Years ago, a good friend and I decided to head off from Portland and do a circumnavigation of the Three Sisters over the course of three days. We had a terse guidebook that roughly laid out the route and included a hand drawn, barebones map. We were young, we were foolish, and considered it a bold adventure that we would easily accomplish with our wits and 90s era backpacking gear.
The fact that there exists not a single piece of photographic evidence for the entirety of that trip, despite two cameras being taken, should give you a small inkling of how poorly it turned out. It rained, the mosquitos were horrendous, we took a wrong turn and end up trying to take a lesser maintained trail back to the car, and the trail involved intrepid route finding through two swamps, which resulted in a dastardly shortage of dry socks.
That was a fun trip. It took me over 15 years to try again.
Most backpackers take 4 to 5 nights to do this trip, but if you are in excellent hiking condition it is completely doable with only a single night of camping. If the weather looks promising, you could leave your tent to help reduce gear weight even further. However, July and early August typically have the mosquito syndicate out in force looking for blood, so bringing the inner part of your tent may be helpful for holding onto your sanity. Ultrarunners in the peak of their training will find it an excellent self-supported route to run.
You are connecting five trails to complete this loop, all of which are in good condition and easy to follow. Early in the season there still may be freshly fallen trees across the trail, especially in the Pole Creek Burn Area, but nothing you cannot walk over or around. Water is regularly available for the entire trail and I never carried more than a liter my entire trip. If traveling later in the summer or when it is especially hot out, you should be prepared to carry two liters.
The views do not disappoint, especially as you approach Green Lakes Pass, and you should be prepared to stop and take numerous photos. If you want to extend your trip, there are numerous side trips you can take while on this loop. For example, you could summit South Sister or cross the pass between Middle and South Sister while exploring the Chambers Lakes. It's a gorgeous area and well worth exploration.
- 818 Bend, Three Sisters Trail Map – National Geographic
- Map Numbers 621 & 622 – Green Trail Maps
- Downloadable/Printable Maps – CalTopo.com
- Trail around Three Sisters Hike – OregonHikers.org. Includes alternate starting trailheads and links to possible side trips.
- Three Sisters Loop Backpacking Guide – CleverHiker.com
Wilderness Permit: Free and self-issued at trailhead.
Camping: This route goes through the Obsidian Limited Entry Area, which requires that you purchase a permit if you intend to camp there overnight. If you are merely passing through while on the Pacific Crest Trail there is no need for a permit. The section of the PCT that goes through is relatively short, so you should have no problem camping before or after it.
July to October. The trail is almost entirely snow-free around the middle of July, but snow patches may remain until August. And while the weather is reasonably nice and stable during the summer and autumn months, cold and wet conditions can occur year round.
Drive to Lava Camp Lake Trailhead (map) and park. About a 3.5 hour drive from Portland. The trailhead is just east of the top of McKenzie Pass, which is closed from November to June due to snow.
- NOAA Forecast for Green Lakes Pass, highest point on trail at 7000'
Start at the Lava Camp Lake Trailhead (map). The trail begins in the southwest corner of the parking area. You can fill out your wilderness permit at the trailhead.
Mile 0.2 – Junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT, #2000). Go left (South) as the right fork goes to McKenzie Pass.
Mile 1.0 – Junction with the North Matthieu Lake Trail #4062. You can stay on the PCT (left) or hike this trail past North Matthieu Lake. The distance is more or less the same, but I typically stick on the PCT to miss the crowds.
Mile 3.0 – Junction with the North Matthieu Lake Trail #4062. Just a little bit further is South Matthieu Lake. Campsites exist around the lake and you will often find people here throughout the summer.
Mile 3.2 – Junction with the Scott Trail #4068. Stay left, on the Scott Trail.
Mile 5.1 – Junction with Green Lake Trail #4070. Go right (south) on the Green Lake Trail.
Mile 7.4 – Alder Creek. There is a nice camp/rest area on the south side of the creek. If you head upstream you may find a couple more campsites. Later in the season, this may be dry.
Mile 12.1 – Junction with the Pole Creek Trail #4072. Stay right (south) on the Green Lakes Trail.
Mile 12.8 – Soap Creek. On the south side of the creek is the junction with the Camp Lake Trail #4074, which goes right (west). Stay on the Green Lakes Trail heading south.
Mile 16.1 – Lake with campsites.
Mile 17.8 – Junction with Park Meadow Trail #4075. You head right (southwest), but there is an excellent drinking water stream and shaded spot for a break just a hundred feet to your left.
Mile 20.0 – Green Lakes Pass, which is at 7000'. There are nearby campsites but no reliable drinking water. In July snowmelt may provide a few trickling brooks but they do not last.
Mile 20.8 – Junction with unmarked trail that around the right side of Green Lake. You can go either way. Camping only allowed at designated campsites marked with a post.
Mile 22.1 – Several trail junctions in a short period of time. Take the widest and most traveled one that goes just to the right of the lake.
Mile 22.4 – Trail junction. To the left is a trail up to Broken Top. Continue straight (south) down towards Green Lakes Trailhead.
Mile 24.8 – Junction with Moraine Lake Trail #17.1. Go right (northwest) towards Moraine Lake.
Mile 26.2 – Moraine Lake. There are campsites around here but camping is only allowed at campsites marked with a post.
Mile 26.5 – Junction with a trail going left to a campsite and right up to South Sister. Continue straight on the Moraine Lake Trail.
Mile 27.1 – Junction with Devil's Lake Trail #36. Left is 1.3 miles to the Devil's Lake Trailhead and right heads up to South Sister. Continue going straight.
Mile 28.6 – Junction with Le Conte Crater Trail. Take a right (northwest) on this trail and you will begin crossing the Wickiup plain.
Mile 30.0 – Junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Head north (right) on the PCT.
Mile 31.1 – Small stream, the first drinking water since Moraine Lake.
Mile 32.0 – Mesa Creek. Excellent water and multiple campsites in the nearby woods.
Mile 32.5 – Junction with James Creek Trail. Continue on PCT.
Mile 33.0 – You pass by a small pond. There is a campsite nearby. Roll a 20 to deliver a critical hit to an attacking mosquito.
Mile 35.7 – You pass by a small lake.
Mile 37.1 – Junction with Foley Ridge Trail #3511.
Mile 38.7 – Junction with Linton Meadow Trail #3547.
Mile 40.7 – Beginning of Obsidian Limited Entry Area. Camping is limited in this area to people with a paid permit. Traveling through along the PCT is allowed without a permit.
Mile 41.0 – Junction with the Obsidian Trail #3528. Continue heading uphill along the PCT.
Mile 41.3 – Obsidian Falls and Sisters Spring. Amazing clear, cold, and tasty drinking water. Comes straight out of the base of a cliff a little further on.
Mile 42.3 – Cross Glacier Creek and the junction of Glacier Way Trail #4336. Campsites nearby. Last reliable water until South Matthieu Lake and before crossing lava fields.
Mile 42.5 – End of the Obsidian Limited use area.
Mile 44.9 – Opie Dilldock Pass.
Mile 49.0 – Junction with Scott Trail #4068. Continue along PCT towards South Matthieu Lake.
Mile 49.1 – Junction with the North Matthieu Lake Trail #4062. You can stay on the PCT (right) or hike this trail past North Matthieu Lake. The distance is more or less the same.
Mile 51.0 – Junction with the North Matthieu Lake Trail #4062 again. Continue on PCT (north).
Mile 51.8 – Junction with Lava Camp Lake Trail. Left continues along the PCT. Right takes you back to Lava Camp Lake Trailhead.
Mile 52.0 – Back at Lava Camp Lake Trailhead.