Archive for September, 2012

South Sister Summit Hike

On the summit of South Sister. Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor (at a mere 9177 ft and 9068 ft elevation, respectively) below in the background

Oregon is favored with many natural beauties, with the peaks of the Cascade mountain range its “crown jewels”. Mount Hood, at 11,249 feet in elevation and about 50 miles from Portland, is the best-known and highest. It requires climbing experience and expertise to safely attempt the summit, and can be very dangerous for those not properly prepared.

In contrast to the technical challenges of Mt. Hood, Oregon’s 3rd-highest peak is, in good weather, a mere hike, accessible by anyone willing and able to spend a few hours walking uphill. Known as South Sister, it is the youngest and the highest of the three peaks in the Three Sisters Wilderness, with an elevation of 10,358 feet.

On August 16, 2012 I did this hike.


Arial photo of the Three Sisters; South Sister in the foreground (USGS photo)

I used the most direct and most popular route, starting at the trailhead near the Devil’s Lake campground on the Cascades Lakes Highway, a few miles past the turnoff to the Mt. Bachelor ski area. The trail heads due north for a little over six miles, with an elevation gain of about 5000 feet. You then return the way you came.

The day did not start well. It started just before I left the parking lot, when a couple of young women headed out before I did and passed by where I was parked. I somewhat absent-mindedly said “good morning” to them, and then was instantly reminded as to why I had decided some time ago not to attempt to exchange the same sort of customary greetings with young women as you would with anyone else: they both shot me back their best “stay away from us, you old creep!” hostile glares, and passed by silently on their way. A form of self-preservation mechanism, I suppose.

I minute or so later I started my own hike, and soon ran into one of the young women headed back toward the parking lot, with with an even angrier look on her face than she had when I had seen her the first time. Soon afterwards I got to the place where the trail crosses Tyee Creek, just before the trail crosses the Cascade Lakes Highway. There’s no bridge there, just a bunch of log of various sizes piled up in one spot (see Photo 79 below). The other young lady was standing on the other side. I stepped on one log, which was large in diameter but did not go all the way across. I stepped onto the next one; I then found out is was only floating in the creek, and I ended up falling in. Both boots and socks where completely soaked with ice-cold water. The young lady on the other side then decided to speak their first words to me, “hey, my friend just did the same thing”. I thought to myself, “great, so you think so much of yourself that you wouldn’t even bother to warn me?”. Oh well. Fortunately I had wool socks, and was able to take them off and wring most of the moisture out of them. It was a dry, low-humidity day, and socks and boots eventually dried out enough that this little incident didn’t cause any blisters or other discomfort. Note to self: Add spare pair of socks to Ten Essentials list.

Once the trail crosses the highway, you get to the information board, which includes the station to fill out the free self-registration Wilderness permits. For the next 1+ miles the hike is through forested terrain, with no view of the mountain. In the early morning hours, mosquitos were very, very fierce in this area (fortunately, DEET was on the Essentials list).

Eventually the trail rises out of the woods in a series of switchbacks, to a plateau where one gets the first view of the mountain from the trail (Photo 30). It was on these switchbacks where I got some “revenge”, after a fashion, on the young women. I caught up to them as they were slowly struggling up the switchbacks, huffing and puffing. I admit it was satisfying to stroll past them and go on my way.

The plateau portion of the trail passes to the west of Moraine Lake, a popular camping spot for those doing the summit hike as an overnight trip (Photos 34 to 38). Camping in the lake area is strictly controlled, being allowed only at 22 designated sites (Photos 77 and 78).

The trail continues north and gets gradually steeper. I hit a few patches of snow. The sections from Photo 50 to Photo 53 was my least favorite section of the trail. It got considerably steeper here, and the footing was loose scree. It was particularly difficult to determine exactly where the trail was in this section; in fact, on the way back down I ran into a pair of hikers on their way up, asking where the trail was. You can’t see the summit, but you can see that you’re reaching a ridgetop that you know can’t be the summit because you’re still way too low in altitude. In fact, it is a ridge overlooking the tarn at the base of Lewis Glacier (Photo 53). From there the trail runs along the ridge to the west of Lewis Glacier, for the last ~1400 foot of elevation gain to the summit crater rim (Photos 54, 55, 56, 74). Footing is loose scree (is there any other kind?). Just before reaching the crater rim, the trail veers west and gets steeper. Fortunately I had a set of Kahtoola MICROspikes with me, and they helped greatly with traction on the scree. Especially on the way back down, they made it easy to control how much I slid.

The top of the mountain is a snow-filled crater, with the actual summit about halfway around the rim. You can either hike arond the rim or take a “shortcut” across the snow. I took the shortcut on the way to the summit (MICROspikes helped) and did the rim on the way back.

It was a bit hazy at the summit; the usual summer wildfires were probably the cause. Even so, I was able to see as far as Mt. Hood.

Once back at the trailhead I ran into a ranger. He was retrieving the permit forms, and mentioned how important they were. The weather forecast predicted a chance of thunderstorms in the next few days, and the Forest Service wanted to see how many backcountry overnight campers were in the area. He also said the forms were useful to the Forest Service to track how many recreational users were taking advantage of the area, and were “a vote for the Wilderness”.

All and all it was a great day hike, with great views from the top. It’s best to get an early start (around dawn), and do it on a day with good weather at the summit (for an example of when not to go, see this story).

Here’s an interactive Google Earth view of the hike. You can zoom in on the route, adn open up each photo in its own window. Thumbnails of all the photos follow, which are also links to the full-size versions.