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Hiking to the summit of South Sister in the Three Sisters Wilderness

Solitude elusive on South Sister, where trails teem with hikers
The relatively easy climb up the state's third highest peak draws hordes, to the distress of U.S. Forest Service managers
By Mathew Preusch
Monday, August 15, 2005
This time of year, climbing South Sister can feel more like queuing up at the Matterhorn in Disneyland than ascending Oregon's third highest mountain.

Each weekend this month, scores if not hundreds of people will trek the six miles from an asphalt highway west of Bend to the top of the 10,358-foot volcano in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

The hiking hordes are a seasonal headache for cash-strapped managers with the U.S. Forest Service charged with weighing access to public lands with the goals of federal wilderness areas.

Last month, for example, Forest Service officials were concerned about safety along Cascade Lakes Highway near the trailhead, but were rebuffed when they asked Deschutes County to restrict parking on the road. Instead, county road crews installed new "congestion" and speed limit signs where the trail crosses a blind curve in the highway after leaving the parking lot.

"The story here is the story of Central Oregon," said John Schubert, a recreation specialist whose position is being eliminated this fall for lack of money. "That is, use is going through the roof and Forest Service's ability to manage it is falling off a cliff."

Wilderness managers for years have contemplated curtailing access to South Sister, but for reasons both practical and political they do little more than occasionally patrol the trail and provide information at the trailhead.

The number of hikers using the South Sister trail has doubled since the early 1990s, peaking in 2001 when 7,725 people departed from Devils Lake for the summit.

A recent decrease in hikers is tied to many factors, including poor hiking weather, forest fires, new rules that require leashes for dogs and shifts in habits among more sedate baby boomers and young thrill-seekers with other adventures to pursue, said Marvin Lang, recreation forester for the Deschutes National Forest.

Forest managers expect the numbers to rebound this year with favorable late summer weather. They still must contend with the masses who can trample sensitive plants and pollute the area with human waste and garbage such as the "paper flowers" of used toilet tissue left beside the trail.

It's no secret that trail traffic far exceeds the solitude criteria set in the 1964 Wilderness Act, said Les Joslin, a longtime Deschutes National Forest wilderness ranger and author of "The Wilderness Concept and the Three Sisters Wilderness."

Solitude among many
The law defines wilderness as having, among other attributes, "outstanding opportunities for solitude." Forest managers consider the South Sister summit "semi-primitive," which means a hiker should encounter no more than a dozen people on a normal day.

But on late summer weekends it's not uncommon to see 10 times that many people. Such was the case the first Saturday in August, when temperatures in the 90s in Bend sent many into the high country.

By 8 a.m., cars and SUVs packed the parking lot at Devils Lake, the primary jumping-off point for South Sister, and people were parking on the shoulder of the Cascade Lakes Highway.

From the highway, the trail winds up a forested draw before emerging at a rolling pumice plain broken by protruding lava flows. To the east, the eroded crags of Broken Top rise precipitously; to the west, the clear-cut patchwork of the Cascade foothills flows in evergreen waves toward the Willamette Valley.

The trail's last mile breaks the scenic interlude with a steep slog up a crumbly red cinder slope to the snow-filled caldera at the summit.

The trail's popularity is tied to the appeal of reaching an alpine peak after little more than a strenuous hike. In Oregon, you can only get higher by making challenging technical climbs up Mount Hood or Mount Jefferson.

Wesley Kwong, a Wilsonville software tester, tackled the trail with two friends and a plastic gallon jug of spring water in his backpack.

"We heard the difficulty is zero for climbing," he said. Hours later, struggling to catch his breath in the thin air, Kwong would question that assessment.

Some content to share experience
At the top, dozens of people posed for group photos with a fence row of Cascade peaks in the background and ravens floating by on thermals. People will often pull out their cell phones to call friends.

Some hikers, such as graduate student Nathan Smith of Eugene, were put off by the crowds. "When you see 100 people going up the mountain, it sort of takes something away from the experience," he said.

