3 Sisters Wilderness: Ramble

For me, there is no place in Oregon like Three Sisters Wilderness (US Forest Svs), and for the last 6 years I’ve wandered around this area – amazed, challenged and inspired by the diversity and beauty and fragility of this unique area. This year, the adventure was 6 days / 5 nights backpacking.

The plan fully incorporated snow levels beyond anything seen in the last 6 years, but still the snow levels were low and deep relative to recent history. Snow influenced the hike and the work required. This hike was a “Ramble” following the best scenes and hiking conditions but really consisted of 2 hikes: 1 – 3 Sisters Loop (PCT and Green Lakes) and 2 – Broken Top to No Name Lake – looking something like

The segment between Moraine and Green Lakes was crossed 3x

To quickly find a section of interest:

  • Day 1 – Elk Lake to Golden Lake (PCT to Moraine Lake to Green Lakes to Golden Lake)
  • Day 2 – Golden Lake (attempt to Camp Lake) to Lava Camp
  • Day 3 – Lava Camp to Reese Lake (PCT sobo)
  • Day 4 – Reese Lake to Moraine Lake (PCT sobo and Moraine Lake Tr)
  • Day 5 – Moraine Lake to No Name Lake to Moraine Lake (Broken Top Tr to No Name Lake Tr & back)
  • Day 6 – Moraine Lake to Elk Lake (Moraine Lake tr to Devil – Elk Lake Tr)

Day 1 – Elk Lake to Golden Lake

Leaving very early to start hiking by 06:30 meant that the moon was up and fog on the lakes …

Elk Lake TH is not popular but an easy <2 miles up to PCT and from there a few miles up to the plateau with hazy air early with views to South Sis and Broken Top. Once up over the Wikiup Plains, the air cleared and South Sis came ’round.

After a lunch and water stop at Moraine Lake – Forest Svs rangers (3 of them) were at the lake and checked my overnight permit – the first time, Green Lakes was the next stop (the Green Lakes trail between TH and Green Lakes is the busiest trail I used this trip). This osprey (or its pair) was sighted 2x around Green Lakes and the creek that flows out (some very good shallow fishing spots).

Golden Lake (i never knew about it – another hiker told me to camp there :)) is the west facing lake beneath Broken Top … not quite a ‘crater lake’ but the beauty no less – a destination that should be added to any Green Lakes hike, imho. Top left below is west fact of Broken Top, following the snow down would find you at Golden Lake. Top right was a glacier collapse with dust and snow in the air; middle right is just clouds dancing on South Sis, and bottom = Golden Lake view from campsite looking opposite Broken Top.

I was the only camper at Golden Lake and a perfect end to day 1.

Day 2 – Golden Lake to Lava Camp

A before 06:00 start heading north on Green Lakes Tr. leaving Golden Lake

The first side trip planned was a visit to Camp Lake up on the saddle between South and Middle Sisters; snow was going to be a problem and I was not sure I would make it – i couldn’t as this snow wall and no traffic over it exceeded my risk tolerance, so I headed back to Green Lakes tr (a 5 mile detour all total).

The trail north from Camp Lake tr is nothing but a burn … and the hike is a challenge / obstacle course. This is the very worst trail condition for an older burn and heavily used trail that I have seen. There are 0 places to camp, the water was heavy with sediment, and everywhere nothing but burnt trees.

A quick iphone video

Even with the burn, a terrible trail, dirty water … hot, dusty, etc

After a long 20+ mile day, a father / daughter team invited me to share their walk-in site a Lava Camp, and by the morning, there were 4 tents in the site.

Day 3 – Lava Camp to Reese Lake (PCT sobo)

Back on PCT but going against the traffic proved interesting for sure, as everybody wanted me to know about the 10 miles of snow that I would need to cross. Between Lava Camp and that snow were some good things and 1 bad thing: PCT hikers can no longer camp at Mathieu lakes – a big shame as Lava Camp is not comparable and further off the path – a USFS error imho. Regardless, the walk down into the Scott Meadow takes my breath every time – flowers too!

The snow started just north of Minnie Scott Spring and went almost all the way to Reese Lake. This day was the lowest mile day as the snow just took tons of effort / energy. Lower left is Obsidian Falls coming from the frozen Sisters Spring middle right pic.

It was a hard walk over the snow – trail runners and trekking poles only – but when I arrived at Reese Lake nobody was there – but by morning there were >10 people. This was also the most water I’ve seen in the lake.

