The Three Sisters are a subgroup of the Cascade volcanoes west of Bend in central Oregon, consisting officially of North, Middle, and South Sisters (all approximately 10,000 ft high), though Mt. Bachelor (aka Bachelor Butte) & Broken Top are also in the immediate vicinity. The closely clustered 3 Sisters disrupt the typical pattern of most of the other widely spaced Cascade volcanoes. Nowhere in the Cascades has there been a greater number & variety of recent eruptions than in the vicinity of the 3 Sisters (1). The aptly-named Three Sisters Wilderness Area, originally established in 1937 as a Primitive Area, surrounds the peaks. A large variety of activities can be undertaken in the region, from resort downhill skiing (at Mt. Bachelor, directly south of the Sisters) to easy walk-ups and ‘backcountry’ skiing on the gentle South Sister, to steep & hazardous ascents of the infamous North Sister. There are a good 240 miles of developed trails that criss-cross the area. Check here for information from the Pacific Crest Trail Association on the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Although each of the Sisters only average around 10,000 ft. in elevation, a great deal of precipitation falls here in the winter (as evidenced by the number of glaciers on the peaks’ flanks), and this in turn obviously influences the conditions and seasons available to climb. A brief synopsis of the individual peaks is below.
South Sister, the highpoint of Lane County, is the highest of the 3 Sisters, has had the least amount of erosion and deterioration, and has the most extensive glaciation of the group. The mountain vies with Mt. St. Helens for the title of America’s most frequently climbed glaciated peak. It’s moderate slopes entice a large number of visitors to reach its summit each year, especially during summer holidays. Also extremely popular on the mountain are ski descents. Oregon’s highest lake, Teardrop Pool, forms in South Sister’s well-preserved crater in the summer.
Middle Sister, as indicated, lies between South Sister and North Sister. It is perhaps the most unremarkable of the Sisters, & ascents are typically via the unremarkable North or South ridges. Middle Sister is frequently climbed as part of a 3 Sisters Marathon.
The North Sister is the most infamous of the 3 Sisters, being steep, loose, and dangerous. An ascent of this peak should not be taken lightly, and should only be considered by experienced mountaineers. Even via its easiest routes, this mountain demands respect, caution, and often a little luck. More than a few unfortunate mountaineers have perished on this mountain. Perhaps the safest times to attempt an ascent of this mountain are when the loose choss of which this formation consists is partially held in place by snow and ice, though this obviously demands that the climber also be versed in snow and possibly ice climbing. When not covered in snow, many of the standard passages necessary to reach the summit consist of steep, loose, and exposed slopes where a slip quite possibly could mean an uncontrolled trip down to the glacier below- this is something to avoid! Some of the passages from the most frequently climbed route from the col between the North and Middle Sisters have such thought-provoking names as The Bowling Alley and The Terrible Traverse. This being said, a successful ascent (followed by a successful descent!) of this mountain is rewarding, and an accomplishment to be proud of.
· Broken Top: Broken Top is another volcano of uninspiring composition slightly SE of the South Sister. It is also best climbed when snow covers its loose rubble.
· Mt. Bachelor, aka Bachelor Butte, is a conspicuous volcano SSE of South Sister with gentle slopes. It has a glacial remnant on its north slopes, as well as a ski resort complete with chair lifts.
A unique pleasure for Pacific Northwest mountaineers with masochistic tendencies exists in these mountains: the 3 Sisters Marathon. While not 26 miles long (at least not if a shuttle is used upon completion), the Marathon is nonetheless approximately 16 miles long, has mucho elevation gain (& loss), & obviously requires surmounting the North Sister in the process. This affair is not to be taken likely. Some tormented & twisted souls have added Broken Top & Mt. Bachelor (!) into the equation to do a '5 Sisters Marathon.'
While the distance (as the crow flies) from the North to the South Sister is only 4.4 miles, the elevation loss between Middle & North is over 1300', and between Middle & South, it is a disheartening 2,700 ft. Many a Marathon aspirant has had view of the South Sister from Middle, another 3 miles & 3,000 ft. vertical gain away, & decided to call it a day.
Statistics for those demented enough to consider doing this undertaking:
· N Sister summit elevation: 10,094'
· N Sister-Middle Sister saddle elevation: 8,720'
· Middle Sister summit elevation: 10,053'
· Middle Sister-S Sister saddle elevation: 7,350'
· S Sister summit elevation: 10,358'
· (straight-line) distance from N Sister to Middle Sister: 1.4 mi
· (straight-line) distance from Middle Sister to N Sister: 3 mi
Trailheads to/from the Beast (North Sister) are typically Pole Creek (E side) or Obsidian (W side), while either the Green Lakes or (across from Devils Lake) Wickiup Plains & S. Sister Climbers Trailhead (both off of highway 46) may be used to access South Sister.
Visiting the 3 Sisters first entails getting to the Bend/Sisters area. Aside from the obvious driving option of driving, if coming from longer distances, there is also the Redmond Municipal Airport. If flying into Portland (PDX), there is a shuttle, as well as from of the other I-5 corridor cities (check it here.
Depending on conditions, which mountain, & which season, there are multiple access points for the 3 Sisters, Broken Top, & Mt. Bachelor. Mount Bachelor, South Sister, & Broken Top are all easily accessed by the Cascade Lakes Highway, alternately known as either highway 372 or 46 (designation switches somewhere between Bend and Mt. Bachelor ski area!), which starts out as SW Century Drive in Bend. The Cascade Lakes Highway is open seasonally past Mt. Bachelor ski area. It's about 20 mi from Bend to Mt. Bachelor.
