Trail around Three Sisters Hike
From Portland Hikers Field Guide
- Start point: Lava Lake Trailhead
- Ending Point: Lava Lake Trailhead
- Trail Log: Trail Log
- 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
After fire in 2012 there are signs posted saying no camping allowed between The Scott Trail and a little before Park Meadow on the Green Lakes Trail and the Pole Creek Trail from the trailhead up to about 1 mile above the Green Lake Trail. You can still walk through. The streams are fairly unaffected. You might be better to stay on the West side. (observed 2014/August)
The hike around the Three Sisters is one of the nicest in the area, if you have a few days, or 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. There are alpine meadows and streams. There are places that are fairly crowded and other places that are pretty remote.
The trail around Mount Hood is officially impasable at Eliot Creek, so the Three Sisters hike is a good alternative.
Compared to the trail around Mount Hood, the Three Sisters is longer but less elevation gain. There are fewer difficult hikes down into steep canyons and across difficult streams. On Mount Hood there is more fine ash eroded by water with streams flowing on top. On the Three Sisters there is more pumice like material with the water perculating into it rather than forming streams. There is less human impact like Timberline Lodge and Mount Hood Meadows ski area.
It's a little more difficult to find drinking water on the Three Sisters, especially on the West side, because the soil is more porous so the water flows underneath.
There is an option for a 35 mile loop by hiking up between the South Sister and the Middle/North Sisters. This trail is un-developed at places. The elevation gain for this loop is about 3900 feet.
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 Camp Lake to Green Lakes Pass Off Trail.
There are also options towards Broken Top (Trail around Broken Top).
This hike is listed as a loop, but about 1 mile at the beginning is the same. Call it a balloon hike with a very short string.
This hike starts at the Lava Lake Trailhead which is just East of McKenzie Pass. Another option is to start at the Pole Creek Trailhead which would save about 3 miles from the hike. This requires driving a little further, on forest roads. Another possibility is to start at the Devil's Lake Trailhead on the South side. This would save about 3.2 miles, but is quite a bit further drive from Portland. These options omit the hike up to and down from South Mattieu Lake which is a really scenic leg.
You need to fill out a self issuing permit at whichever trailhead you enter on.
You need a special permit that you can get from Detroit Ranger Station to camp in Obsidian Area. There's a quota on the number allowed. I think PCT thru-hikers are exempt from this, but not people just hiking around the Three Sisters according to some ranger I met on the trail.
Start at the Lava Lake Trailhead at 5300 feet elevation. The trail goes Southwest from the parking area.
At mile 0.2 is the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT, #2000). Stay left (South). Right goes to McKenzie Pass
At mile 0.9 (5460') 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') is North Mattieu Lake. There are many nice campsites around the lake. This can be crowded on summer weekends. Somewhat sparse forest of pine trees.
At mile 2.8 (6030') is the junction back to the PCT. A few hundred feet further is South Mattieu Lake. There are a few campsites around the lake. There is a little alpine vegetation. Quite a few people on summer weekends, but beyond here the crowds thin out.
At mile 2.9 (6030') is the junction with the Scott Trail #4068. Stay left, on the Scott Trail.
Somewhere around mile 4.1 (5400') is an unmarked trail to Yapoah Lake, which is about 0.3 miles away. Camping next to the lake.
At mile 4.7 (5300') is the junction with the Green Lake Trail #4070. (At Green Lake, the trail number changes to #17.) Go right (South) on the Green Lake Trail. If you stayed on the Scott Trail, it's about 1.7 miles to the Scott Trailhead.
At mile 6.8 (5600') 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. Or maybe you're 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'. 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). Lot's of wide open area you could go off trail on. You could go a long ways up on the mountain. You could probably cross over to Camp Lake or Yapoah Crater.
At mile 11.1 (5900') is the junction with the Pole Creek Trail #4072 which goes left (Northeast) 1.4 miles to a trailhead. Stay right (South) on the Green Lakes Trail.
At mile 11.7 (5760') is the junction with the Camp Lake Trail #4074, which goes right (West). There is a drinking water stream (Soap Creek) and a campsite.
There is an alternate route that saves about 13 miles. It's 7.9 miles to the PCT at Seperation Creek on the other side. High point is 7400'. There's a trail most of the way, but for about a mile it's hard to find the faint route. See 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') is a lake with campsites.
At mile 16.5 (6180') is the junction with the Park Meadow Trail #4075, which goes left (see Trail around Broken Top). There is a good drinking water stream. Nice campsites, but a little crowded. 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 7000'. There is some really nice alpine scenery with great views of the Sisters. Many places that you could camp, but 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 Camp Lake to Green Lakes Pass Off Trail.
