake can be 31F at the right time of year.  This makes it much more likely that your regulator will freeze up or free flow at depth.  We had one of our first stage regulators freeze and free flow at 100 feet in a pothole and had to abort the dive.  We know some people who have gone diving at Clear Lake with a wetsuit but we sure are happy to have drysuits for this dive.

Best Time of Year:

Fall, winter, and spring are the best for beating the crowds.  Fall has the best visibility but the viz is never bad here.

Max Depth:

You can go deep in the main pool at Clear Lake.  We have hit 100 feet in some of the deep holes and could have gone deeper if we wanted.  Remember that this is an altitude dive so your bottom time changes compared to sea level.  When you are at depth with this cold of water, you can have your regulators freeze and free flow.  It happened to us once here.  If you are in doubt about your gear, get a qualified professional at your local dive shop to examine your gear and tell you what conditions are safe for your gear to operate in.  Even with good gear meant for cold water, freezes and free flows are still possible.

Deep, clear water awaits SCUBA divers at Clear Lake! A whole underwater forest is down there, just waiting to be explored.

Suggested Special Training:

Advanced open water training is a must for this site.  It is big, deep, and cold.  A deep diver specialty class will also be useful here.  Altitude diver training is necessary so that you can dive this site safely.  it is over 3,000 feet above sea level at the lake.

Difficulty of Dive:

The entrance and exit are easy, the current is very mild, the visibility is excellent, but this can be a challenging dive because of the cold and the depth.  You need to be confident in your emergency ascent abilities.  You also need to be able to deal with the cold water.

Distance of Walk to Entrance:

The gentle path through the forest is about 200 feet from the day use parking area down to Clear Lake.  If you have to park in one of the further away parking areas, it will increase your walk a bit.

Surface Swim Length:

You can start diving right away from the entrance.  We suggest kicking out into the lake 500 to 1000 feet from shore heading due east before you start your dive.  This will give you maximum bottom time at all of the interesting stuff (the underwater forest, and the potholes and springs).  For those who don’t mind a long surface swim, going all the way to the east shore and starting your dive from there will maximize what you see with a tank of air.

Special Site Notes:

Remember that this is a deep, cold dive.  Regulator freezes and free flows do happen.  It happened to us once here.  Be prepared to abort your dive and immediately ascend to the surface if you have a free flow.

This is an altitude dive and can be a deep dive — both require special training.

It’s a good idea to take a flashlight to check out the deep fissures in the bottom of some of the potholes where the underwater springs are.  We have our favorite lights listed on our Gear We Use page.

[Underwater Map of Dive Site Coming Soon!]

Closest Local Dive Shops to Get Air Fills and SCUBA Gear:

There are no close dive shops to Clear Lake.  You will need to go to Eugene, Salem, or Bend to get any gear serviced or tanks filled.  You need to be self sufficient at this dive site.

Nearby Restaurants We Like:

The lodge at the resort on Clear Lake has limited hot food options and good hot chocolate.  Otherwise the closest restaurants you will find are down the McKenzie River toward the town of Rainbow or down the North Santiam Highway at Marion Forks.  If you want to go over the pass, Sisters has some good restaurants.

Nearby Places to Camp and Diver-Friendly Hotels:

The resort on Clear Lake rents out cabins.  Call ahead and ask about renting a cabin for SCUBA diving.  Don’t be “that guy” and bring your wet, smelly gear inside the cabin if they tell you not to.

There are a couple national forest campgrounds around the lake.  You can also camp in the national forest down some of the forest access roads.  Check at the local district ranger office about specifics for primitive camping.  Sometimes there are restrictions due to logging operations or fire danger.

What Other People Have to Say About This Site:

Please write in the comments below your experiences with this dive site!

Clear Lake – Pool North of Lodge Boat Ramp

The Clear Lake north pool is a quintessential Oregon dive site. SCUBA divers have enjoyed the 100+ feet of visibility, easy walk-in shore diving, quiet non-motorized lake. The highlights of the lake are a sunken and flooded forest still standing after hundreds of years and a series of underwater springs pushing out thousands of gallons of water of cold, clear water every minute. The McKenzie River starts at Clear Lake and flows all the way down to Eugene where it meets the Willamette. This is a great day trip dive from Portland or the Willamette Valley.

