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Three Sisters 50-mile Loop
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Gordon Smith
(swearingen) - MLife

Locale: Portland, Oregon
Three Sisters 50-mile Loop on 08/29/2010 11:01:11 MDT Print View

My dog Kirah and I did the approximately 50-mile loop around all three of the Three Sisters mountains in central Oregon last week. We started and ended at Lava Camp Lake, near McKenzie Pass on Hwy 242. The first three days were baking hot, followed by an intense thunderstorm, then glorious cool weather after that.

The loop is awesome, especially the west side. It's easily some of the finest backpacking I've ever done. One of our local guidebooks suggests doing the loop counter-clockwise, but I did it clockwise as Jerry Adams suggests in this BPL article. I think Jerry's way is better because you get the rather boring NE side of the mountains out of the way early, then the hike and the views just keep getting better after that. You also get the "hiking into to the blazing sun" part done first, while you're fresh. Then as you finish up on the simply gorgeous west side of the loop, the sun will be mercifully at your back. Thanks Jerry, for all your hard work putting that article together! It definitely inspired me to do this trip.

Kirah and I started our trek on a scorching Sunday afternoon. Temps were nearing 100 degrees in the valleys that day, and were about 85 here in the high country. I'm not used to backpacking in that kind of heat and don't do too well in it. Before long though we had made it up to the very pretty South Matthieu Lake:

We drank our fill of water, then headed east in the heat toward our destination for the night.

Along the way I saw a neat little horned lizard near the trail, the first I'd ever seen:

I made the mistake of filling only one water bottle at the lake and was nearly out of water by the time we made it to the junction with the Green Lakes trail. By then Kirah was starting to have a hard time with the heat. We took a break at the junction, sipped a bit of the remaining water, then I carried her pack the last couple of dry miles uphill to Alder Creek, our camp for the night. Once there I chugged the sweetest liter of water I've ever tasted!

The next day was a hot, and rather un-remarkable, nine-mile hike to Park Meadow. The views are few and far between here, and sadly many of the trees in this area have been killed by beetles. Early on Kirah hurt her foot crossing a stream, and so I carried her pack the rest of the day. In fact I wound up carrying her pack about half the day each day for the rest of the trip, just to make life a little easier for her, and hopefully help keep her healthy.

One of the little stream crossings along the way:

By late afternoon it was so hot it felt like we were hiking through an oven. When we finally arrived at Park Meadow it turned out to be a cool oasis though, and gorgeous to boot.

Broken Top in the evening light:

After breakfast the next morning I left camp briefly to attend to my morning constitutional. I made the mistake of leaving my food bag out, and when I returned I discovered that some or other woodland creature had had its way with my Fig Newtons. Devil.

Broken Top in the morning light:

I was glad to see the puffy white clouds that morning, but little did I know they would morph into some very serious weather by the end of the day.

Heading out on the morning of Day Three:

Between Park Meadow and Green Lakes the trail climbs up into some alpine country that's very scenic, with great views of South Sis:

Dropping down into the Green Lakes basin, Mt. Bachelor in the distance:

South Sister from Green Lakes:

Yowsa, it's busy around here, even mid-week apparently:

Plenty of horse traffic too:

Gloom gathers, and thunder rumbles, as we head on toward Moraine Lake:

The weather had really turned by the time we reached Moraine:

The thunder closed in rapidly as I ate my dinner, but the clouds only managed to spit a little now and again. Typical summer thunderstorm in the Cascades, or so I thought. Later, just as I was doing a bit of laundry, the weather turned truly nasty. The cool breeze that I had welcomed earlier became gale force, and the rain began to pour in a biblical way. I hopped in the tent, curled up with Kirah, and lay watching as the sky sparked, the thunder crashed, and the rain flew sideways. My little Contrail flapped incessantly in the wind, and the rain formed massive rivulets on the ground that threatened to run under the tent floor. The thunder at times was deafening, and it scared the bejeepers out of Kirah. She shook like a leaf for the duration of the storm, which lasted maybe an hour and a half, though it seemed much longer. Eventually the rain subsided a bit and I drifted off to sleep. I woke several hours later to find the storm had completely passed, replaced by a strange, eerie kind of quiet. It was that aftermath quiet, where you can literally hear a pin drop, but then the silence is broken by a wet pine cone hitting the ground, or a giant drop of water striking the tent, or a tree branch falling to earth. It was a fitful night's sleep.

