A Visit to the Three Sisters Wilderness
Only 20 miles south of Sisters, Oregon, lay one the easier and very spectacular hikes in the Three Sisters Wilderness. That’s right, go south on Elm Street and just keep going and this will put you at the trail head at Three Creeks Lake. One of the best features is that you have the most elevation gain in the first mile and after that the trail climbs in places but not so steeply. This isn’t a terribly difficult hike at all and if you go to the very end of the ridge past Broken Hand you will have hiked about 5 miles making the round trip roughly 10 mile and 10,000 smiles.
This hike offer spectacular views of Broken Top, the Three Sisters, Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt Jefferson and if the weather is clear you can see Mt Hood and Mt Adams in Washington. The trailhead at Three Creeks Lake is about 6,500 feet with the end over 8,000 feet making this is a hike for late July to mid-October. Tam McArthur rim looms 500 feet or more above the Three Creek basin. With its near-vertical cliffs is an eye popping from above or below. The trail starts in a lodgepole pine forest and a mile later when you crest the rim you are at an alpine plateau, with pumice plains, lava flows, red cinder hill and of course the rugged, ragged volcanic peaks. At the end of a narrow ridge you are about a half mile past a rock outcropping know as Broken Hand. If your crane your head way back you can see the full expanse of the near vertical north face of Broken Top which peaks at 9,175 feet.
Due to camera failure,and unbeknownst to me, I lost a couple hundred wonderful painstaken shots. Yup, a blank chip past that point. Darn! Fortunately, I’ve done this hike almost every year and have great shots taken under similar condition. I guess I really can’t complain much as my camera has taken about twice the life expectancd number of pictures, so, like me, I guess it getting old too!
On Tuesday, August 17th, I left home way too early in the morning so I could be at the trail head some 2-1/2 hours later. (Yawn!) I’ve learned that you can never trust the weather in the higher elevations and I always try to be heading back to the car about noon and hope to reach it before three. Tuesday was cool and clear with temperature at the trail head about 60 degrees and just a few faint whips of clouds in the blue sky. It seemed like the perfect day for this hike.
From the head, the trail climbs steadily and at a moderate grade for the first half mile. There are several rocky outcroppings so you can see out over the lake and get a peek at the South Sister just over the Tam McArthur overlook. This trail is well maintained, and since last year, they have added some switchbacks, making the climb to the rim a bit easier. In the second half mile you climb steadily and there are several places where you can catch some nice views of the lake and mountains.
The Overlook point becomes more tantalizing as it comes into view. I saw a few patches of snow in some of the deep shadows but the trail was clear. There were some remaining wild flowers blooming, but as dry as it gets here, they won’t last long. Purple penstemon, fuzzy yellow sulfur plant, white fuzzy “dirty socks”, lupine and several others were all in late bloom. Many of the scraggily old pine had bark eaten off them by porcupine and if you looked closely you can see the gnaw marks. In one area there were butterflies flittering and fluttering everywhere.
At nearly 2-1/2 mile out, a trail goes off the right and takes you a couple hundred yards to the Overlook. This is a place you won’t want to miss as it has incredible views. You can stand right on the edge of the ragged face and have 500 feet of air under your toes. Now Broken Top and the Three Sister are much closer and really catch your eye. Here you can see all 9 cascade peaks if the sky is clear. It was a little hazy and later in the day I could see a plume of smoke rising near Mt Adams.
Once you’ve had a chance to take it all in and shoot a lot more picture than you’ll ever need, you can follow the trail along the rim. For almost a mile, you cross pumice plains with occasional wooded areas. Finally, the trail begins to climb a ridge that separates the plain from the Park Meadows basin . The ridge soon turns to red cinders. If you look along the trial, you’ll see red pumice and large rocks with wrinkles. The bright red color makes it almost look like hot lava again. The trail runs out at a large rock called Broken Hand.
I left the trail just before I got to Broken Hand so I could go cross country and skirt the North side of Broken Hand. The bowl below Broken was filled with snow! It was warm enough that the top had begun to soften up and made the going much easier. You pick your way through large boulders in some spots, but with the snow, this was really pretty easy. I climbed the ridge just to the west of Broken Hand to get a good view of Broken Top. There is a little glacier fed lake on the west side of Broken Top that was still half frozen. This turquoise-blue colord lake against the red volcanic rock of Broken Top is a very dramatic view.
I continued out the ridge and climbed the humps to get closer and closer to Broken Top. Each high point offerd increasingly better views. The ridge runs out on a small knob that is only about 50 yards from the north toe of the north face of Broken Top. Wow, now that’s an impressive view! No matter how many times I come here, it never fails to “wow” me. Now you have a wonderful view of the Park Meadows area, Chambers Lakes, Golden Lake and several other small lakes. The view of the Three Sisters is just about as good as it gets. At over 8,000 feet, the top of Broken Top just isn’t that far away.
I took a short break and was having a snack when I noticed how fast small clouds were developing. Not a good sign in a place like this. It was time to start heading back toward the car and keep an eye on the sky. The temperature had dropped to 45-50 degrees and there was a 15-20 mile an hour wind blowing. Once I got going, I didn’t stop until I got back to the Overlook. Now there were about 15-20 people gawking and taking pictures. I looked back towards Broken Top and now I could see dark clouds looming just to the south. Time to go! It was a much easier hike now that it was all downhill. By the time I reached the trailhead, I could see clouds closing in on the Overlook.
I picked up my wife in Sister and we stopped off at the Black Butte Ranch for a late lunch. We had hardly gotten seated when it started raining. Before the day was over, the cascades got several strong thunder showers. Ahhhh… It was so much better sitting in a warm dry restaurant eating wonderful food and watching it rain. A great hike, great food and great company, all the elements of a wonderful day.
I do hope that you get a chance to check out Tam McArthur sometime and you’ll understand what a wonderful place it is. Keep looking for the beauty all around you!
Here’s a few more parting shots: