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Three Sisters, Three Days

A backpacking circumnavigation of Faith, Hope and Charity

Lying in my sleeping bag after a 15-mile hike carrying 40 pounds of gear should have produced a feeling of accomplishment-laden relief. While it did feel good to free my shoulders from the straps of my backpack, I couldn’t help but feel like my own prisoner of war. Thoughts of escape raced through my mind while the thin nylon of a 20-year-old tent acted as a 30-square-foot jail cell. I knew my hiking companion was trapped in his own private prison a few yards away. Outside, legions of springtime mosquitos stood guard, waiting to attack should I decide to unzip the door. In the distance, thunder and lightning provided a battlefield soundtrack laughingly appropriate for our day.

This wasn’t my first foray into the Three Sisters Wilderness, nor was this my first journey on the Three Sisters Circumnavigation hike. The multi-day, 50-mile trek allows hikers to get up close and personal with the terrain that frames Central Oregon’s western skyline. I’ve done the full circumnavigation four times, and have completed countless other day hikes in the second largest wilderness area in Oregon, which surrounds Broken Top and South, Middle and North Sister. But no other excursion had been fraught with as many mishaps as today—an had been already—an over-heated Land Cruiser, a forgotten pair of sunglasses and a broken water filter.

The bad luck had been preceded by good luck. Usually the mountains are packed with snow well into the summer, but the warmer spring of 2015 gifted us an early-season backcountry trip. But then, right away, we had the car trouble. Despite our late start from the Devil’s Lake parking area, we agreed to stick to the plan—50 miles in three days—so off we went.

Our goal for the first night was Obsidian Falls, a 40-foot cascade running over a cliff of black fractured glass. But first, we had to climb through the fir and pine forest along the switchbacks of the South Sister Climber’s Trail. After an hour or two of age and fitness grumblings, we came to the first of many welcoming—aka flat—alpine meadows. Stopping for a snack and to catch our breath, we remembered why we came. We sat alone amongst the towering 9,000 and 10,000-foot tall volcanic peaks that star in many professional photographs and television commercials before continuing on.

Our dusk arrival to camp—just before an impending storm—meant a quick set-up, dinner and sleep. We did, however, take time to marvel at the glory of the west side of Middle and North Sister, a view not often seen by residents east of the Cascades.

Day two was a long Saturday, packed with many breathtaking miles over passes and downed trees, and through the 41-acre burn area of the 2012 Pole Creek Fire. My hiking partner and I remained quiet as we marveled at the juxtaposition of the destructive force of a forest fire with the resiliency of nature—the black, charred trees were under lit by green underbrush beginning to reclaim its environment.

Our final camping destination was a no-name lake to the north of the hugely popular Green Lakes area. From our spot, we could look down and savor the beauty of the many lakes surrounded by South Sister and Broken Top, all without the mass of day hikers who rarely venture beyond the actual Green Lakes. My body’s natural rhythm seemed to have slowed from being in nature as the evening’s chores were completed under the orange and pink hues of a high-cloud sunset. Even though we didn’t discuss it, I could feel the mixed emotions of tomorrow’s final leg of our journey. While we were happy to be accomplishing our goal, we were sad to leave this place behind.

We shared a slow breakfast and jovial attitudes, and began the last—and shortest—day of our excursion. We even talked about making this an annual trip, although perhaps taking an extra day and completing it in the fall. Our sore legs and shoulders were no match for the sense of accomplishment that left us feeling like kings as we passed day-hikers, comparing our packs—and in turn, our journey—to theirs. I seemed to have forgotten about the bugs and other mishaps as my uncontrollable smile led us back to the car.

High-fives and manly hugs were in order as we tossed our packs in the back of the truck. With the breeze blowing through the windows, our thoughts turned to cheeseburgers, beer and a shower!

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The Three Sisters 

Circumnavigation Backpack TrekWhen to Hike

Usually fall is the best time to complete the Three Sisters Circumnavigation hike, as the snow has melted and the trails are less crowded. You can even take your dog off-leash after September 15. For more information, please visit the Deschutes National Forest Office.

Deschutes National Forest
63095 Deschutes Market Rd., Bend
(541) 383-5300

The Route

» Start at the Devil’s Lake Trailhead and take the South Sister Climber’s Trail.

» Head west on the Moraine Lake Trail and the LeConte Crater Trail.

» Turn north on the Pacific Crest Trail.

» Head east on the Scott’s Pass Trail.

» Turn south on the Green Lakes Trail.

» Head west on the Moraine Lake Trail.

» Turn south on the South Sister Climber’s Trail back to Devil’s Lake.

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