I slept in the next morning, and to my surprise woke up to glorious sunshine and little cotton candy clouds:

Drying out:

Moraine Lake as we hit the trail for Day 4:

Kirah all bootied up, ready to tackle the dry and gritty Wickiup Plains:

Self portrait on the pumice plain:

Looks like a Borax commercial:

Here on the Wickiup Plains I met a couple of PCT thru-hikers. Nice guys, 30s I'd guess. They'd started at the Mexico border back in April, and were really enjoying the Oregon section. The scenery was great and the travel much easier than it had been in the snowy Sierras. They were averaging 28 miles per day now. Double Dee and Redhead were their trail names. I didn't think to get their picture. After chatting a few minutes they left me in their dust. Literally. Lean, mean, hiking machines they were.

Once across the pumice plains things became much more lush and green. Lots of gorgeous meadows and wildflowers on this side of the mountains, and the weather had turned mercifully cool.

After a great day of walking we arrived at our destination for the night, lovely Reese Lake:

The skeeters at Reese were a bad crowd. You know the type. Whiskey-drinkin', chain-smokin', tatooed, and potty-mouthed. Each with a rap sheet a mile long and a penchant for trouble. Nothing to do here but stay covered up, spritz on some bug spray, and eat with condiderable haste.

The next day was another gorgeous, wildflowery, meadowy hike, with a nice waterfall tossed in for good measure:

Obsidian Falls:

I got a peek at Diamond Peak, the only mountain to the south I noticed the whole trip:

Before too long we reached the beautiful Sunshine Meadow, our home for the night:

This is within a restricted use area called Obsidian, which I had obtained a permit for prior to the trip.

Moonrise over Middle Sister:

Kirah keeping warm while I break camp the next morning:

The last day was easily the most scenic, with massive lava flows to cross, and expansive views of the mountains to the north. It was also the hardest day for Kirah as her feet were getting pretty tender from all the gritty terrain we'd covered. I kept her booties on for most of the day, and carried her pack the whole way. That seemed to help, and she made it out tired and sore, but otherwise OK.

Leaving the meadow in the morning:

Approaching Opie Dilldock Pass:

The pass is named after a cartoon character from the early 1900s.

Along here I met another PCT thru-hiker, this one headed south bound. His trail name was 8-mile, after a street in his home town of Detroit. He'd started at the Canadian border and was headed for Yosemite. Nice guy, lives in Vancouver, WA now.

I did get his picture:

Moving up the pass:

Pano near the pass showing the Collier Cone:

As you can see, this area is very volcanic in nature. The lava flows here are only about 3000 years old, which is very recent in geologic terms. It very much reminded me of places I've seen on the big island of Hawaii.

Between Opie Dilldock Pass and the Yapoah Crater I saw a smoke jumper plane drop some streamers a mile or so out ahead of me.

Later the plane circle around, flew in very low, and dropped a couple of packages that were dangling from parachutes. Target practice, I thought, because I could see no fires in the area. When I reached the meadow where the drop occured I saw a couple of smoke jumper guys packing up the chutes and working with gear:

I spoke with them briefly. Turns out there was a small, lightning-caused fire burning to the west of the meadow and they were dispatched to deal with it. They had been dropped from 1500 feet above the ground, but somehow I didn't see that part of the operation. Their gear included axes, shovels, food, shelter, and 5 gallons of water. I'd guess each of them must've been hefting 60 or 70 lb packs when they headed out. I thanked them for their hard work, then left them be so they could do their jobs.

A few minutes later I could see them in the distance, with all that gear, heading almost straight up a cinder cone:

Continuing on, we circle around the desolate Yapoah Crater:

A final look north toward Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood:

Kirah found a new burst of energy as we hiked the last three miles back to the car. I'm sure she knew we were finally headed home.

"Come on dad, I'm dreaming of a cheeseburger!"

Awesome trip!


Edited by swearingen on 08/31/2010 04:45:45 MDT.

