Three Sisters Circuit

A few years back, I was visiting cousins Sherri and Denny outside of Seattle. I had just finished my PCT section hike, thanks in most part to their generous rides to and from the trailheads. We were talking about outdoor adventure, and Sherri mentioned hiking one of the Three Sisters  some years earlier. I wasn’t familiar with the Three Sisters, and envisioned just another big volcano in a range of big mountains, more similar to what I had been hiking through in Washington.  I thought nothing of it after our discussion.

When we arrived in Oregon, we took a short drive out the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. A huge peak greeted us as we drove west, and I immediately wanted to go climb it. South Sister is beautiful, and rises out of low hills, with Middle and North sister hiding close behind. Joffrey refused my plan to go hiking – I had promised him that we would go climbing, so we went to Smith Rock.

South Sister
South Sister.

In our time in Oregon, I kept returning to the idea of going out to hike South Sister, the only easily accessible peak with a trail. Joffrey finally took the reigns and planned the logistics of a circuit hike that went around all three mountains, then up the popular Climber’s Trail on South Sister on our last day.

The night before we left, we gathered our gear and organized our packs in the dark parking lot of one of many Sno-Parks outside of Bend. After some final map logistics, we had a great night’s rest in the van and woke early to cold air and frosty trails. I quickly reevaluated some of the gear in my pack, throwing in extra socks, swapping shorts for pants, adding warmer gloves, and including my down booties. We would be camping at an alpine lakes and summiting South Sister early on the morning of the last day, and we wanted to make sure we’d be warm enough.

White packs, white van.
Packs loaded, and ready to go!

The first day took us mostly along the PCT. The trail was easy to follow, and took us through some evergreen forests and out into a beautiful golden meadows with strange volcanic formations. The volcanic rock seemed to still be tumbling down from the peak into the flat grassy area. Mesa Creek was small, clear and flowing swiftly. The terrain was not challenging – very little elevation gain and a smooth trail. As we continued, we discovered that many of the small creeks shown on our map were dry. We held out hope for larger Separation Creek, but it was also dry. Finally, we lucked into some water at a small lake just past Separation Creek. The pond was low, but had water; we refilled and ate lunch.

Cold morning start!
It was colder starting than we expected, but that didn’t chill our spirits!

We continued to have hope that creeks would be running, especially as the glaciers on South Sister and Middle Sister came into view farther north. Strangely, nothing was flowing. We arrived at the Obsidian Limited Entry Area (permits required unless you are walking on, and stay on, the PCT). The waterfall and creek were running, but we didn’t restock, revising our plans to arrive at South Matthieu Lake for the evening. We had been rationing our water since lunch, and felt we had plenty.

We had a great time gawking at the obsidian trail and large obsidian blocks everywhere.  The trail is practically paved with glassy black rocks. Joffrey was meant to be a geologist in a different life. We ran into the only person we saw the whole day. I felt energized and happy for a while, but shortly after we left the Obsidian Area, I began to feel fatigued. The lack of water in any creek was starting to stress me out, and the lake felt super far away.

Obsidian
Large and small chunks of this black, shiny rock – obsidian – was everywhere!
Through the looking glass.
Through the looking glass.

We passed the spring where we originally intended to camp; it was unsurprisingly dry. Shortly, we dropped down into an open meadow and decided to find a place to camp for the night. The meadow had ideal tent sites, but seemed to be 10 degrees colder than the surrounding forested ridges. We found a warmer place in the trees, set up camp, ate a good bowl of re-hydrated chili, and crawled into our tent. We had estimated our day to be 19 miles or so, but my feet were tired and I felt drained.  Our GPS said we had gone closer to 21 miles, which was more aligned with how my body felt. The discrepancy probably came from National Geographic notoriously underestimating mileage, and our GPS slightly overestimating distance. We had just enough water for cooking dinner, a last drink, and the remaining two miles to South Matthieu Lake.

Middle Sister.
Middle Sister.

The next morning was not nearly as chilly as we expected. There was no frost, and Joffrey quickly got us out of our bags and moving. It was a short jaunt to South Matthieu Lake, and we were happy to fill up our tanks. Getting out before the sun got too high was critical. The sun was really aggressive during the second day as we walked through the Pole Creek burn area. There was no cloud cover, and no canopy cover. All the brush had been burned, and the dark dirt warmed up quickly. We carried plenty of water from the lake, and the creeks continued to be dry.

Cascades marching at Dawn.
Sunrise over the Cascade Range. Mt. Hood is visible in the distance on the right.

Fall is an ideal season for this loop in terms of temperature, but subpar in terms of snowmelt and runoff. The burn area, besides the heat, was surreal and fascinating. It provided some beautiful views of North and Middle Sisters that would normally be obscured. We traveled a much shorter distance on day two, arriving to the Camp Lake Trail early in the morning. The major creek at the trail intersection was running strongly, one of the better water sources we had seen so far on the trip.

Anne hikes toward Middle Sister.
Anne hikes toward Middle Sister.

 

Pole Creek Burn area.
Hiking through the Pole Creek Burn area.

The climb up to Camp Lake was gentle. We crossed a silty river flowing strongly from the glaciers above. We quickly left the burned area, and found an alpine environment greeting us at the lake. The water was low, but there was snow not too far up the bowl and steep rocky slopes all around. I enjoyed an early camp, rested my feet, and read my book. Joffrey had toted in a few beers to top off our dinner, and we looked over the lights of Bend before we went to sleep.

Camp Lake camp.
Camped at Camp Lake.

