Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Three Sisters

We knew that on a Saturday, the campgrounds near the Three Sisters Wilderness would fill early in the day, so we left Ochoco Divide bright and early and headed west. The one gallon of farm gas that we’d acquired in Mitchell managed to last us to Prineville, where we filled up. Then we drove into Bend, where we checked in at the Forest Service office, which unfortunately was closed. It makes no sense to us why ranger stations and Forest Service offices are open every day of the week but closed on weekends, the time when they would get the most use. Anyway, we drove out of Bend on the Cascade Lakes Highway, looking for campgrounds.

At Elk Lake, we found a historic cabin that was now an information center, manned by friendly volunteers. For this week, the volunteers were an older, retired couple who live in northeast Oregon but come out for a week every summer to volunteer at the cabin. They pointed us to the Elk Lake campground, just a bit further down the road, and also offered us free firewood. Caroline was full of camping gear, so we passed on the firewood offer for now, but thanked them for the information.

The Elk Lake campground turned out to be beautifully situated right next to the lake, with great lake views from many of the sites. Even better, the campground was across the lake from Mt. Bachelor, and Bachelor made an amazing backdrop to the already fantastic lake views. We scored one of the lakeview sites when we realized that the couple currently occupying it was just about to leave.

After setting up our site, we decided to take the friendly volunteer couple up on their offer of free firewood, now that we had some room in the car. Then we headed to the Green Lakes trailhead, described by one of our hiking books as the most popular trailhead in Oregon. The trailhead was definitely crowded, with perhaps 100 vehicles entirely filling the lot except for one open spot, which we took. Our plan was to hike up to the Green Lakes, rated a 10 out of 10 for beauty by our book. The next day, we’d hike up to the top of the South Sister.

As we quickly discovered, the Oregon Cascades are dominated by a few easily identifiable peaks. In this area, those peaks were Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, the Three Sisters, and then farther north, Mt. Jefferson and then Mt. Hood. Washington, by contrast, has its iconic peaks (Rainier, Baker, Adams), but it also has large ranges of less distinctive mountains. We couldn’t decide which we liked better – Washington offers fantastic panoramic vistas, but then the Oregon Cascades have the advantage that they’re easy to get to know. Spending just a day or two in the area, you get on a first-name basis with the main peaks, so to speak, and even start to assign them personalities – maybe that’s how they got names like the Three Sisters and Mt. Bachelor.

Anyway, our hike to the Green Lakes began along a pretty river, and very early on, we began to get views of the South Sister.

A few pretty waterfalls made nice stops on the way up.

It wasn’t long before we were in snow.

Then we reached a glacial moraine, with a creek running next to it.

The moraine was tall, but not tall enough to entirely block views of the South Sister.

Sarah met a cute dog on the trail who was carrying his own gear.

When we reached the main Green Lake, we stopped for a bite to eat on a piece of land that jutted out into the lake and afforded great views of Broken Top.

After snacking, we walked around a bit more and enjoyed the views of the South Sister, on the opposite side of the lake from Broken Top.

We considered turning around at this point, but we really hadn’t hiked all that much, so we decided to continue up the trail a little ways further. Before too long, we encountered another one of the Green Lakes, much smaller but still pretty.

Then we headed back down to the trailhead, enjoying some more good views on the way down.

That night, Brian broke out the hatchet that we’d been carrying with us for 10 months but had yet to use. He split some kindling off the big pieces of wood we’d acquired, and we had a lovely fire. Around sunset, we watched Mt. Bachelor turn red across Elk Lake.

The next day, our plan was to hike up the South Sister. The South Sister is the third-highest peak in Oregon, behind only Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, and it’s also the only one of the Three Sisters whose summit can be reached with nothing more than a strenuous hike, rather than a technical climb. The trailhead is around 5400 feet high, and the summit is around 10,300 feet, so over the six-mile one-way distance to the top, we would gain nearly a mile of elevation.

The hike started in the woods, but because the trailhead elevation was so high, it wasn’t long before we broke out of the trees and started getting views. Here’s Broken Top.

And here’s the Sister, looming large in front of us. We’ve already gained some elevation at this point, but we clearly have a ways to go.

We met some hikers on the way back down who were carrying way too much gear for a day hike. They said they had stayed at the summit! Wow, that must have been cold. But they said it was fantastic.

Another view of Broken Top on the way up:

A couple miles into the trail, we reached a junction for Moraine Lake. Our guidebook had mentioned that as a possible bailout point – if you’re not up to the South Sister today, then make Moraine Lake your destination instead. We were feeling good, though, so we pressed onward. After a bit more uphill hiking, we got some nice views looking down at Moraine Lake with Mt. Bachelor in the background.

The South Sister has a long flank that’s relatively flat, so we’d had some easy hiking for a while. Here’s Sarah, still feeling good, even as the terrain is about to ratchet up a few notches in difficulty.

Once we got out of the flattish area, we realized that we weren’t just in for steep hiking, but also crumbly hiking – the surface of the South Sister is mostly loose rock that slips and crumbles beneath your feet on every step. Fortunately, we could use our hiking poles to brace ourselves – otherwise, it would have been a matter of gaining a foot and then sliding back an inch or two on every step. Even with poles, the hike was remarkably like climbing a sand dune, with the ground giving way underneath you.

Fortunately, every time we got tired and needed a rest, there were amazing views to enjoy. Here’s Mt. Bachelor on the left and Devil’s Lake on the right.

Farther up South Sister, we found a pretty glacial-looking turquoise pool.

Then as we neared the top, we stopped taking rest breaks and accelerated through to the finish. We found ourselves on the rim of a large crater at the top of the mountain and immediately headed to the north side of the crater to find out what we could see of the rest of the Oregon Cascades. The view was breathtaking – the Middle Sister and North Sister in the foreground, with Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood behind.

We reached the top at the same time as an interesting guy named Mark, who took our picture.

Then, after bundling up against the stiff wind at the summit, we set up the camera to take another picture on a timer.

And for good measure, Brian took a picture of Sarah with the awe-inspiring backdrop.

We realized that the north side of the crater rim wasn’t hikeable, so we cut across the snowfield filling the crater. Then we discovered the most curious thing – the lightest-blue little puddle of snowmelt that we’d ever seen.

The highest point of the rim, and therefore the official summit, was across the snow-filled crater. At the summit, we took a few more pictures.

First, another shot of the Oregon volcanoes.

Then Sarah, standing on a rocky outcrop. We were so high that we were actually looking down on the clouds, which was a pretty awesome feeling.

Looking back toward the south, we could see Mt. Bachelor.

And looking back into the crater, we marveled again at the color of the little pool.

As we walked further around the rim, we got a neat view toward the east of some sort of broken volcanic cone in front of Broken Top.

We spent about an hour taking in the views from the top of the mountain, and then we decided that it was getting to be time to head down. The crumbly rock would be treacherous on the way down, so we’d need to take our time. We took a few more pictures as we half hiked, half slid down the mountain.

Although both of these hikes had been rated a 10 for scenery by our book, there was no doubt that the hike to the top of the South Sister was the better of the two and even one of the most amazing day hikes we’d ever done. The views of the surrounding mountains, standing above the clouds, and looking down into the crater after a climb of nearly a mile made for an incredibly rewarding experience. The Green Lakes were nice, don’t get us wrong, but the hike to the top of the South Sister was unbelievable.

We made another nice campfire that evening with wood left over from the previous night’s fire. The next morning, we packed up and headed to Bend, where we ran some errands before moving on.

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