Day 4 – Reese Lake to Moraine Lake to Green Lakes and back to Moraine

The original plan had campsite at Green Lakes and not Moraine until the following night. I changed my mind to stay at Moraine 2 nights – special, magical spot. I left Reese Lake as sunrise hit South Sis, and pushed up above the ridge. At Mesa Creek meadow, the flowers were popping. (the best water south of Obsidian imho)

Rounding the southern end of the loop put me back on the Wikiup Plains and looking up at South Sis and looking down to Moraine Lake with Bachelor in the distance.

With a campsite in hand, I decided to see how far up South Sis I could go before the snow stopped me … around 8,000 ft. I had enough snow so turned around and was treated with high plateau flowers and a rodent hunter – it just stood and watched me and then went back to hunting – 20 ft away.

Then back to the Lake for dinner and sleep …

Day 5 – Moraine Lake to No Name Lake and back

This was the ‘new’ section of the hike – a southern / easterly route around Broken Top. The section between Moraine and Green Lakes was now covered for the 3rd time this hike, but a view of Broken Top and the Green Lakes helped greatly.

Coming around the south side, the view out across the spine is amazing and then turning around looking up at the south face of Broken Top was no less amazing.

About here, I ran into another solo hiker who asked where I was going – didn’t know … he told me he was camping in the Broken Top crater – nothing more. I headed that way … toward No Name Lake. No Name Lake is at the base of the broken crater with glaciers feeding it and floating on it. The creek coming out of a small notch is the ‘outlet’. It was a hard hike to get there and worth every step. — for serious, experienced hikers, this destination should be add to ‘the list’.

After wandering around Green Lakes a bit, it was back to Moraine Lake for the night.

Day 6 – Moraine Lake to Elk Lake (then home)

The last day was totally bitter sweet. I was tired, out of food, out of gas, and ready to go home to my partner and softer bed. … so up very early and out … saying goodbye to old friends and looking west to the valley sunrise.

Summary: With over 100 miles hiked in the 3 Sisters Wilderness area over July 17 – 22, there still are few places as magical. There are areas to avoid: Green Lakes (too busy), Pole Creek burn (the entire east side of sisters loop from Park Meadow north to Lava Camp -it’s dangerous!), and the Devils-Elk trail is an equestrian trail, not hiker. There were two new places added to the ‘special’ places list: Golden Lake and No Name Lake. PCT hikers are some of the best always helping and supporting each other.

If I was to make a recommendation for Sisters Loop hike, I’d suggest hiking the southern section (Reese Lake to Park Meadow) and add Broken Top to that hike. Much more enjoyable, safer and just as interesting places to see … yes, one will have to retrace their steps, but I find that WAY better than the death march through the Pole Creek burn area.

GaiaGPS Stats

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

4 Responses

  • What next? Can’t imagine being more excited about what is yet to be!! Love being a part of your adventures.

  • Our group of 6 is starting on August 15-19th backpacking on the ‘Three Sister’s loop’ (5 day/4 night) going clockwise from devil’s lake.

    I read that you mentioned the trail was dangerous going through the pole creek burn section.
    I’m not sure how to avoid it while doing this 50 mile loop?
    We are planning to camp our 4th night at Golden Lake.

    Any comments or suggestions would be much appreciated!

    • Barb … i think there are two ways (depending on the experience / hiking endurance of your group) – but here would be my ideas: #1 (assumes that your group experienced in shape hikers) – at the ‘top’ of the loop, camp at Lava Camp ‘walk in’ site – there are 2. Hike the northern portion of the loop, then cut back to the west via Camp Lake and Chambers Lakes; this puts you at Reese Lake a great place to camp. I would then extend out beyond the loop to GreenLakes and then end up back at Devil’s Lake TH. This would eliminate from Park Meadow to Camp Lake trail on the southern east leg of Green Lakes (loop) trail. Campsites might be: Mesa Creek, Mini Scott Spring, Lava Camp, Reese Lake. #2 (requires backtracking) Devils Lake TH COUNTERCLOCKWISE to Green Lakes; Green Lakes on Broken Top Trail to No Name Lake; No Name Lake back around to Green Lakes; Green Lakes back around Devils to Moraine Lake; Moraine Lake on PCT to Mesa Creek or Reese Lake, then back to Devils. This misses most of the northern west section PCT above Reese Lake (nice spots like Sisters’ Spring and Mini Scott Spring). Campsites would be something like: Green Lakes, Broken Top, Moraine Lake, and Reese Lake. Reese is about 3 miles from Mesa Creek. Either option cuts off some of the loop and adds some truly unique views (Camp Lake #1, Green Lakes and Broken Top #2) that are far better and safer (enjoyable too) than the east side of the loop.

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