I’m glad when the trail finally bottoms out. I’m sore. Today is a reasonably short 12 miles, but the abrupt 15 miles the day before, and my severe lack of sleep is taking a toll on me. We find ourselves in a quiet old forest that accompanies us the final few miles to our camp above Moraine Lake. We relax for some time in the sun until it sets. A chill sets in as we retire to the tent to play cards, and eventually to fall asleep.
Three Sisters Loop
By Thatcher Kelley | Published
Central Oregon is known for it’s fair weather, high desert forest, and a volcanic landscape of Jurassic proportions. The volcanic nature of this area is so unique as it’s quite young from a geologic standpoint. Very little erosion has taken place; Earth’s natural forces are starkly visible here. The Sisters are a unique group of mountains in that they consist of four different stratovolcanoes, and a myriad of cinder cones that are within only a few miles of each other. The North, Middle, and South Sister are the third through fifth tallest peaks in Oregon at over ten thousand feet, and they contain the majority of Oregon’s glaciers. The Three Sisters Trail is an iconic loop that takes advantage of all this region has to offer as it winds fifty miles through high desert, rich forests, vast flows of lava and pumice as it winds its way around a trio of volcanoes. This trail has been on my list for a while now, and I’ve just been waiting for the opportunity to hike it. With degrading weather on Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail (my original plan), I was afforded the opportunity to finally check this Oregon gem off my list.
After an early wake up and a six hour drive we finally arrive at our destination: MacDonalds in the town of Sisters Oregon. We fuel up on hearty Big Macs and french fries. Then we drive the final fifteen minutes to the Lava Camp Lake Trailhead where our true journey begins. Our path takes us on the gentle northern slopes of the North Sister in moderately wooded pine forest. Every so often the forest opens up to beautiful grassy meadows flanked by an ancient desolate lava flow that stretches for miles. Its rugged and dark appearance is intriguing. We want to explore its jagged reaches, but our trail turns away and winds up and away toward Mattheau Lakes. Since most of the day was consumed by the long drive south our plan is to hike a short 6 miles of the loop to get us warmed up. Just past Mattheau Lakes we find the junction that officially connects us to the Three Sisters Loop. I did very little logistical research for this trip and had yet to decide if we should go clockwise or counter. With the reasoning that going clockwise would send us through the less interesting part of the trail first on the days where the weather is forecasted to be less favorable, while finishing through more grandious terrain on the bluebird days to come, we decide to turn left following the hands of the clock.
As we descend down the trail eastward the forest quickly transitions into a burnt out wasteland that stretches for miles. This isn’t wholy unexpected, as I recall reading about a burn zone. I also remember that there is no camping allowed in the burn zone. But this doesn’t phase me. I have confidence that we’ll be through it by the time we reach our six mile mark of Alder Creek, likely a nice place to camp. The crispy white, grey, and black forest isn’t ugly. It possesses a subtle beauty as the monochromatic colors juxtapose themselves against the bright yellow of scattered wild flowers. The bleached white branches of shrubs twist and turn like the white antlers of a great stag. And through the gnarled forest stands the east face of the North Sister, valiantly holding back a nasty storm.
This is when I realize what a good decision we made. I gaze west towards the towering volcano and see ominous clouds pushing around its flanks and dissipating into blue sky. We are in the range’s rain shadow. This makes perfect sense. Storms build to the west as they mount pressure against the mountains. As the storm makes its way over the summit, pressure drops rapidly and it diminishes into scattered clouds that barely threaten to precipitate. Turning left dodged us a huge bullet. And it put us smack dab in the way of another. We cross Alder “creek”, which is completely dried up, and find a spot to rest. As we discuss the possibility of hiking a couple extra miles to the next creek a group of hikers pass us going the other way. We ask them how far the creek is and when the burned forest ends. Their answer is discouraging. Seven miles. We just hiked seven miles. We thought we were almost done. But we’re only halfway there.