The north pool of Clear Lake as seen from the south shore near the lodge and cabins.

 

Site Highlights:

People come to dive clear lake for the amazing visibility.  100+ feet is common and at the right time of year (usually fall before the winter storms start), visibility can hit 200+ feet.  The north pool is shallower than the southern part of the lake, making it more friendly to divers who don’t want to prepare for frozen or free-flowing regulators.  There are a few sunken trees from the ghost forest at the bottom of Clear Lake but the main underwater attraction (aside from the viz!) is the big potholes in the bottom of the lake where huge springs come out underwater.  The spring water is usually very cold although during heavy snow melt conditions, the surface layer of water can be colder.  The small lodge at the southern end of this dive site usually has good hot chocolate and warm food available.

Nearest Town:

Clear Lake is in the middle of nowhere.  Eugene, Bend, and Salem, Oregon are the closest major towns.  Make sure that your gas tank is topped up and you have everything you need for a day of diving before you head to Clear Lake.

GPS Coordinates:

44.375479 N, -121.998950 W

Special Directions to Site:

Coming from Eugene, the McKenzie River Highway (State Highway 126) is the most direct route.  Coming from Portland, the North Santiam Highway (State Highway 20) is fastest.  At Santiam Junction, follow the signs for Eugene onto (briefly) US 20 West and then State Highway 126.  From Corvallis, US 20 East (South Santiam Highway) to State Highway 126 is the fastest.  From Bend, take US 20 East and follow signs for Eugene onto State Highway 126.

Follow signs for Clear Lake Resort and National Forest Road 775.  The road is one-way.  You must enter from the southern end of the road.  There are signs clearly visible from the highway pointing the way.  You will be turning to the east to get onto the access road.

Parking:

Day use parking is limited at the site.  As of writing this, day use parking is free.  However, parking is limited.  In the fall, winter, and spring, we have never had a problem finding parking on the weekends but in the summer, parking is a challenge even on weekdays.  Be sure to follow posted signs.  Some parking is restricted to overnight guests of the lodge.

Imagery © 2017 Google, Map data © 2017 Google.
Clear Lake North Pool Site Overview. Note that the access road to the lake is one-way. The northern end of the access road (lower right in above image) a one-way exit. The southern end of the road (1/8 mile further south, not shown) is the entrance.

 

Site Orientation:

The site is not too big to get lost in and with superb visibility, it’s easy to orient yourself underwater.  The boat dock is an easily recognizable landmark to show you where the southern boundary of the dive site is located.  If you go further south, you’ll end up in the much larger main pool of Clear Lake and will encounter the huge sunken forest.

Entrances and Exits:

The main entrance and exit that divers use on this side of Clear Lake is south of the lodge and docks.  There is a short walk down a path from the day use parking area to the entrance.  The entrance is easy and straight forward.  However, entering here will give you a long surface swim fighting the current to get past the docks.

Depending on the time of year, the people in the lodge can give you permission to enter and exit at the boat ramp.  Ask nicely and they probably will say yes.  In the summer when there is a lot of (non-motorized!) boat traffic, they probably will not let you enter or exit on the boat ramp.  There are a few other more difficult to find options to enter and exit to the west of the boat ramp along the north shore pool although you have to walk by the cabins to get there.  The people at the lodge generally frown on people cutting through the cabins to get access to the lake.

Salt/Fresh:

This is a fresh water dive.

Shore/Boat:

This is a shore dive.  You could use a non-motorized boat in the north pool but there isn’t much point.  It makes more sense to use a boat in the main pool.

Normal Conditions:

Conditions at Clear Lake are usually very good, aside from the cold water.  There is a current by the boat docks that will slowly push you down into the main pool.  The springs at the bottom of the lake push out enough water to make a gentle current near them.

