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Three Sisters Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

South Sister above Moraine Lake (Jerry Adams)
South Mattieu Lake, with North Sister in the background (Jerry Adams)
Typical stream crossing on the east side (Jerry Adams)
View of South Sister from the high point of the Green Lakes Trail (Jerry Adams)
View over the middle Green Lake, the largest lake in the basin (Martell)
On the south edge of the Green Lakes Trail is this lake. Half of the area around the lake is burned. You can camp on the unburned half. (Jerry Adams)
Obsidian Falls (Jerry Adams)
Sisters Spring is where Obsidian Creek appears from below a cliff (Jerry Adams)
Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson from Opie Dilldock Pass (Jerry Adams)
Map of the loop described as well as alternate loops (Jerry Adams)
  • Start point: Lava Camp Lake TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • Ending point: Moraine Lake
  • Trail Log: Trail Log
  • Hike type: Loop
  • Distance: 48.1 miles
  • Elevation gain: 5800 feet
  • High point: 7000 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: Summer and early fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: at some places

Contents

Background

The hike around the Three Sisters is one of the nicest in the area if you have a few days, or even in one day if you are a super-looney hiker. You get great views of the Three Sisters, other peaks, and surrounding areas. There are some amazing lava fields as well as alpine meadows and streams. There are places that are fairly crowded, and other places that are pretty remote. Compared to the trail around Mount Hood, the Three Sisters loop is longer but has less elevation gain. There are fewer difficult hikes down into steep canyons and across difficult streams. On Mount Hood there is more fine pyroclastic material with streams carving through it. On the Three Sisters loop, there is more pumice-like material with the water perculating into it rather than forming streams. There is are no developed destinations like Timberline Lodge and Mount Hood Meadows ski area.

It's a little more difficult to find drinking water on the Three Sisters loop, especially on the west side, because the soil is more porous so the water flows underneath. Part of this loop on the east side was affected by the 2012 Pole Creek Burn.

There is an option for a 35 mile loop by hiking up between the South Sister and the Middle/North Sisters. This trail is undeveloped in places. The elevation gain for this loop is about 3900 feet. Look at Camp Lake from Pole Creek Hike for details.

Another option would be to just loop around the South Sister. For this to really make sense, you have to take the off-trail shortcut between Camp Lake and the Green Lakes Pass (see the Camp Lake to Green Lakes Pass Hike).

There are also options towards Broken Top (see the Broken Top Loop Hike).

This hike is listed as a loop, but about one mile at the beginning is the same. Call it a balloon hike with a very short string. The hike starts at the Lava Camp Lake Trailhead which is just east of McKenzie Pass. Another option is to start at the Pole Creek Trailhead, which would reduce the distance by about three miles. This requires driving a little farther on forest roads. Another possibility is to start at the Devils Lake Trailhead on the south side. This would save about 3.2 miles but is quite a bit farther to drive from Portland. These options omit the hike up to and down from South Mattieu Lake, which is a really scenic leg.

Between June 15th and October 15th, you need to obtain a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit and pay the $6 for each overnight camp. You no longer need a special permit to camp in the Obsidian Limited Entry Area. You will need to plan and reserve well ahead of time.

Description

Start at the Lava Camp Lake Trailhead at 5,300 feet in elevation. The trail goes southwest from the parking area. At mile 0.2 is the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail #2000. Stay left (south). The trail right goes to McKenzie Pass about 0.5 miles away. At mile 0.9 (5,460 feet) is the junction with the Mattieu Lake Trail #4062. You can go either way - it's the same distance, but for this hike, I arbitrarily say to stay right. At mile 2.1 (5750 feet) is North Mattieu Lake. There are many nice campsites around the lake and a somewhat sparse forest of pine trees. This can be crowded on summer weekends. At mile 2.8 (6,030 feet) is the junction back to the PCT. A few hundred feet farther is South Mattieu Lake. There are a few campsites around the lake and a little alpine vegetation. Here, there are quite a few people on summer weekends, but beyond here the crowds thin out.

At mile 2.9 (6030 feet) is the junction with the Scott Trail #4068. Stay left on the Scott Trail. This is where the Pole Creek Burn area starts. It lasts almost uninterrupted until the lake at mile 14.8. Somewhere around mile 4.1 (5400 feet) is an unmarked trail to Yapoah Lake, which is about 0.3 miles away. You can camp next to the lake or maybe find nicer camp spots at this junction and get drinking water from the lake. At mile 4.7 (5300 feet) is the junction with the Green Lakes Trail #4070. (At Green Lakes, the trail number changes to #17.) Go right (south) on the Green Lakes Trail. If you stayed on the Scott Trail, it's about 1.7 miles to the Scott Trailhead.

At mile 6.8 (5600 feet) is Alder Creek. This is a good spot to camp and get drinking water. This is the only drinking water between South Mattieu Lake and the Camp Lake Trail. In September, the creek may dry up, but there's still probably water flowing underground - go along the streambed and find a pool, maybe enlarge it a bit, and then let the silt settle. However, you could be better off going to the Camp Creek Trail stream for better drinking water.

Between here and the Pole Creek Trail is a really nice area. The trail gets up to 6260 feet. There are many great places to camp but no drinking water. You could bring water from Alder Creek (or Camp Creek if you're going counter-clockwise). Wide open areas invite you to explore off trail. At mile 11.1 (5900 feet) is the junction with the Pole Creek Trail #4072 which goes left (northeast) 1.4 miles to the Pole Creek Trailhead. Stay right (south) on the Green Lakes Trail.

At mile 11.7 (5760 feet) is the junction with the Camp Lake Trail #4074, which goes right (west). There is a drinking water stream (Soap Creek) and a campsite. From here, there is an alternate route that saves about 13 miles. It's 7.9 miles to the PCT at Separation Creek on the other side. The high point is 7400 feet. There's a trail most of the way, but for about a mile it's hard to find the faint route. See the Camp Lake from Pole Creek Hike for a more complete description.

This hike stays straight (south) on the Green Lakes Trail. Between here and Park Meadow, the trail crosses a number of small streams which provide good drinking water. At mile 14.8 (6000 feet) is a lake with campsites. This is at the edge of the burn. The north half of this lake is burned, but there is camping (2-3 sites) and water access on the south side. At mile 16.5 (6180 feet) is the junction with the Park Meadow Trail #4075, which goes left (see the Broken Top Loop Hike). There is a good drinking water stream. There are some nice campsites here, but they're quite popular. There are also some good campsites south along Park Creek. This is the last drinking water for a while. Stay right (southwest).

At mile 18.6 is the Green Lakes Pass, the high point of this hike at 7,000 feet. There is some really nice alpine scenery with great views of the Sisters. There's plenty of space for camping, but there's no drinking water, and it's pretty exposed if the weather is at all bad. There's a shortcut from here over to Camp Lake (see the Camp Lake to Green Lakes Pass Hike).

At mile 19.3 (6660 feet) is the junction with an unmarked trail that goes right around the other side of the Green Lakes. This joins back up at mile 19.4. You can go either way. Camping is only allowed at designated campsites marked with a post. It can be very crowded here. At mile 20.6 is the junction with the Broken Top Trail #10. Stay straight (south). It's a little confusing here; there are several junctions within a quarter mile. There are some nice places to camp down the Broken Top Trail that are not as popular (see the Broken Top Loop Hike).

At mile 22.8 (6000 feet) is the junction with the Moraine Lake Trail #17.1. Go right (northwest). Beyond here, the Green Lakes crowds really thin out. At mile 24.2 is Moraine Lake (6450 feet). This is the last opportunity to get drinking water for a while. There are campsites at Moraine Lake and within half a mile mile to the west. Camping is only allowed at campsites marked with a post. At mile 24.5 (6550 feet) is the junction with a trail going left to a campsite, and right to campsites and up to the summit of South Sister. It's about three miles to the summit at 10,236 feet. The route is non-technical, but very steep. You have to walk on a lot of loose gravel, but there's a trail. This is the easiest and by far the most popular route up the South Sister. To complete the second half of your backpacking trip, stay straight on the Moraine Lake Trail.

At mile 24.9 is the junction with the Devils Lake Trail #36, which goes left, and another route up the South Sister which goes right. It's 1.3 miles down to the Devils Lake Trailhead at 5500 feet. Stay straight on the Moraine Lake Trail. At mile 26.1 (6135') is the junction with the Leconte Crater Trail. Take this trail. There are a couple of nice places to camp just before this junction, but no drinking water. The hike now crosses the Wickiup Plains, which consist of grass with a few islands of trees. It's quite scenic here, with nice views. At mile 27.3 (6200 feet) is the junction with the PCT. Stay right (north) on the PCT for the remainder of your trip.