A Trail Park Pass is required to park at or near the trailheads. A self-issued wilderness permit should be filled prior to entering the Three Sisters Wilderness (except for the Obsidian area- see paragraph on Obsidian area below). Also check with one of the ranger stations for any restrictions concerning camping or campfires in the Wilderness that might be in effect. Overnight stays require a permit from one of the ranger district offices.
To get to the Obsidian Trailhead (to access either North or Middle Sister from the W side), McKenzie Pass provides access from the E side of the Cascade crest (Bend and Sisters). A limited number of entry permits to the Obsidian area (40 dayhike 30 overnight group permits, 12 people/party) are available from approximately June until the end of October (permit times vary); the McKenzie Ranger District should be contacted with regards to this and other questions regarding the Obsidian area. Highway 242 (which goes over McKenzie Pass) is closed from mid November to mid June- contact ODOT to determine its status.
The Pole Creek Trailhead can be used to access the North Sister from the east side. Take highway 20 W from Bend to Sisters. From Sisters, take highway 242 (McKenzie Highway) towards McKenzie Pass. After a mile or 2, take a L on County Road 15, & follow this 10 miles S to its terminus at the trailhead.
South-side access points (& other Cascade Lakes Scenic Loop places)include, in sequence from Bend from/along the Cascade Lakes Highway, with mileages from the Sunrise Lodge (at Bachelor) & location:
· Todd Lake day-use Trailhead-
Almost directly north of Mt. Bachelor, this provides south side access to Broken Top (2.3 miles, on R).
· Sparks Lake-
Access to lovely Sparks Lake (4.5 miles, on L)
· Green Lakes Trailhead-
North of Sparks Lake, this can be used to access South Sister from the south & Broken Top's west side (5.1 miles, on R).
· Wickiup Plains & South Sister Climbers Trailhead-
Across the Cascade Lakes Highway from Devils Lake (& Devils Lake campground), & also where the road makes a 90˚ turn to go S towards Elk Lake, this can be used to access South Sister (7.1 miles, on L).
· Elk Lake resort: 11.4 miles
· Cultus Lake resort: 24.5 miles
The famished climber returning from a 3 Sisters Marathon, or perhaps just a day skiing at Mt. Bachelor, has a few options for good places to eat in the area (if one knows where to look).
** Recommendations on particularly noteworthy places to eat/avoid appreciated!! **
Around the South Sister
· Cultus Lake Resort: There is a little restaurant here with a decent beer selection & nice views of the lake. Opens May, closes December. Off of the Cascade Lakes Highway @ Cultus Lake,SW of South Sister/Mt. Bachelor.
Bend understandably has the area’s best food. This being Oregon, there is also some excellent beer around as well. Check out visitbend.com. As of this writing, there are 14(!!!) breweries of some sort or another in/around Bend. Some are devoted breweries, some are almost personal undertakings, some are brew-pubs. The Bend Ale Trail allows for a good exploration of the Bend brewing scene. If attempting this on a restricted time schedule, find someone else to drive!
· Deschutes Brewery, 901 SW Simpson Ave: In my opinion, some of Oregon's best beer (many commemorating the nearby mountains, so even better!), & good food, too.
· Mcmenamins Old St. Francis School brew pub, 700 NW Bond St:
a bar, adjacent movie theatre, rooms, decent food, & excellent beer make this a fun place to go (541.383.1599)
· Bend Brewing Company, 1019 NW Brooks St.: Good beer, haven’t tried the food.
· Pine Tavern Restaurant, 967 NW Brooks St: This restaurant is aptly named; peculiarly enough, there is a tree growing through the middle of this restaurant- no shit. There is also a patio with dining & lawn out back with nice views of beautiful Mirror Pond. The food is good & they have beer.
· Cascade Lakes brewpub: This brewpub is on the outskirts of town (between downtown Bend & Bachelor), at the roundabout where Colorado meets Century (map). Nice outdoor seating area, good food & beer. 541.388.4998
At least for the beer enthusiast, Three Creeks Brewing, with outdoor seating in the summer, is probably the biggest attraction in Sisters. It is located just off of the highway. Aside from that, there is a grocery store & gas station with a convenience store if all other options have been exhausted. If you’re there during operating hours there is a small drive-through espresso joint. Numerous tourist shops, and some restaurants, line main street.
The 3 Sisters area is renowned for its scenic beauty. Many of the roads in the vicinity give access to magnificent high Cascade views of giant glaciated peaks hovering over dense evergreen forests and tranquil lakes (there are numerous references to the Cascade Lakes, due to the numerous alpine tarns that dot the region (there are 37 lakes west & south of the Sisters)). Some of these roads have been given Scenic Byway designations:
· McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway
· Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway
· Sisters Ranger District: 541.549.2111
· McKenzie Ranger District:
57600 McKenzie Hwy
McKenzie Bridge, OR 97413
Summer hours: 7 days a week Memorial Day - Columbus Day
Regular hours: Monday-Friday 8-4:30
· ODOT (Oregon Dept. of Transportation):
- Bend area: 541.822.3541
- ODOT- District Office, Springfield: 541.726.2522
· Climbing guide: Climbing the Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot (a Falcon Guide- ISBN 1-56044-889-X)
· Climbing guide: Oregon High by Jeff Thomas (Keep Climbing Press, 1991)
· Fire & Ice: The Cascade Volcanoes, revised edition, by Stephen L. Harris (The Mountaineers, Pacific Search Press, ISBN 0-89886-009-1)- a good read on the Cascade volcanoes
· 1:27,000 topographic map of the 3 Sisters (& a ¾":1 mile map of the Wilderness Area) by Geo-Graphics: 503.533.5121
· USGS volcano page on the 3 Sisters
· 1. Hodge, Edwin T., 1925, Mount Multnomah, Ancient Ancestor of the Three Sisters: University of Oregon Publications, vol. 3, no. 2, 160 p.