hero

Backpacking the Three Sisters Loop from Devils Lake Trailhead

The Three Sisters Wilderness loop is an epic 50-mile trek through the diverse landscape of the Cascade Range in central Oregon. The trail loops around three of Oregon’s prettiest peaks- South Sister, Middle Sister, and North Sister. Hikers will see huge fields of lava rock, glaciers, the remnants of volcanoes, beautiful lakes, and meadows filled with wildflowers.

Hiking through the Three Sisters mountain range is a volcanic family affair. Hiking along the west side of the Three Sisters you also pass by Little Brother, The Husband, and The Wife. (And while he doesn’t have a catchy name, we can’t forget about Broken Top, a long extinct volcano on the east side of the sisters.) The cluster of glaciated stratovolcanoes are constantly changing due to erosion and glacial melt. While most of the volcanoes in this range are inactive, South Sister and Middle Sister have been recurrently active, and scientists believe that they could erupt again!

The volcanic history and its formations make an incredibly diverse landscape. The Three Sisters Wilderness is a hiker’s paradise, and it can be quite crowded in the summer. For a good portion of the trail, hikers follow the Pacific Crest Trail through the Willamette National Forest, but on the east side of the mountain the trail goes through the equally scenic Deschutes National Forest. Hiking the loop lets you escape the crowds, disconnect from technology, and enjoy this beautiful land.

Green Lakes and Broken Top Mountain

Best Time to Backpack Three Sisters Loop

The best time to backpack the Three Sisters Wilderness is from late-June through early-October, but you’ll find ideal conditions in August and September. In high snow years you may encounter some lingering snow fields in June and into July, and you’ll also have to share the trail with thousands of mosquitoes. Hiking the trail in late-August through early-October will have less mosquitoes, but you’ll need to strategically plan your hike with the available water sources. (See our blog post about where to find reliable sources of water along the trail.) Hikers in late-October should be aware of possible early season storms that can blanket the area in snow. Always be sure to call the park before heading out to get information about current trail conditions.

Lupine flowers in bloom

Three Sisters Loop Map and Elevation

Map of the Three Sisters Loop from Devil's Lake Trailhead.
Elevation profile for the Three Sisters Loop starting at the Devils Lake Trailhead

Elevation profile for the Three Sisters Loop starting at the Devils Lake Trailhead

The loop, or circumnavigation around the mountains is approximately 46 miles, but when you factor in the additional miles from the trailhead the total distance can be closer to 50 miles. Since we decided not to summit South Sister we also shaved off another 1-mile at the end of our journey by taking the Wickiup Plains trail from the Leconte Crater Trail instead of the Moraine Lakes Trail back to the South Sister Climber Trail. (Check out the day-to-day hiking guide for more details about our daily mileage and itinerary.)

Best Three Sisters Wilderness Map

While the trail is well signed, and easy to follow I highly recommend carrying a paper map of the area. Our maps were helpful to have on trail. We used them daily to help identify the peaks around us and to plan our hike based on the availability of water, the presence of burn areas, and the restricted camping zones.

Every map is different and there seems to be some controversy over just how long this hike is. During our hike we used two different maps. Our chosen maps were the  National Geographic Bend, Three Sisters map and the Adventure Maps Three Sisters Wilderness map.

It was a little frustrating because both maps rated the trail distance differently (there was anywhere from a 1-3 mile difference each day!).  I still don’t know which map was the most accurate. I liked the Adventure Maps version because one side zoomed in on the Three Sisters loop while the other side mapped the entire Three Sisters Wilderness. It was really nice to have the large map of our trail, it really helped us plan our hike. Unfortunately neither map included the burn zone on the west side of the loop or noted the most reliable water sources along the trail, which would have been really helpful.

If you don’t want to purchase a paper map you can download my GPS tracks from Caltopo and print trail maps directly from Caltopo.

Hiking Itinerary for Three Sisters Trail

Some people choose to do the hike in as little as three days. But, why rush it? The scenery is so incredibly beautiful you’ll want to take in the views and take thousands of photos! We chose to spend five days backpacking the Three Sisters Loop. We choose to enter at the Devils Lake Trailhead and hike the trail in a counter-clockwise direction because it gave us the flexibility to summit South Sister on the return, if we wanted. But in the end, we opted not to summit because the allure of post-hike indulgences like showers, pizza, and beer, were just too great.