At mile 28.4 (6100 feet) is a small stream, the first drinking water since Moraine Lake. There are several drinking water streams between here and Separation Creek. At mile 29.7 (5900 feet) is the junction with the Linton Meadow Trail #3546. As an alternative, you could go down this trail to see some nice meadows and lakes, and connect back up to the PCT on the Foley Trail or Linton Trail (see below). There is more drinking water than on the PCT, especially late in the season.

At mile 30.2 (6100 feet) is a lake. At mile 32.3 (6400 feet) is Separation Creek. A little further is Reese Lake and the junction with an unmarked trail going right (east) up to Chambers Lakes and Camp Lake. This is where you arrive at if you take the shortcut between the South and Middle/North Sisters (see the Camp Lake from Pole Creek Hike). There are some campsites near Reese Lake.

At mile 33.9 (6300 feet) is the junction with the Foley Trail #3511, which goes left (west). There is camping and drinking water down that trail. Stay straight to keep hiking north. At mile 35.4 (6450 feet) is the junction with the Linton Trail #3547, which heads left (west). Keep straight (north) again. At mile 37.6 (6550 feet) is the junction with the Obsidian Trail #3528. Stay straight (north) at this junction. A little further is the scenic Obsidian Falls, a small but tall waterfall. There isn't really all that much obsidian around. At mile 37.8 (6620 feet) is Sisters Spring, the first drinking water since Separation Creek. It's interesting how the stream just appears at the base of a cliff area. At mile 38.7 (6400 feet) is the junction with the Glacier Way Trail #4336. There is a trail going up the north side of Glacier Creek to a number of nice campsites. Look for pockets of trees with broken paths off the main trail. The area is called Sunshine Meadows. Glacier Creek supplies drinking water year-round.

At mile 40.2, the trail crosses the White Branch stream, according to the map, but I've never seen any water. There are places to camp. At mile 41.2 (6900 feet) is Opie Dilldock Pass, a high alpine area with great views. At mile 41.7 (6700 feet) is Minnie Scott Spring. This is the first drinking water since Sisters Spring and Glacier Creek. It's easy to miss the spring late in the summer. It appears about 100 feet east of the trail and forms a stream that may peter out before it even reaches the trail. You have to engineer a dam to form a pool, and then let the mud settle before getting water, which is very cold. This source seems to be reliable year round. There are nice campsites down a side trail to the west. The next drinking water is at South Mattieu Lake.

At mile 43.7 (6500 feet) the trail traverses Yapoah Crater. There are tracks up to the summit at 6737 feet. There are great views to the north across lava fields to Belknap Crater, Mount Washington, and Mount Jefferson. At mile 45.1 (6050 feet), you complete the loop at the junction with the Scott Trail.

On the way back to the trailhead, take the PCT rather than the Mattieu Lake Trail, just for a change of view. You'll reach the Lava Camp Lake Trailhead at mile 48.1.


Alternate Trips

  • Three night backpack: camp at Camp Creek Trail junction, Moraine Lake, and a little beyond Sisters Spring. Mileage each day: 10.5, 12.5, 13.6, 10.3


Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Three Sisters #621
  • Green Trails Maps: Bend – Three Sisters #622SX (partial)
  • Geo-Graphics: Three Sisters Wilderness Map
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Sisters Ranger District
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Deschutes National Forest
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: McKenzie Ranger District
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Willamette National Forest
  • Pacific Northwest Recreation Map Series: Willamette Cascades
  • Adventure Maps: Three Sisters Wilderness Trail Map
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Bend – Three Sisters

Fees, Regulations, Facilities, etc.

  • Self-issued wilderness permit
  • Central Cascades Wilderness Permit required: $6 overnight permit; $1 per person day use (June 15th - October 15th)
  • Restrooms, picnic tables, information kiosk, campground at trailhead
  • Pay attention to mandatory leash areas for dogs

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks

  • Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain; revised by Becky Ohlsen
  • Hiking Oregon's Central Cascades by Bruce Grubbs
  • Hiking Oregon's Three Sisters Country by Bruce Grubbs

More Links


Page Contributors


Map 1 from GPS tracks (Jerry Adams)
Map 2 from GPS tracks (Jerry Adams)
Map 3 from GPS tracks (Jerry Adams)}left
Map 4 from GPS tracks (Jerry Adams)
Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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