Running the Three Sisters Loop, Sisters, Oregon
 Elevation gain: 6000+ feet                 High Point: 7350 feet           
September 12, 2016                                                  Volcano Running 

Running the Three Sisters loop was one of the most beautiful, diverse backcountry adventure experiences I have ever engaged. Camping at the Lava Camp Lake TH off Route 242 on McKenzie Pass at 5400' I arose for a daybreak start at 0630 to take the quarter-mile spur leading to the Pacific Crest Trail. Before beginning the planned loop run I first turned north on the PCT to explore its path across the Belknap Lava Flow, with clear views of Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt. Hood to the north. Lava fields are indescribably rugged and stark in their severity. It is a tribute to the struggling plant and animal life that pioneer what remains after a volcano leaves its mark. Looking south I got my first view of North Sister (10,085') as well as her Little Brother (7810') and Collier Cone (7534'), partially occluded in a morning array of clouds. Retracing my steps, I launched my solo journey south on the PCT to make the first climb of 2.5 miles up to Scott Pass (6080').

Mt. Washington to the north from Belknap Lava Flow (above), and with Mt. Hood (below)

Stopping at Scott Lake I chatted with a backpacker that I would once again pass thirty miles later as I was returning northbound on the PCT. The loop trail diverges to the east of the Sisters at this point while the PCT continues down the west side. Dropping down about 700 feet in less than two miles the Scott Pass Trail switches back and forth through a forest of lodgepole pines, western white pines, and Engleman spruce with a thin understory of manzanita and bitterbrush to reach a level plateau below where I turned south on the Green Lakes Trail, which gently rolls for 14 miles between 5400' and 6500' with no significant climbs.

It wasn't long before the trail passed through a large burn area that left the landscape recently devastated. Much of the topsoil was gone, leaving squishy sand mixed with black ash to plow through for nearly ten miles. Any recovery here is going to take a lot of years. Nonetheless the ghosts of the previous forest left a starkly beautiful landscape, affording great views of the peaks to the east.

I was able to run most of this section without pause, except to take pics, despite loss of traction from the sand, as the terrain was gentle with an occasional stream crossing. By the time I reached Park Meadows the scenery returned to that of a healthy forest with bubbling streams and a gorgeous lake.

The climb out of Park Meadows took me straight up to a sparse plateau overlooking Broken Top (9175') (above), with its distinctive, craggy silhouette just south of South Sister (10,358'). Splitting the two peaks over a pass at 6500' the trail descended into the Green Lakes basin where one large and two small turquoise gems reflect the crater-top southern-most Sister (below).

I followed the stream that drains the lakes down valley for a couple miles before cutting west up a steep climb past the remains of a broken obsidian flow to Moraine Lake, surrounded by a stark landscape of powdered pumice. Winds with gusts of up to 50-60 mph began when I passed by the Green Lakes and only intensified by the time I reached Moraine Lake. A steady 30 mph gale blew the hat off my head and in seconds it had gone 100 yards.

While temperatures at the start of the day were a mere 39 degrees, they never warmed beyond 50; with such strong wind blasts it was bitter cold when crossing so many vast exposed open spaces unprotected by trees. For the entire day I wore gloves and never took my jacket off - only a heartbeat away from winter.

the face of South Sister from the south where the trail reconnects with the PCT

The exposed ciimb out of the Moraine Lake basin brought me to a large open flat area called the Wikiup Plain, a pumice covered expanse where anything beyond grass struggles to grow. Before reconnecting with the Pacific Crest Trail over half way into the loop the trail goes past a massive jumble of imposing lava below South Sister called the Rock Mesa Obsidian Flow.

Once I returned to the PCT it was a straight shot back to the car on the west side, much of it in the trees or open meadows as the trail wound its way north past the Three Sisters I had just seen from the east side. The daylight was waning and it was only a matter of time before I would need a light to continue.

As a half moon was rising over North Sister the winds of the day began to settle and temps began to drop to a more tolerable level in the low forties. I quickened my step to make as much progress across what is known as Obsidian Way over a labyrinth of engineered trails that staggered the imagination as to how they designed them. The flow must have been a mile-and-a-half wide and perhaps four miles long. Whoever built the trail gave new meaning to the concept of zigging and zagging as their design followed the irregular contours of the flow as it had hardened in its tracks from its molten state.

I could see well enough to make it to the other side of the flow before running out of the slightest usable ambient light. With seven miles remaining my LED hand-held lamp brought clear visibility back to the uneven trail. Almost immediately after turning on my light, while crossing an open meadow beyond the lava flow, from behind about one hundred yards I heard sounds from some creature(s) like I'd never heard before, like something out of a science fiction movie, like the way Spielberg's ET sounded with his vocalizations before learning to speak English. I must say it unnerved me a bit. Each time I shone my light in the direction of the sound, it stopped, then started again like chatter when I turned away. Four times this happened; never did I see the faintest glow of eyes. I don't have a clue as to what was lurking on the fringe of the lava flow!

The episode served to sharpen my senses thereafter, as I was in mountain lion country and I had seen quite a few sets of juvenile tracks in the powdery sand on the east side of the Sisters earlier in the day. Any unusual sound had me turning my light around for the next couple of miles.

I zipped along the final seven miles in about two hours, first climbing up Opie Dilldock Pass beyond the lava flow. This curious name was that of a comic strip character back in the 1930's who had an uncanny knack for always finding a way out of tough situations - like the trail designers who forged such a creative path across the obsidian flow. There were several long pumice slides to cross that offered little to no distinctive features to help in trail finding in the dark. I found myself running on instinct, trusting my internal compass to navigate the night country without much doubt or hesitation.

I generally find that I relish circumstances that might elicit fear in others. Navigating obscure trails in the dark always seems to bring out my strength. The potential for getting lost was imminent for about four miles, but I seemed able to make all the right directional choices and was never slowed in my progress.

The final downhill 2.5 miles was over the same climb I had started with up Scott Pass. While I never became anxious to finish the day, it felt good nonetheless to unlock the car and sit down as I ate snacks while the motor warmed me. It was a 16-hour day; I figured I covered about 49 miles. Temps were back down to 42 degrees at the end of the day. Just a refreshingly chilly day to chase trails in the mountains, and one I shall never forget. I paused for over 100 photos, and I never stumbled to a fall even once. It was nice to take my time all day, drink fresh untreated glacial meltwater, and eat more food than I normally do.

It is not often that a man can get to enjoy the company of three lovely sisters for an entire day. Sometime I think I will return to ask them for another date.