By Dani Nichols for The Bulletin Special Projects
Summer camp. The smell of dry pine needles under- foot, of campfire smoke and sizzling hot dogs. The taste of Chapstick and iced tea, of burgers with ketchup and mustard, blackberry milkshakes, classic potato chips. The sound of lake water lapping the bottom of an aluminum boat, the gentle sway of a floating dock, starry skies stretched wide above dark tree branches. The visceral nostalgia of summer camp is strong, and vivid memories of my own camp experiences flooded in as soon as I began this foray into Central Oregon lakeside resorts and restaurants. As we went from place to place, trying the foods and exploring the lakes, I was struck by how powerful nostalgia is, how it was unleashed by each of the resorts I visited in unique and dynamic ways. They remind me of the summer camps I attended in childhood and later worked at as a young adult, while still allowing space for the new memories I’m making with my own children.
Our first stop was Elk Lake Resort on Cascade Lakes Highway. Elk Lake is beloved by families for its sandcastle-inviting beaches, and the resort offers rental boats, kayaks, and other water toys. It has beautiful mountain views and, as an added bonus for my fisherman husband, a healthy population of kokanee and trout. When I pulled a plastic chair up to a thick wooden table on the deck of Elk Lake Resort’s restaurant, the smell of cheeseburgers and grilled chicken mingled with the scent of pine trees and sunscreen, making me truly nostalgic for my youthful camp days.
The only difference was the cold local IPA in my hand instead of the evasively named powdered fruit drink of yore. I guess even nostalgia needs an upgrade sometimes.
Elk Lake Resort has been around since the 1920s, and it still has the rustic vibe of an old-fashioned mountain lodge. The menu is simple but satisfying, and while the ambience is far from pristine, it’s charming in its imperfection—a little peeling paint or unfinished wood simply adds to the nostalgia, the memory of camping trips and summer camps long gone. The food is excellent: I got a bowl of the famous Elk Lake chili and loved both the beautiful presentation and the depth of smoky, salty, satisfying flavor. My husband got the elk burger, grilled to perfection and served with housemade chips. Elk Lake Resort is delightful because it is sure of itself—the setting is perfect enough without tripping over itself to add sparkle. The staff provide simple, hearty food cooked with confidence and served with a smile, and then get out of the way to let Mother Nature do the rest for a genuinely enjoyable day on the lake.
The next weekend we took off for Cultus Lake and the Twin Lakes, both close to Sunriver and La Pine. I was warned by co-owner Kate Dunn that Cultus Lake can be cold in early summer, and sure enough, the lake was very windy and chilly. Even in breezy conditions, it’s still a great choice for fishing and boating, but it wasn’t a good fit for our daughter, whose one dream was to try her new Moana fishing pole on the shore. We ate in the small resort restaurant overlooking a rock patio and the lake beyond. One side of the building houses the restaurant and the other a small store, selling fishing tackle, candy bars, sweatshirts, and other sundries. Again, I was hit with a wave of memory: a dollar crumpled in my child-size fist as I looked up and down the shelves of tiny woodland stores like this one in search of the perfect candy selection.
We saw mostly campers and fishermen warming up from the stiff wind with hot coffee, despite a multicolored chalk sign cheerily offering milkshakes and ice cream cones (and the implicit hope that warm weather would soon arrive at our high mountain lakes). Tables lined one wall along the windows, and wooden stumps covered with red leather seats sat at the counter, like a true backwoods bar. The food was solid campsite fare—large portions served with no frills but kindness. Our toddler was thrilled with her corn dog and french fries, and my husband and I both enjoyed our burgers (his with chili, mine with a salad), exactly the kind of burgers I remember eating out of the camp kitchen when I worked as a wrangler years ago. There’s a reason that ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, and pickles are the only essential burger toppings—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and certainly don’t mess with a classic.
After lunch, we headed out on the 20-minute drive to Twin Lakes Resort (also owned by Kate and Devan Dunn), where we found a much calmer, warmer lake and beach, perfect for our daughter’s casting practice. The restaurant and gourmet coffee cart weren’t open, but the store was stocked with well-thought-out camping essentials and a good assortment of drinks and snacks. I was kindly offered a cup of coffee from the hot pot on the counter when I walked over with my baby boy on my hip, looking like I was desperate for caffeine (which I was). The Twin Lakes don’t allow the use of motorboats, but my husband and daughter happily cast out fishing lines from the shore and I savored the coffee, sleepy baby, and beautiful view.
The family next to us had older kids and regarded us kindly, with our three-year-old and baby, offering nostalgia of their own: “We remember those days,” they said wistfully.
Don’t we all remember those days? The summer camp romance, the epic camping trip, the baby now grown, the late night ice cream runs—something about the camp setting grants us access to the past.
The final stop on our lake tour was Suttle Lake, just past Sisters. The Suttle Lodge and Boathouse is the most modern of the ones we visited, as it was recently purchased and renovated in 2015.
We arrived in the morning, put the fishing boat in the water, and took turns boating, fishing, playing with sand toys on the shore, and waving to the passing hikers who were enjoying morning walks around the lake. While my kids played with plastic dump trucks and shovels, I thought more about nostalgia—what brings us back to the lake, again and again? What pulls us into the lodge, makes us yearn for the taste of fire-roasted hot dogs and creamy potato salad?
While the other lakeside restaurants we visited were time capsules from a bygone era, Suttle Lodge and Boathouse is a reimagined take on nostalgia, a purposefully designed, clean-cut dream inspired by our childhood summer camp experiences (or the ones we wish we’d had). I was eager to experience the food and the lodge, so when lunchtime rolled around we boated over to give it a try.
The restaurant is clean and bright, with wooden booths lining the walls, a painted concrete floor inside, and folding tables on the wooden deck outside. The menu is a black-and-white printed backdrop behind a simple counter, where boaters, vacationers, and fishermen were lined up to order. The menu is simple but clearly upscale: a breaded trout sandwich, a salad with smoked trout and homemade fennel dressing, and an artisanal hot dog with potato salad and curly fries made our meal, complete with a pilsner for my husband and a glass of rosé for me. The food was simple, satisfying, thoughtful—the perfect bites of salt, acid, and heat—served in brown paper. When my eight-month-old made a grab at my wine (luckily served in plastic) and dumped it on the table, the waitstaff came over with napkins, a clean rag, and a free refill for me, laughing with us at our squirmy baby.
The Suttle Lodge has tapped into nostalgia in a lovely, refined way. Our summer camps were not this nice growing up—we didn’t have unique art and beautiful hand-carved Adirondack chairs for sipping beverages and reading books; we didn’t eat this well either. But it speaks to the same nostalgia to be found at the other lakeside resorts. It reminds us of simpler, quieter times when we spent weeks outside getting suntans and lean muscles, learning who we were beyond the confines of school or work or the noise of town.
Through the lakeside resorts we visited, we found that feeling again. Through the taste of homemade chili on a wooden table; while watching our toddler relish a corn dog and french fries as the wind brought us the scent of a mountain lake; in the updated taste of a fried fish sandwich, enjoyed beside the lake on a hot summer day, we remembered the past with fondness, living the moment as we created new memories for future nostalgia.
Other Area Lake Resorts
Blue Duck Grill, East Lake, La Pine
Cove Palisades Resort, Culver
Hoodoo’s Crescent Lake Resort
Odell Lake Lodge and Resort, Crescent
Paulina Lake Lodge, La Pine
Prineville Reservoir Resort