At mile 19.3 (6660') is the junction with an unmarked trail that goes right around the other side of Green Lake. This joins back up at mile 19.4. You can go either way. Camping is only allowed at designated campsites marked with a post. This can be quite crowded.
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 1/4 mile. There are some nice places to camp down the Broken Top Trail that are not so crowded, see Trail around Broken Top.
At mile 22.8 (6000') is the junction with the Moraine Lake Trail #17.1. Go right (Northwest). Beyond here, the Green Lake crowds really thin out.
At mile 24.2 is Moraine Lake (6450'). This is the last opportunity to get drinking water for a while. There are campsites here, and within 1/2 mile to the West. Camping is only allowed at campsites marked with a post.
At mile 24.5 (6550') is the junction with a trail going left to a campsite, and right to campsites and up to the South Sister. It's about 3 miles to the summit at 10236'. The route is non-technical, but very steep. You have to walk on a lot of loose gravel. There's sort of a trail. This is the easiest route up the South Sister.
Stay straight on the Moraine Lake Trail.
At mile 24.9 is the junction with the Devil's Lake Trail #36, which goes left, and another route up the South Sister which goes right. It's 1.3 miles down to the Devil's Lake Trailhead at 5500'.
Stay straight on the Moraine Lake Trail.
At mile 26.1 (6135') is the junction with an un-named trail that goes right crossing the Wickiup Plain. Take this trail. There are a couple nice places to camp just before this junction, but no drinking water.
The hike now crosses the Wickiup plain, which is grass with a few islands of trees. Very scenic. Nice views.
At mile 27.3 (6200') is the junction with the PCT. Stay right (North) on the PCT.
At mile 28.4 (6100') is a small stream, the first drinking water since Moraine Lake. There are several drinking water streams between here and Seperation Creek.
At mile 29.7 (5900') 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') is a lake.
At mile 32.3 (6400') is Seperation Creek. A little further is Reese lake and the junction with an un-marked trail going right (East) up to Chambers Lakes and Camp Lake. This is where you get to if you take the shortcut between the South and Middle/North Sisters. See Camp Lake from Pole Creek Hike. There are some campsites near Reese lake.
At mile 33.9 (6300') is the junction with the Foley Trail #3511, which goes left (West). There is camping and drinking water down there. Stay straight (North).
At mile 35.4 (6450') is the junction with Linton Trail #3547, which goes left (West). There is camping and drinking water down there. Stay straight (North).
At mile 37.4 is the beginning of the Obsidian limited use area. Camping is only allowed with special permit you can get from Detroit Ranger Station. There's a quota on the number allowed. I've never had anyone check this so you might take your chances and camp discretely. Like there's an area about 0.25 mile Northwest of Sisters Spring that is far enough off the trail no one would notice you (maybe).
At mile 37.6 (6550') is the junction with the Obsidian Trail #3528. Stay straight (North). A little further is the scenic Obsidian Falls, a small and tall waterfall. There isn't really all that much osidian around. I was expecting huge obsidian cliffs.
At mile 37.8 (6620') is Sisters Spring, the first drinking water since Seperation Creek. It's interesting how the stream just appears at the base of a cliff area.
At mile 38.7 (6400') is the junction with the Glacier Way Trail #3528. 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 39.1 is the end of the Obsidian Limited use area.
At mile 40.2, the trail crosses the White Branch stream, according to the map, but I didn't see any water in August.
At mile 41.2 (6900') is Opie Dilldock Pass. Very alpine area. Great views.
At mile 41.7 (6700') is Minnie Scott Spring. First drinking water since Sisters Spring and Glacier Creek. It's easy to miss the spring late in the summer. It appears about 100' 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, then let the mud settle before getting water. Seems to be reliable year round. Nice campsites down a side trail to the West. Next drinking water is at South Mattieu Lake.
At mile 43.7 (6500') the trail traverses Yapoah Crater. There are tracks up to the summit at 6737'. Great views to the North across lava fields to Belknap Crater, Mount Washington, and Mount Jefferson.
At mile 45.1 (6050') you rejoin your route at the Scott Trail junction.
On the way back to the trailhead, take the PCT rather than the Mattieu Lake Trail, just for a change of view.
Back to Lava Lake Trailhead at mile 48.1.
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
Four night backpack - camp at Alder Creek, Park Meadows, somewhere after you re-join the PCT, and Minnie Scott Springs. Mileage each day - 5.2, 10.1, 11.9, 12.5, 6.4
Four night backpack using shortcut - Alder Creek, Camp Lake, Seperation Creek, Minnie Scott Spring. Between Camp Lake and Seperation Lake do some extra exploring. Mileage - 5.2, 8.9, 3.4, 8.9, 6.4
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