Starting at the Devils Lake Trailhead the total distance came to approximately 47 miles. Our five day hiking itinerary was:
Day 1: Devils Lake Trailhead to Green Lakes (7.7 miles)
Day 2: Green Lakes to Alder Creek (12.5 miles)
Day 3: Alder Creek to the southern border of the Obsidian Limited-Entry Zone (12.2 miles)
Day 4: Obsidian zone to Mesa Creek (8.2 miles)
Day 5: Mesa Creek to Devils Lake Trailhead (6.3 miles)
Use the links above for maps and detailed trail guides for each section of the trail.

 

There are several other popular trailheads along the east side of the loop to choose from. Some other popular trailheads and their distance from the loop include Green Lakes Trailhead (2.1 miles), Park Meadow Trailhead (3.1 miles), Pole Creek Trailhead (1.6 miles), and Lava Camp Lake Trailhead (2.9 miles).

Summiting Opie Dilldock Pass in the Three Sisters Wilderness

New for 2020: Permits and Regulations for Three Sisters Wilderness

Due to the popularity of this trail the forest service has issued new permit regulations for the Three Sisters Wilderness. These changes were announced in January 2020 and they take effect in April 2020. For more details on these changes see the information below and also check out the Willamette National Forest’s website for the latest regulations.

Regulations

The Three Sisters Wilderness area has special restrictions to help preserve the beauty and tranquility of the area. Motorized equipment is not allowed (this includes drones), and the maximum group size is 12 people. All visitors should practice Leave No Trace backpacking. There are no specific regulations about bear canisters, but you should still plan to properly store your food. Never feed any wild animals.

While dispersed camping is allowed on the majority of the trail, if you want to camp at Moraine Lake, Green Lakes, and Matthieu Lakes you must camp at one of the established sites (see linked maps). If all of the designated campsites are taken you must continue your hike and find a dispersed site outside of these restricted areas.

Parking at the Devils Lake trailhead costs $5 per day. Forest Passes and interagency passes are accepted as well. Check out this USFS guide for a detailed list of costs and accepted parking permits. From Bend, Oregon the Devil’s Lake trailhead is approximately 29 miles west on Cascade Lakes Highway (46). Turn left at the sign for Devil’s Lake trailhead.

Permits

Beginning in 2020 the forest service is instituting a new permit system for Three Sisters Wilderness backpacking and day hiking. If you plan to hike during peak season (the first Friday following Memorial Day to the last Friday in September) you must carry a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit. This permit is required by both day hikers  and overnight backpackers entering the Three Sisters Wilderness area.

There are a limited number of permits issued for each trailhead, so you’ll want to apply early! Permits for 2020 should be available on Recreation.gov starting on April 7th at 7am. If you have a flexible schedule and are planning a last minute trip, a limited number of additional permits will be released two days before the start of a trip. For example, if you wanted to hike on July 13th the permit could be reserved on July 11th.

The number of permits available for each trailhead vary. For the Devils Lake Trailhead, the Forest Service will allow 16 backpackers and 100 day hikers each day. You can find a proposed list of the permit quotas for all the trailheads here.

Permit cost for Three Sisters Wilderness Backpackers: Permits for overnight backpackers cost $5 per person, per night. There is an additional $6 processing charge for each group.

Permit cost for Three Sisters Wilderness Day Hikers: Permits for day hikes cost $3 per person, per night. There is an additional $1 processing charge for each group. These permit regulations apply to the very popular South Sister day hike.

Once you score a permit there are some other regulations you should keep in mind. Permits are not transferrable and the group leader’s name cannot be changed. The group leader must remain with the group for the permit to be valid, and all group members are required to camp together and start the hike on the same day. Only PCT hikers are allowed to travel between wilderness areas and hikers are no allowed to exit the trail and reenter at a later date using the same permit.

Obsidian Trail Permit

In addition to the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit, if you want to enter at the Obsidian trailhead or camp in the Obsidian Limited Entry Zone you need to reserve a permit in advance through Recreation.gov. If you do not have a permit for the obsidian zone you are allowed to walk through the area, but you must remain on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and you cannot stop to camp. Current regulations issue permits that allow 40 people a day to camp in the obsidian zone.