Thankfully I slammed a quadruple shot coffee milkshake before lunch. We all have reserves in the tank. But we also all know the seven more miles will be a stretch and will wear on us in what was supposed to be a light warmup day. Those Big Macs are going to have to work overtime now. We also know that we will probably be setting up camp in the dark.
These seven miles won’t hike themselves. So we get to it. Right off the bat I feel lethargic. It’s either because the recent news of added miles is sinking in or the fact that we’re walking uphill in ashy dust that is as deep as a sandy beach. Eventually we get back into a groove, find a running creek to fill our bottles and knock off the majority of the remaining miles. We finally reach the edge of the burn zone. The sun is setting and lighting up the sky. Our bodies glow orange in its reflection. Turning back one last time the ghostly forest looks uninviting and mysterious as it calls out to us with creaks and whistling from the wind in the twilight.
We find a perfect site next to a peaceful lake. Camp assembles quickly as we scarf down much-needed calories. Before retiring we make a quick trip to a clearing where we lay down and watch the stars. Our vision adapts to the darkness revealing the dizzying Milky Way and shooting stars. This is the day’s first true moment of peace, and the perfect way for it to end.
After much tossing and turning I’m glad to see a sliver of dawn light through a crack in my tent. I can finally stop pretending to sleep. A relaxed, slow-moving morning is welcome today. I take my time sipping coffee as ducks float by on a nearby pond. The sun gracefully glistens across the small ripples. Eventually the others rise and join me for breakfast. Hitting the trail we make our way through a rich evergreen forest. It’s hard to imagine that this is what the whole forest looked like before it was burned. Thick fir trees occasionally parted by rich meadows and twisting creeks. Wildflowers and huckleberries are abundant. Our path eventually ascends above the lush forest to a broad and barren pass between Broken Top and the South Sister. From the pass we’re afforded views of both summits as they kiss the thick clouds above. For the last day and a half the tall peaks have held off nasty, wet weather. But now, from the pass we realize that as we begin to wrap around the southern flank of the range we’re about to leave the shelter of the rain shadow.
The majestic Green Lake shimmers in the valley below as slopes of volcanic rock, and green vegetation slide gently to its banks. A smooth mist descends from foreboding clouds beyond the lake. As we make our way down, I can’t take my eyes off the whimsical sights. Upon reaching the emerald pool we stop for lunch. We relax and dip our feet into the cool water, soaking up the warmth of the sun knowing these will likely be our final dry and sunny moments of the day before heading into the dank clouds. To our surprise, over the course of lunch, the clouds chose to recede. We begin hiking again, making our way around the lake. The clouds continue receding, and eventually breakup all together. We follow the trail as it winds down alongside a busy stream that separates us from a massive wall of shiny rock. My imagination runs wild, thinking of what it would be like thousands of years ago when the wall was a glowing, steaming flow of lava, and for some reason it decided to just stop right here.
Babies don’t sleep better than I did last night. Nine solid hours of sleep. I’m thankful because today we hit the trail early for a long day of hiking. The air is chilly, and the ground is frosty. It’s about ten degrees cooler today. The sun won’t rise for another half hour. Thankfully our goal is to get on the trail quickly. So we move with haste, warming our bodies as we pack. We’re hiking in no time, still bundled up, aiming for the first rays of sun a half-mile out. As we move, the frost-covered fields dance and shimmer before us. The uninhibited views of the South Sister are dramatic. There was thought of spending an extra day to climb this pile of rubble. The unending ridge of pumice does look enticing in the calm morning light.
Now that we’re on the west side of the range, the weather has cleared up. It should be mostly sunny for the final two days of our journey. This creates excitement and speeds our pace for the first few miles across flat land. The trail eventually leads into dense old growth forest. This is the first time the trail has really felt “Northwesty”. Massive fir trees extend infinitely towards the sky. Huckleberry and Lupin line the trail. It feels as if Big Foot could make an appearance at any moment. We enjoy the calm of the woods for mile after mile. The trail eventually ascends back into the alpine granting us views now of Middle Sister.
