Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week we bring you some of the best hikes from around North America. For us, reading about a great hike is enough to inspire us to get out there on the trail. We hope our series inspires you to do the same!
This week's hike takes us to the popular Three Sisters Loop trail in Oregon.
Featured Photo: North Sister (photo by Kirt Edblom)
Why this Hike?
If you're looking for a hike that offers the best wilderness Oregon has to offer, you can't beat the Three Sisters Loop. Praised as one of the best backpacking trails in Oregon, it offers views of three of the five highest peaks in the state, old-growth forests, alpine wildflower meadows, alpine lakes and so much more. This hike provides just enough of a challenge with the distance but isn't overly strenuous with the gradual climbs.
- 43-mile loop trail
- 6,500 feet of elevation gain
- Rated as moderate to difficult
- Recommended as a 4-day, 3-night trip
- The best time to go is July through October. It's worth noting to be aware of late spring and early fall snows before you plan your trip.
- Several different trailheads to choose from, depending on where you are coming from and how many extra miles you want to tack on to the entire hike.
- The Three Sisters Loop is well-maintained and well-marked. There are also plenty of switchbacks, making the ascents gradual.
- Numerous side trips available, such as to the summit of South Sister and Camp Lake
- Aside from the terrain listed above, you can expect to see waterfalls, glaciers, plenty of lakes and streams, and interesting rock formations along the way. Being within the second-largest wilderness area in the state, the Three Sisters Loop affords great wildlife and bird watching opportunities as well.
- Fun fact: The South Sister is still an active volcano, Middle Sister is dormant, and the North Sister is extinct.
Before you pack your bags, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you're looking to avoid crowds, August and September are usually very busy on the weekends.
- Limited camping spots in designated areas
- Campfires are prohibited at many of the lakes along the trail. Check the park website for a current list. Where fires are allowed, they must be at least 100 feet away from water sources.
- Groups must consist of less than 12 people.
- Camping is not allowed in the Pole Creek burn area. (On the east side of the trail where you will be starting.)
- Bears are rare to come across, but chipmunks, mice, and marmots can be a real problem if you don't store your food properly.
How do I get there?
Redmond Municipal Airport is the nearest major airport to the Pole Creek trailhead, where you will be starting. From there, take SE Airport Way and SE Veterans Way to OR-126 W/SW Highland Ave. Follow OR-126 W for 19 miles to S Pine St. in Sisters, OR. Take NF-15 and NF-1524/Pole Creek Rd for another 12 miles. You will find the parking lot on your right.
Eugene is another option with more flights available but will require a 2.5 to 3-hour drive.
The following map outlines our recommended route along the Three Sisters Loop. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo.
- Day 1: Moraine Lake (14 miles)
- Day 2: James Creek Shelter (7 miles)
- Day 3: Minnie Scott Spring (9.5 miles)
- Day 4: Pole Creek Trailhead (12.7 miles)
Starting at the Pole Creek Trailhead, you'll start your trek by walking through several miles of burn area that is still recovering from a fire in 2012. The trail has quite a few stream crossings and you'll be no stranger to them by the end of your first day. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to view wildflowers alongside them on this leg. You'll gradually start increasing in elevation, but drop back down to Golden Lake (where you can also camp). Enjoy awesome views of Broken Top as you cross the meadow. You may be able to see lava flows in the distance as well near Fall Creek. The great views don't stop at your campsite either as you take in Moraine Lake, South Sister, and Broken Top as you wind down for the evening.
Be sure to fill up on water at the lake before heading out. If you would like to take the side trail to the summit of South Sister, today is the day to do so as there is a short connector trail nearby. It is about 6 miles round-trip, so it is doable if you get an early start as you will only be hiking 7 miles on the main trail today. If you are continuing on the main trail, your first slight challenge will be climbing up and over a saddle. You will not find the shelter of many trees as the trail traverses pumice plains. Eventually, you will reach the forest again and continue climbing before reaching the James Creek Shelter.
Again, be sure to fill up on water at the stream nearby. Start your day in mostly wooded hills with great views towards Salem. The obsidian area is the highlight of today's hike with its shiny bits of black rocks laying everywhere, newer lava flows, plenty of lakes and streams, and Obsidian Falls. (It should be noted that this is a limited entry area. A special permit is needed to camp overnight). Expect great views of North Sister from Sawyer Bar. Next, you'll exit the trees and cover some rocky terrain. The climb over Opie Dillock Pass is a bit strenuous before descending to your campsite at Minnie Scott Spring for the evening. Enjoy wildflowers and great views of the surrounding mountains.
Begin the last leg of your trip traversing by volcanic boulders. You will head mostly downhill through thin forest. Once you pass through the forest, a more rocky area awaits with views of Middle Sister. Make a pitstop at South Matthieu Lake to rest, soak your feet, or replenish water supplies, then head back through the burn area you began in and make your way back to the trailhead.
What will I need?
As mentioned, it is wise to bring a bear bag along to keep smaller critters out.
With so many stream crossings (and being in the Pacific Northwest), it may be prudent to wear some waterproof hiking shoes for this trip.
It gets pretty chilly at night in the Three Sisters Wilderness, even in the middle of summer (average lows for July run around 45°F), so a quality, down sleeping bag will keep you nice and toasty through the night. Of course, the sleeping bag works a lot better when you have an appropriately sized sleeping pad to go with it.
Be sure to bring a durable 3-season tent with you. This will come in especially handy if you run into unexpectedly wet conditions while out on the trail.
With such a long hike, you'll want to save space (and weight) in your pack as much as possible. Look into some titanium utensils and cooking pot.
Titanium cookware is ultralight and extremely durable, making it perfect for multi-day hikes like the Three Sisters Loop.
For a comprehensive list of what to pack for your trip, be sure to check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!
Do I need a permit?
If you do not have one of the following park passes, you will need to pay a day-use fee of $5 for parking/per day. According to the Deschutes National Forest website, wilderness permits are required for both day use and overnight stays from Memorial Day weekend through October. Currently, free permits are self-issued at the trailhead.
Three Sisters Wilderness Trail Map
Three Sisters Wilderness information
For one of the most scenic hikes in the Pacific Northwest, you can't beat the Three Sisters Loop near Bend, Oregon. Have you done this hike or any others in the Three Sisters Wilderness? Have you done another great hike you would like us to write about? Let us know in the comments below!
A limited entry permit is now required for access to three of Oregon’s most used Wilderness areas – The Sisters Wilderness, the Jefferson Wilderness area, and the Washington Wilderness area. For 2021 permits are required between May 28 – Sept. 24, 2021.
3 Sisters Loop, South Sister Summit trailheads are both affected by this new permit system for both day hiking and overnight trips. Permits went “up for grabs” in early April and were quickly claimed. With that said, they release a certain percentage of permits on a 7 day rolling basis, so that one can still obtain a permit. More information can be obtained at the permit reservations links provided below.
I hope this information is useful to those thinking about planning a trip to Oregon to do the 3 Sisters Loop, or a multitude of other trails in our beautiful state. (I believe there are a total of 19 trailheads that were affected by this new system).
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