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Nice report on 08/29/2010 11:22:19 MDT Print View

Thanks for the report and beautiful pics. Does sound like an awesome time save for those gangsta skeeters.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"Three Sisters 50-mile Loop" on 08/29/2010 12:36:23 MDT Print View

Loved this write up Gordon. Oregon is a beautiful piece of land. It is really amazing how different individuals react to heat, looking at your photographs it sure looked like a nice cool oasis from where I'm sitting. I was rolling with laughter reading your mosquito description, what a bunch of punks! Thanks for sharing.

Daniel Bell

Locale: US Southwest
Re: Three Sisters 50-mile Loop on 08/29/2010 23:30:57 MDT Print View

Thanks for the report!
My first long solo hike was along the Oregon portion of the PCT, in 1990, and your story and photos took me right back to a very memorable experience. I especially enjoyed your photos of the volcanic areas, and the short-horned lizard--cool find!


K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
thanks on 08/30/2010 11:22:38 MDT Print View

Gordon, thank you so much for your report. The pictures are stunning and the narrative makes it very interesting. I like the pictures of your dog as well. Thanks again

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Three Sisters 50-mile Loop on 08/30/2010 18:46:55 MDT Print View

I agree...that is one of the best parts of the country to get beautiful, and varied scenery. You have some great photos (especially the evening alpenglow on Broken Top and long views of Three Fingered Jack). Too bad you weren't able to schedule the trip in later September when the weather is usually nicer. I agree that there is a long stretch of seasonal creek beds on the north side of the loop that are usually dried-up now. I also loved that high alpine shelf above Green seems like a different world up there.

Thanks for sharing, and bring back some fond memories,

Although your photos (and weather) was better than mine, here is a link to a trip I did a few years ago around 3/4 of the loop to show some of the different faces of the Three Sisters.

Edited by TomClark on 08/31/2010 04:26:25 MDT.

Jamie Shortt
(jshortt) - MLife

Locale: North Carolina
re: Three Sisters 50-mile Loop on 08/30/2010 19:56:43 MDT Print View

Tom, I was wondering how long it would take you to see this and post. I think we both consider this one heck of an incredible place.

Gordon, I agree with Tom, your photos are absolutely incredible. I did this loop 2 years ago over 3.5 days. I came in the from the NW and hiked counter clockwise. If there was a section that was routine it was my third day so yeah hiking clockwise is an interesting option.

I thought I had some good shots, but you have done a great job of capturing the variety of lanscape. Its weird I have some photos taken at the exact same places as you, but yours are better. Nice job and great report.


Edited by jshortt on 08/30/2010 19:59:38 MDT.

John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
The Rain on 08/30/2010 20:17:47 MDT Print View

You came out better than we did camped at Devil's Lake when the rain let loose on Tuesday.dang you really hit the heat on the way in too! The soil is so compacted there that even with a pitch with significant slope our base camp tents were floating in 30 minutes.We picked up a total of 1.5 inches! We ended up back in Bend, first time in 8 years. Soils up above are so much better. I've never heard so many lightning strikes in a night! And I've lived in the Midwest during Thunder season.What was your camera? Lens? Tele really great.Very interesting Skeeter report. I went in fearing them with Permethrin-they are worse back in Portland!

Gordon Smith
(swearingen) - MLife

Locale: Portland, Oregon
Three Sisters on 08/31/2010 04:36:50 MDT Print View

Hey everyone, thanks for the nice comments on the report! I've made the photos smaller by the way, so the report wouldn't look so janky in Safari.

Eugene, I was thinking about you and Nick while I was hiking in that hot weather. Don't know how you desert dwellers do it!

John, an inch and a half of rain. I think that's about right. That was easily the worst storm I've weathered on a backpack trip, and I've been in quite a few. I think the Contrail is a pretty storm worthy shelter for one, but I knew I was pushing it to have my 90lb dog in there. We made it through the storm without any problems though. Contrail rocks!

My camera is a Panasonic GH1, one of the micro 4/3 models that Panny and Olympus have been making for a couple years. I use the 14-140mm kit lens as well as the 7-14mm wide angle and a 35mm macro. It's a versatile kit and much lighter than my Nikon dSLR set up. It has its drawbacks, but overall I really like it.


Edited by swearingen on 08/31/2010 07:01:29 MDT.