Normal Visibility:

Visibility is usually 100+ feet and can sometimes be 200+ feet.  While there is sand and silt on the bottom, the current quickly takes it away and anything remaining quickly settles.  The photo below shows what it looks like when you crash into the bottom because you were paying more attention to your camera than your buoyancy.

The silt and sand on the bottom of Clear Lake can reduce visibility but not enough to cause a major problem. Maintaining good buoyancy is a good idea though!

Normal Temperature:

We have seen it as high as 40F at the surface after the water has been warmed by the sun and as low as 32F in the potholes were the springs are located.  We have gone diving at this site with several feet of snow on the ground and in the hot sun.  The water temperature is always COLD!  Be aware of how your dive gear performs in very cold water.  Some regulators can free flow or otherwise freeze due to the cold.  We had this happen to us once in the main pool of Clear Lake.

Best Time of Year:

Fall, winter, and spring are the best because there aren’t any crowds and you won’t overheat in your drysuit or wetsuit while you get geared up to go diving.

Max Depth:

In the bottom of the potholes where the springs are, you can hit 90 feet.  The rest of the bottom averages between 45 and 65 feet.  REMEMBER this is an altitude dive!  You need special training to dive at altitude!

Suggested Special Training:

If you want to venture into the potholes, you should have advanced open water or deep diver training.  You should have altitude diving training as well.  The dive site is at 3,000 feet above sea level.

Difficulty of Dive:

This is an intermediate level dive because of the potential for your regulator to freeze, the cold water, and the potential max depth.  Open water divers should only dive this site if they have sufficient dives under their weight belts and feel comfortable in alpine lakes.

Distance of Walk to Entrance:

Depending on where you park and which entrance you choose, you may be walking 1000 feet on pavement with your gear or a mix of pavement and forest path.  While there are slopes, they are gentle.

Surface Swim Length:

If the boat ramp is not available for SCUBA divers, you may have to do a lengthy surface swim (1000 feet) fighting the current past the boat docks.  If you can use the boat ramp, you can start diving right away.

There are some sunken standing trees in the north pool at Clear Lake. These trees were alive when the lake was formed. They got flooded out, died, and have remained standing ever since.

Special Site Notes:

Non-motorized boat traffic is more common in the summer on Clear Lake although we have seen a boat on the lake even in the winter.  Many people fish at Clear Lake (including fly fishing) so watch out for lures and fishing line, and steer clear of areas people are fishing.

There is some current coming out of the springs and by the lodge docks.  You can swim against the current but be aware that you can get tired out from fighting the current for too long.

Be sure to ask at the lodge before you use the boat ramp as an entrance or exit.

We found flashlights to be useful to peer deep into the springs.  Check out our SCUBA Gear We Use page for the gear that we rely on for diving in Oregon.

Remember that this is an altitude dive and that with such cold water, your regulator can freeze.  We had the first stage on one of our regulators freeze and free-flow at depth at Clear Lake once which required us to abort the dive and take the regulator in for servicing.  You should be comfortable with ascending from depth with no air in case your regulator freezes and free flows!

[Underwater Map of Dive Site Coming Soon!]

Closest Local Dive Shops to Get Air Fills and SCUBA Gear:

There aren’t any close local dive shops to Clear Lake.  Bend, Eugene, and Salem are the closest towns with dive shops.  You need to be self-sufficient at this dive site.

The current coming out of the spring in the bottom of one of the potholes can make it difficult to maintain good neutral buoyancy.

Nearby Restaurants We Like:

The lodge has some limited food options.  Otherwise, you have to drive a long ways to find a restaurant.

Nearby Places to Camp and Diver-Friendly Hotels:

The lodge at Clear Lake rents cabins that some of our SCUBA friends have stayed at and gone diving from.  Be sure to ask when you reserve a cabin what the rules are on dive gear.

There are several public campgrounds around or near the lake run by the Willamette National Forest.  There are also many forest roads in the area where you may be able to camp for free.   Be sure to check local forest regulations before attempting to camp outside of a campground.

What Other People Have to Say About This Site:

Please write in the comments below your experiences with this dive site!