Cross-Country in the Three Sisters Wilderness 16/18-Jul-2015

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

The loop around the Three Sisters in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness is one of those classic/iconic backpacks that had been on my to do list for a long time. Long enough for me to give some thought to doing the loop in a slightly different way. So when Brad – my adventure backpacking partner –¬† approached me about doing a hike together, I offered him my different loop idea, he thought it sounded interesting, so we juggled our schedules to meet early one morning at the Pole Creek Trailhead on the east side of the wilderness, ready for our journey into adventure.

Here was my different loop idea in a nutshell: From the Pole Creek Trailhead to Camp Lake¬† then on past the Chambers Lakes to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Then south on the PCT and other trails around to the east side of South Sister, then north on Green Lakes Trail #17 past Green Lakes to 7,000 feet; then cross-country from there to Camp Lake. Then deja vu all over again back to the PCT past the Chambers Lakes but now north on the PCT to Minnie Scott Spring and from there east cross-country to Green Lakes Trail #4070 on the east side, then back to the Pole Creek Trailhead. This looked doable from the topo maps, but we had no idea if the two cross-country sections wouldn’t cliff us out or have other no-go features. The actual trip took us three days.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Our track: Day 1 (red), Day 2 (yellow), Day 3 (black)

DAY 1: Pole Creek Trailhead to Mesa Creek (~14 miles; ~2,200 feet of elevation gain)

We got an early start and headed up Pole Creek Trail #4072 through the depressing remains of the Pole Creek Fire. Brad was packing light (no stove) while I need the reassurance of a hot coffee in the morning (hence a stove).

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Our started and ended through the aftermath of the Pole Creek Fire

We took the #4074 toward Camp Lake. Where the trail crosses the South Fork of Whychus Creek,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

South Fork of Whychus Creek

we met a gentleman who made some jokes about our having GPSs while at the same time trying to convince Brad that this was really Soap Creek. The guy, being wrong, was not convincing.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

“No, we’re on the South Fork of Whychus Creek, not Soap Creek.”

We got to Camp Lake (Lake 6952) where the start of the use trail west to the PCT was pretty obvious, as was South Sister. Actually that whole use trail was pretty obvious and easy to follow.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

The use trail (arrow) climbs a slope on the west side of the lake

The immediate climb up from Camp Lakes (Lake 6952) was a bit of a grunt,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Climbing up to the divide; Camp Lake in the background

but the use trail soon crossed the divide between Middle Sister and South Sister and dropped past the first of the Chambers Lakes.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Where the use trail crosses the divide (arrow); Middle Sister on the left

The Chambers Lakes drainage could be a destination in its own right, with lakes formed by moraines, varied volcanic colors, all presided over by South and Middle Sister.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Middle Sister with a west side Chambers Lakes in the foreground

The use trail runs along the south side of the drainage past one lake,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Where the use trail (arrow) passes through the west side Chambers Lakes

and then the next,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Where the use trail (arrow) passes through the west side Chambers Lakes

before finally cresting another divide that offers a view of The Husband out to the west,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Once past the Chambers Lakes, The Husband comes into view

and then descending the Separation Creek drainage to an unsigned junction with the PCT.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Middle Sister from the PCT at Separation Creek

Separation Creek was dry at the PCT (wet but silty higher up) and Brad wasn’t keen on water quality in Reese Lake, so we went south on the PCT to find a great little camp spot on a small meadow just above Mesa Creek.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Camp 1 at Mesa Creek

DAY 2: Mesa Creek to Camp Lake (~15 miles; ~2,200 feet of elevation gain)

The next morning, we went south on the PCT,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

On the PCT going south

past the Rock Mesa,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Rock Mesa from the PCT

and contemplated The Wife.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

The Wife

Then it was Trail #17.1 around the south end of South Sister,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

The south side of South Sister

past Moraine Lake (I was surprised to find that it’s now in a camping management zone),

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Moraine Lake below South Sister

across Fall Creek,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Fall Creek

then up Trail 17 past Green Lakes,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