 

Close-up of South sister peak in the Three Sisters Wilderness

Water Sources along the Three Sisters Loop

The lack of water along the trail was one of the things I wish I had known before backpacking the Three Sisters Loop. Looking at the map, it appears that water is plentiful along the trail, but this is not the case. When we hiked in early August (in a high snow year when water should have been plentiful), many of the streams that were shown on the map were already dry. We also avoided filtering at some water sources because the source was a small, stagnant pond or a it was glacial meltwater filled with sediment that would clog our filters.

We were glad that we brought our Sawyer Squeeze filters along with plenty of dirty storage bags because we were able to haul enough water to our dry camp outside of the Obsidian Limited Entry Area. It is amazing how much water a group of five people need! We hauled about 12 liters of water to camp so that it would last us through the evening and into a few miles of hiking the next morning.

Map of the most reliable water sources for backpackers on the Three Sisters Loop

I’ve mapped out the most reliable, clean water sources that we found along the trail and you can download it with my GPS tracks on Caltopo. Some of these water sources may go dry late in the season. If you want to add these to your paper map, these are the most reliable water sources you’ll find while backpacking the Three Sisters Loop. Starting from the Devils Lake trailhead and moving counter-clockwise, the reliable water sources are:

Moraine Lake

Creek between Moraine and Green Lakes

Green Lakes

East Fork Park Creek (near the junction with the Park Creek Trail)

Soap Creek (at the junction with the Camp Lake Trail)

Alder Creek

South Matthieu Lake (at the junction with the PCT)

Alpine spring not mentioned on any map about 1.5 miles south of the junction with the Scott Trail 3531.

Obsidian Creek on the south end of the Obsidian Limited Entry Area

Separation Creek

Mesa Creek

Detailed Day-by-Day Trail Guides

For individual trail maps, photos, and more details about our Three Sisters Loop backpacking trip check our detailed day-by-day trail guides.
Day 1: Devils Lake Trailhead to Green Lakes (7.7 miles)
Day 2: Green Lakes to Alder Creek (12.5 miles)
Day 3: Alder Creek to the southern border of the Obsidian Limited-Entry Zone (12.2 miles)
Day 4: Obsidian zone to Mesa Creek (8.2 miles)
Day 5: Mesa Creek to Devils Lake Trailhead (6.3 miles)

Three Sisters Loop Hiking Sticker
0 0 vote
Article Rating

The Trailhead

From Bend, Oregon the Devil's Lake trailhead is approximately 29 miles west on Cascade Lakes Highway (46). Turn left at the sign for Devil's Lake trailhead. Parking at the Devils Lake trailhead costs $5 per day. Forest Passes and interagency passes are accepted as well. Check out this USFS guide for a detailed list of costs and accepted parking permits. 

The Route

Pick-up the trail behind the bathrooms and walk a short distance before crossing a road and meeting up with the South Sister Climber Trail No. 36. Follow the trail for two miles and make a right at the junction with Moraine Lake to start your counter-clockwise adventure around the Three Sisters.

After you pass Moraine lake, follow signs for the Green Lakes trailhead. When you reach a junction with Soda Creek make a left to continue toward Green Lakes. Stay on the Green Lakes Trail for 21.5 miles.

Make a left at the junction with the Scott Pass Trail and follow Scott Pass for 2 miles until you reach the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). Make a left to take the PCT south and stay on the PCT for 17.8 miles.

Make a left onto the Leconte Crater Trail. Stay on the Leconte Crater Trail for 1.3 miles.

If you would like to summit South Sister follow signs for the Moraine Lakes Trail and follow the trail for 1.6 miles until you reach the South Sister Climber Trail (make a left to summit, and make a right to return to the trailhead).

If you aren't summiting South Sister, continue on the Leconte Crater Trail until you reach the Wickiup Plains Trail. Make a left at the junction and follow the Wickiup Plains Trail for 2 miles back to the trailhead.

Other Details

Dogs allowed on leash. But the volcanic rock can be very hard on paws, please think twice before bringing your dog on this entire loop.

Pit toilets are available at the Devils Lake Trailhead. No other services are available.

Trailhead parking fills up quickly. Arrive early if you want a parking spot.

Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.

Being prepared means arriving at the trailhead with water and some basic provisions. Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.

Stay safe, enjoy the trail, and soak up the magic of nature!

Get your Three Sisters Trail Sticker!

Our hiking stickers are available on Etsy or under the Shop tab on our website.

pinterest image

Like the article?

Don't forget to pin it.

Pin It!

Don't forget to share it.


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments