9 Highlights from the Three Sisters Loop
After planning and getting psyched for a 90-mile section on the PCT from the Ross Lake area via Devils Dome through to Stehekin, the weather turned and caused a quick change of plans. With the North Cascades wet, cold, and not an ideal vacation, my partner and I decided to go south (of Seattle).
We opted for two shorter hikes near and around our beloved Cascadian Arc volcanoes. First we explored Goat Rocks, then second we hiked the 50 mile loop around the Three Sisters in central Oregon. The weather was warmer, the skies were clear to partly cloudy, and the views were incredible.
Three Sisters Quick Stats
Location: Central Oregon west of Eugene and east of Bend. Flanked on the north by Mt Jefferson and on the south by Mt Bachelor.
Trailheads: The shortest and most common trails to access the Three Sisters Loop are from the north and from the south. Our approach was from the south via the Green Lakes Trailhead
Maps: We used Greentrails Maps no. 621 and 622
Distance: Loop 47.4 miles (via Green Lakes Trailhead 51.4 miles)
Elevation Gain: Approximately 5800 feet
Permits: No permits needed in advance (unless you approach via the Obsidian Limited Entry Area)
The Three Sisters are part of the Cascadian Volcanic arc – or one of the over 80 volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest – which is pretty amazing! Each volcano is beautiful and has a distinct character.
In addition to North Sister, Middle Sister, and South Sister, the equally epic Broken Top sits just to the southeast of the Three Sisters Volcanic Complex and well within view from the trail.
South Sister is the youngest and most active of the three volcanoes – considered dormant – but was found to be potentially active in 2000 when seismic imagery showed evidence of tectonic uplift west of the peak. Since then, the uplift has slowed to a halt and South Sisters is no longer considered as potentially eruptive as it was over 15 years ago.
My partner and I are now one volcano-complex closer to our goal of hiking around all of the Cascadian Volcanoes… For more information on Wonderland around Mount Rainier, read this article I wrote (and this one is great too), and for more information on the Loowit Trail around Mount St Helens, read this other article I wrote up too.
Multiple lakes dot the landscape along the trail, and many more are easily accessible from spur trails from the Three Sisters Loop.
Green Lakes and Moraine Lake are directly on trail on the south side of the loop. North and South Matthieu Lakes are a short side trip on the north end. We camped at one of the several campsites on the edge of South Matthieu Lake. Several ponds are visible from trail on the east and west sides as well. A popular destination is Camp Lake – a 5 mile hike in from the east side of the loop. All are beautiful and serene.
We had great weather and sunshine during our trip around the Sisters – unlike the rain and cold that was happening in the North Cascades.
4) Gentle terrain
As far as loops around volcanoes go, this one is easy.
If you want a mild backpacking trip with high reward – check out this hike. The vertical gain and loss is minimal (5,800 feet) compared to the more aggressive Wonderland Trail with 22,000 feet. Running the numbers puts Three Sisters at 120 feet of gain or loss/mile compared with the twice as challenging Wonderland at 240 ft/mi. Most folks we ran into were shooting for a 3-6 day trip here.
Lava formations in the northwest section of the trail are epic, jagged, and multicolored. Hiking through this section will transport you to a Martian-like landscape – covered with unusual rock formations and and bizarre plants
6) (Lack of) Crowds
When I think of hiking around a PNW volcano, I immediately think of the Wonderland Trail – with it’s competitive permitting, the permitting disaster this year due to the Mt Rainier National Parks computer crashing issue, and booked up campsites. For a more chill experience, a loop around the Three Sisters is perfect – with not too many people, no competitive permitting, and no vying for campsites.
The Obsidian Falls Limited Entry Area is just that – limited to entry. However, the loop trail (or PCT) runs through this section and the only restrictions are to stay on trail and to camp outside of this zone. Either way, you’re sure to find some sweet obsidian along the trail. Sure, I’m a bit of a rock nerd, but obsidian is still a pretty cool rock defined by silica rich volcanic glass.
Obsidian Falls is an extra bonus, and the spring that emanates from the hillside to feed this stream is pretty magical.
If you plan to hike the PCT, you wont miss out because the PCT runs along the western side of the loop trail. Or if you just want to do a little thru-hiker watching, this trail is a prime location.
For pre or post-hike town time, Bend is a great town not to be missed.
Filled with breweries and tasty food, check out this sweet city. Top spots: Townshend’s Tea House for the best tasting kombucha around (and really good teas), Humm Kombucha for a flavorful buch and a brewery-like experience, J Dub for post-hike eats (get the deviled eggs, fried pickle chips, chicken tenders, a burger, and a beer if you want it all), and one of the many breweries and tap houses for tasty tasty beer (my faves: 10-Barrel, Sunriver, Crux, Worthy, and “The Lot”).
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