South Sister above Green Lakes

to the 6,900-foot contour (where the trail starts its descent to Park Meadow). This was the first cross-country piece of our hike and basically we headed directly across the landscape toward a point between the two peaks on the horizon.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

The start of our first cross-country crossing

This proved to be pretty easy country to move through. It also had lots of meadows and water sources tucked away in it, including the upper West Fork of Park Creek.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

West Fork of Park Creek with South Sister looming behind it

Soon “Little Pilot Rock” – an obvious rocky prominence on the ridge – came into view and we aimed just to the right of it.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Our track (arrow) to the right of “Little Pilot Rock”

We had to negotiate a minor piece of steepness to reach Little Pilot but the view south from here toward Broken Top and Mount Bachelor was unique.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Broken Top, with Mount Bachelor on the far right

The only really tricky routefinding involved by-passing a cliff, snowfield, and terminal moraine none of which looked like fun to me. But we found a route around all these impediments,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Our route (arrow) climbed a slope to avoid some impediments

one that took us to an easy descent to Camp Lake (Lake 6259), where we camped,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Camp Lake

and enjoyed the sunset.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

South Sister from Camp Lake at sunset

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Sunset at Camp Lake

DAY 3: Camp Lake to Pole Creek Trailhead (~24 miles; ~3,000 feet of elevation gain)

The day started peacefully, with sunrise over Middle Sister,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Middle Sister from Camp Lake at sunrise

and South Sister.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

South Sister from Camp Lake at sunrise

We then retraced our steps past the Chambers Lakes,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Chambers Lakes

to the PCT and then went north,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

North on the PCT

past Obsidian Falls,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Obsidian Falls

up Opie Dilldock Pass,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Climbing Opie Dilldock Pass

for a view of the Central Cascades (note that there’s no smoke on Three Finger Jack – this will change),

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

(right to left) Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Three Finger Jack, Mount Washington, and Belknap Crater

to Minnie Scott Spring. At this point we needed to find a cross-country path through the Ahalapam Cinder Field and over the ridge running north from North Sister. I’d sketched out a route that, from the map, looked like it might go. So we went due east from just north of the spring, past a nice little lake hidden off the PCT,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

An unnamed and unmapped pond just above the PCT

up a hot and sweaty (but easy) cinder slope to the top of the ridge where it was immediately obvious that a fire had erupted on the west side of Three Finger Jack in the short time we’d been climbing.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

A fire erupts along the PCT near Three Finger Jack

From the north-south ridge, we had to cross an east-west ridge to gain access to the cinder fields on the east side of North Sister. We needed to trend southeast across these fields to gain our objective – where the #4070 crosses Alder Creek.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Where (arrow) we crossed the east-west ridge to gain access to the cinder fields

It was easy traveling across a wide open landscape of colorful cinders,

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

North Sister beyond the cinder fields

where life persists.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Staying alive, staying alive…

The map showed one band of steep cliffs along our path toward Alder Creek and we couldn’t be sure we’d find a way through those. But close observation of deer tracks pointed us to a break in the cliff and then an easy, cindery descent to the plain below.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Break in the cliff (black arrow); easy descent route (yellow arrow)

From there, it was across more cinder fields then through living and burned forest to the #4070 and Alder Creek.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

Alder Creek

The worst part of our whole trip was the #4070 back to the trailhead – hot and dusty through burned forest and climbing for half the way. And it didn’t help that we’d already put in a ~17 mile day. But we just settled our suffering into a “just keep moving” zone and, after a zombie-like 6 miles or so, were back at the cars by late afternoon. This last day was a bit on the looney side mainly because we had no on-the-ground knowledge of the cross-country section – so once we were into it and it was a go, we just had to keep moving. With what we know now, this adventure could be apportioned into a real nice four-day backpack. Overall, a demanding (53.5 mile figure-8 loop; 10,062 feet of elevation gain), adventurous but really, really fun backpack through some areas of the Three Sisters Wilderness that few, if any people, have ever seen.

Three Sisters Wilderness Oregon

We looked better before we backpacked 53 miles!

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