The third day started off with a beautiful birthday sunrise above Camp Lake. We took our time enjoying the colors, eating breakfast, and gathering our things. South and Middle Sisters glowed red in the sunrise.

Birthday sunrise!
Birthday sunrise!

We quickly walked the five miles down the camp lake trail, crossed the glacier creek that was much lower after the cool night than when we had crossed it the previous day. We ran into numerous hikers near the Pole Creek trail, but then quickly were alone again for the last ten miles. A few people were headed up for the scramble up Middle Sister, and we wished we had added an extra day or half to summit. Along the burn area, we had amazing views of the peaks together that would have been impossible with any canopy. The trail continued through big pine forests covered in bright green lichens, and strange deposits of lava rocks of varying kind. The trail gained and lost elevation with some small hills.

Glacial stream in the morning sun.
Glacial stream in the morning sun.

As we crested the hilly pass to Green Lakes, we were treated with beautiful views of Broken Top. We took a quick skinny dip in one of the Green Lakes, to celebrate my birthday, then walked on, passing the miles by remembering stories of each year of our lives.

The Three Sisters through the Pole Creek Burn.
The Three Sisters through the Pole Creek Burn.

We camped at Moraine Lake, a popular lake only a few miles from the Devil’s Lake parking lot and climber’s trailhead. There were designated campsites, but we saw no one else. I enjoyed a birthday dinner and beer, and we slept early to get a quick start on the South Sister climb early in the morning. At 4:30 AM Joffrey woke up to hollering by a group getting an alpine start on the route, but we slept in until 6am. As with the past three mornings, it was significantly warmer than we predicted. All the layers I threw on the first morning turned out to be extra, unneeded weight all three mornings, though the booties made sleeping nice and toasty.

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Sunrise at Moraine Lake.

We packed quickly, and started the climb from Moraine Lake to the climber’s trail. The climbers trail is wide, and easy to follow. Much of the lava scree has been broken down into sand over the years, and there’s a lot of backsliding as you climb. We were happy to get ahead of the sun on the way up, but clouds loomed in the distance. The climb was tedious, but it would have been worse in the middle of a hot day. We had good company on the trail, but it wasn’t excessively busy. We made it to the top of the caldera, and the trail wraps around the rim in both directions to reach the high point, almost directly across the snowfield from where the trail hits the rim. We walked around, and talked to nice Slovakian guy doing a tour of the US and a gentleman setting up a ham radio at the top. The view was amazing. Despite our cloudy skies, we could see all the way north to Mt. Hood, and south to the distinctive Mt. Thielsen near Crater Lake. The summit was a five mile hike, and it took me around four hours from Morraine Lake. I cruised the bottom part where the terrain is gentler, but found the steep uphill climb along scree to be very slow going. I was very happy to reach the top.

Anne walking up the ridge above the Lewis Glacier.
Anne walking up the ridge above the Lewis Glacier.

 

Joffrey and I did a full circuit of the caldera and walked in the snow a bit before we headed down the same route. The clouds had departed and it was brutally sunny for most of the descent. The heat made it unpleasant, but by the time we finally reached the mellow flats, the clouds returned. We retraced our steps until the Moraine Lake Trail, and then walked down into the valley towards the parking lot. We continued to spot intriguing lava formations; the geology just didn’t grow old to us at any point. I thoroughly enjoyed the low, fall light through the clouds and trees, with the bright glowing lichen everywhere. Joffrey and I walked apart for the last few miles – he cruised at a 4.5 mph pace, and I took my time walking through the forest. We met at a stream near the parking lot, split a celebration beer, and rinsed our feet in a glacial stream (brrr!).

South Sister summit!
South Sister summit!

It was a stunning and unique hike around the volcanoes. There is so much science, history, and mystery behind the geology of the area. The brutal power of the volcanoes and magma below the surface was constantly at the back of our minds the whole hike, and this intensity is contrasted with the beauty and elegance of the three peaks together. It was a simple trip to plan, and an uneventful few days, but absolutely what we needed after the busyness and social atmosphere of Smith Rock.

More photos HERE!

Our track here (Google Earth .kml file)

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5 thoughts on “Three Sisters Circuit

  1. Glorious photos of unique terrain, lovely sunrises, cool rocks and delightfully gnarly trees- felt like I was there! Thanks for the free travel, the lovely writing and inspirational photo work- you guys rock!

  2. Fantastic report! We are going to do this loop August 3rd. What time of year was your trip? I have been watching the weather and the temps seem all over the scale. I’m trying to figure out how much clothing to take. Thanks!

    1. Ack! Sorry for the delayed response. We did the trip in early October (first week, if I recall), and it was lovely. I think it might be rather hot in August, but it might be high enough to stay cool.

      1. No problem. We just winged it! We took our time doing the full loop, clockwise, enjoying a fantastic 7 day trip. It was so beautiful! We started the afternoon on August 3rd at Lava Camp Lake.The weather was perfect until the last day when some clouds moved in with a sprinkle of rain as we crossed Opie Dilldock Pass. The wind was really gusty which required a jacket and the potential use of rain gear. The nights were mild, except for one night where we camped in a meadow upon leaving Wickiup Plain connecting the PCT, where we woke with 30 degree temps.
        I’m a Florida boy and figured I had no need for sunscreen, but I learned the sun is powerful at that elevation and with all day sun, my poor ears got sun blisters crossing the Wickiup Plain area! First time I have ever had blisters from a sun burn.
        My advice to anyone doing the loop is to have clothing to protect you at least to mid 30s with gusty winds and overcast skies. We started out with short sleeves and shorts, but needed jackets and long pants toward the end.

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