The trail leads back into the woods and to the highly popular Obsidian Zone. Obsidian is a brittle, but hard glass-like black rock. It’s a unique volcanic rock that forms from rapidly solidifying lava. This “zone” is littered with obsidian boulders and gravel. To top it off, there is a stunning waterfall (Obsidian Falls) that pours over the rich black rock.
This feels like a long day. It is a long day. We’re aiming for eighteen miles. But we only have a few miles left that take us up up up to Opie Dilldock Pass. Yes, that’s its name. I’m not sure who named the pass after someone named Opie Dilldock. I don’t know what kind of parents would name their child Opie Dilldock. But nonetheless this is our destination for the day. We want to make it over the pass, leaving us with minimal uphill for our final day. Our pace quickens knowing that we’re close. Once more we come alongside an old craggy lava flow. As we hike, I joke that all we need to do now is scramble across the lava. After so much hiking today, it’s not funny. It’s even less funny when the joke turns out to be true. The trail turns right into the lava field. Thankfully a rare grove of trees sits in its center, and beckons us for the night. The light is already fading and we decide to end our day at seventeen miles. We’ll tackle the rest of the lava, and Opie in the morning.
As soon as we setup our tents, the clouds that had been building all day begin to rain on us. It lasts ten seconds. Then it hails…for ten more seconds. Thankfully that’s all the precipitation for the night. We build a fire out of wet, rotten wood and moss. It provides some heat, and much ambience as we eat our last dinner, and rest our weary feet. As I stare into the bright orange fire, I see out of the corner of my eye another orange light. The sunlight has just peaked beneath the layer of clouds. Its rich and bright color draws me in. I grab my camera and run out of the grove and onto a pile of craggy red rock. I know this light won’t last long. I’ve never in my life seen a sunset so saturated. It could be the light bouncing off the red lava rocks. Or it could be the sudden change from grey to bright orange. Mount Washington, Three Finger Jack, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood are all standing tall to the north as the sun sets over the maroon lava flow to the west. My heart is full as my eyes are glued to the scenery taking it all in. This is a special moment. This is THE moment of the trip. As fast as it came, the sun retires. And so do I, back to the fire to make conversation before sleepiness overtakes me.
It’s our last day. We are only eight miles from the trailhead. We wake up and get moving. Once again it’s cold. Everything is frosty. But it doesn’t feel so bad. We’re in high spirits; excited to arrive at our destination; excited for the victory meal and beer that we promised ourselves. I’m expecting today to go quickly and without interest. But straight from the get-go I can’t put my camera down. The lava flow all the way to the pass is spectacular. Burgundy rocks are caked with white frost. The North Sister is finally visible, as the sky is once again clear. Once over the pass, a fog creeps in. Sunlight cuts through the fog and trees creating a moody atmosphere that’s so intriguing. We wrap around a couple cinder cones, continuously admiring the volcanic landscape. Eventually the fog clears, creating quite a cheery scene with the Sisters behind us, and our final destination ahead of us.
Time flies as we fly down the trail. We finally reach the junction where we started the loop. With just a few miles left we opt to take a slightly longer trail that stays high on a forested ridge. This prevents us from retracing any of our steps. It’s quite refreshing to be able to hike fifty miles without repeating anything. The ridge is pleasantly wooded with occasional open views north towards Mount Hood. We’re in high spirits, both from knowing that we’re almost done, as well as from reflecting on the amazing trip we just had. We sing songs for the last half hour of the trail, soaking up every last bit of joy the trail has to offer, until we arrive back at Lava Camp Lake trailhead, where the journey ends. Still feeling fresh, we change, jump in the car, and head to Bend for a victory meal before our six hour drive home.
Copyright 2016 Thatcher Kelley