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On my first visit to the Chambers Lakes one late August day, I noticed a miniature iceberg-at least 8-feet thick and showing no sign of melting-floating aimlessly in Camp Lake. Odd as it may seem, such a frozen find isn’t unusual here, even in late summer, along the alpine saddle between the peaks of South Sister and Middle Sister in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness.
That’s because the Chambers Lakes, a cluster of six sapphires as scenic as they are unswimmable, are the highest accessible lakes in the Cascades. The average elevation is in the 7,000-foot range, which means that the waters stay cold year-round.
To reach Chambers Lakes, jump on the 7-mile Pole Creek Trail on the east side of the 285,000-acre wilderness. Enjoy the ride as you climb through lodge pole pine and mountain hemlock.
There are no designated trails to the other lakes, so head cross-country over the barren, volcanic moonscape. Depending on weather and winter snowpack, some lakes are iced-over all year. To reach Carver Lake, just more than a mile south of Camp Lake, you’ll need good map- and compass-reading skills, and stamina. Cupped in the moraine of Prouty Glacier, Carver is set at 7,500 feet on the flanks of South Sister. Wind-sculpted whitebark pines frame the lake and peaks in picturesque poses. Look for volcanic plugs and lava bombs among the rocks.
If you decide to continue up the ice field to the top of South Sister, you’ll need well-honed ice-climbing techniques. Once there, you’ll find Teardrop Pool, the highest lake in Oregon, often completely iced-over, resting in the summit crater at about 10,200 feet.
Mysteriously, twigs and the occasional pine cone can be found on the ice thousands of feet above the nearest tree. From the summit, Middle Sister appears close enough to touch. With a sharp and patient eye, you’ll spot ice crumbling into Chambers Lakes 3,000 feet below, and witness the birth of new minibergs.