Forty miles through the Three Sisters
BY JAMES JOHNSTON
The 2,700 mile long Pacific Crest Trail was pioneered by Oregonians. Long before the idea of a trail running from Mexico to Canada occurred to anyone else, Oregonians were blazing the Oregon Skyline Trail along the spine of the Cascades from Mount Hood to Crater Lake. Famous Oregon mountain guide Dee Wright scouted the northern section of the Skyline Trail in 1896. Renowned Northwest photographer Fred Hiser and others completed the trail in 1919, and it opened to great fanfare in 1920.
It wasn’t until 1926 that Catherine Montgomery proposed an across-the-country trekking route. By the late ’20s the “Cascade Trail” had been established across most of the crest of the Cascades in Washington State. California was very late getting into the crest trail game, and it wasn’t until 1960 that a route was completed through that state. The Pacific Crest Trail was authorized by Congress in 1968 and dedicated in 1993.
Some of us who have been backpacking in Oregon for decades can still remember signs for the “Oregon Skyline Trail” and the “Three Sisters Primitive Area,” the precursor to the modern Three Sisters Wilderness established by Congress in 1964.
In my humble opinion, the finest stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail is the northern half of the 40 miles that traverse the Three Sisters Wilderness, first blazed as a recreational trail 111 years ago this summer.
Because this is a one-way trip, you need at least one friend and two vehicles to run a shuttle. You’ll leave one vehicle at Devil’s Lake Campground off Cascade Lakes Highway. Then continue on through Bend to Sisters, where you’ll take Old McKenzie Pass Hwy. for 15 miles west to Dee Wright Observatory. A hundred yards further west of the parking lot, head south on trail of ground cinder marked only by a small Pacific Crest Trail emblem.
The trail proceeds through a massive 1,500 year old lava field for about a mile before it climbs through a dusty forest for three more miles past the Matthieu lakes to Scott Pass.
The next 5 miles of trail from Scott Pass showcase some of the most interesting cinder cones, craters and lava flows in the Three Sisters Wilderness. It’s a landscape that has more in common with the surface of the moon than the Earth (the Apollo 11 astronauts trained near here). There are lots of flat places to pitch a tent, and ample water most of the year from snowmelt. A mile and half from Scott Pass is the base of Yapoah Crater. You can climb to the top for fine views of the North Sister and bear west to reconnect to the PCT. Another mile brings you to a trail intersection.
You will be continuing south (straight at the intersection), but this junction marks the first of many interesting possible side trips. About a mile down the trail to the west is Four-In-One Cone, which, as the name implies, is actually four distinct craters that belched lava from 2,500 to 3,000 years ago — a blink of the eye in geologic time. You can scramble north across the lip of these craters for breathtaking views of the Three Sisters to the southeast.
Continuing south on the PCT for 2 miles takes you to Opie Dildock Pass (“not much of a hand with the ladies, Opie, but a fine man on the trail”) and the base of Collier Cone. There’s a boot path that loops around the rim of Collier Cone and offers gaudy views of Collier Glacier, the largest glacier in Oregon, which lies between the North and Middle Sisters.
From Opie Dildock Pass south is wildflower country in July and August. If you descend from the pass at the end of the day, make camp near Sawyer Bar where the trail crosses White Branch Creek, which flows out of Collier Glacier and is a major source of the McKenzie River.
South of Sawyer Bar is the Obsidian Heavy Use day area. There are lots of obsidian shards underfoot, as well as big boulders of obsidian. This area was at the center of a prehistoric obsidian economy for at least 8,000 years. There are extensive wildflower meadows for several miles. The view of the mountains from the meadows is partially obscured, but you can climb a short butte to the east (towards Arrowhead Lake) for better views. Arrowhead is your jumping off point for the climb to the top of the Middle Sister, not recommended for anyone without mountaineering skills.
You descend out of the Obsidian Heavy Use Area past Obsidian Falls, possibly the coldest shower in all of Oregon. Two miles from the base of the falls, leave the PCT and turn right at a junction for a steep descent to Linton Meadows. Linton Meadows has the best wildflowers of this trip and one of the few views of the Sisters that makes the Middle Sister seem like its own mountain and not a twin head of the North Sister. There are good camps at Eileen Lake, a mile west of Linton Meadows. From Eileen Lake, continue south for a mile to a confusing five-way intersection at barren Racetrack Meadows. From here, you climb a mile, bearing northeast, back to the Pacific Crest Trail.
From the junction with the PCT, it’s 4 miles south to good camps at Mesa Falls Creek. Continuing south from Mesa Creek takes you across barren lava flows and the eerie pinnacles of The Wife to the west. Due east of The Wife is a trail intersection. A left turn will take you across Wickiup Plain, where you follow the signs for Devil’s Lake to return to your shuttle. Or you can continue south for 2.5 miles to Sisters Mirror Lakes. From this scenic destination you can backtrack a mile to pick up the Wickiup Plain trail to Devil’s Lake.
As the fifth generation of non-native inhabitants to traverse the Cascade skyline, we have a special responsibility to leave this area better than we found it. Always camp at least 300 feet from water sources (preferably further). Camp only in existing campsites. Avoid camping in Heavy Use Areas. BUILD NO FIRES. Use only camp stoves — the fragile alpine environment is unable to replenish wood fast enough to fuel campfires. Dispose of waste properly. Pack out all trash you might encounter. Stay on the trail. Don’t disturb wildflowers, remove obsidian or take anything else from the Three Sisters except memories. Dee Wright is watching.