But most said they couldn't take time off from work to come during the week, when crowds are rare, and so were content to share their wilderness experience.

Opinions were mixed about whether the Forest Service should limit trail use. Most agreed with Jason Carpenter, who was on his seventh trip up the mountain.

"If they can maintain the ecosystem and still have this many people up here, then it doesn't bother me," he said. "But if it starts to damage the mountain, then certainly there should be some restrictions."

Wilderness managers in the past have considered imposing a limited entry permit system, such as the one for the Obsidian Trail, part of the Three Sisters Wilderness off Oregon 242.

Even if the public and land managers agreed on a permit system, the Forest Service couldn't afford to enforce it, said several within the Deschutes National Forest.

In 2000, the Deschutes forest received about $2.3 million for its recreation program. In 2005, it received about $1.4 million, a decrease of nearly 40 percent.

Similar attempts to limit access have met stiff public opposition. In the late 1990s, the Mount Hood National Forest abandoned a permit effort after a public outcry.

The reaction would likely be the same for South Sister, said Robert Speik, a local outdoors instructor and creator of

"It would turn everyone into a scofflaw and people would just go anyway," Speik said, "because how can they stop you from going?"
--Matthew Preusch, ©2005 The Oregonian


South Sister rewards the determined trekker
The Three Sisters Wilderness offers diverse landscapes and great views in return for a steep hike
By Tim Scott
September 10, 2002

The Three Sisters Wilderness is one of the most diverse and beautiful areas in Oregon. It straddles the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests, west of Bend and east of Eugene, and is home to three volcanic peaks over 10,000 feet -- North, Middle and South Sister, from which the area gets its name -- as well as a number of geological formations that tell the tale of its violent geologic history.

Three Sisters Wilderness is also becoming one of the most heavily trafficked areas of Oregon.

I'd recently made a technical climb to the summit of Middle Sister, and now returned to the Wilderness for a more relaxed outing. I was hiking with a fellow soccer-player, Mike Bonfiglio, a Three Sisters first-timer. The plan was to spend one day hiking around the southwest base of the mountain and to summit South Sister the next.

Starting Friday from the Devil's Lake trailhead on the Cascade Lakes Highway, about 25 miles west of Bend, we hiked in toward the Wickiup Plain south of South Sister. The Plain is a desolate landscape of ash and pumice that forms a flat, beige consistency, punctuated by stands of pine where snow gets captured, melts, and feeds trees through the short growing season. As we passed LeConte Crater and turned north, we joined the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) next to the Obsidian Lava Flow.

The walls of the flow are around 150 to 200 feet high and drop precipitously to the floor of the plain. The flow is about 2 miles by 1 mile at the longest and broadest points and appears, somewhat incongruously, to have stopped suddenly. The walls are made of crumbled down pumice and volcanic glass that form a clear boundary to the plain.

As the PCT passes out of the plain and into the trees, the change in landscape is drastic and sudden: from the arid plain and brutal lava flow, we walked into an alpine meadow, lush with grass and watered by a scenic brook. The surrounding trees shaded the trail as the dust from the plain mixed with the meadow's mud on our boots.

The Three Sisters Wilderness received well-above normal snowfall this past winter, like most of the Pacific Northwest. The upside: large pockets of snow cool the air that blows over them and across sweaty hikers. The downside: more snowmelt means more pools from which mosquito eggs can hatch.

Bug spray did not seem to dampen the attention we got from mosquitoes. Even when they didn't bite, the constant buzzing around our faces and ears was an annoyance. The only way to avoid them was either to keep moving, or to find a place that had a constant breeze.

The mosquitoes followed us all the way to our campsite above Moraine Lake, directly south of South Sister. Marie the park ranger came by as we prepared dinner. She reminded us of the standard "no campfire" rule that applies to the entire wilderness, thanked us for camping in one of the designated campsites, and asked us to walk far away from the campsite to go to the bathroom.

We got to talking about the heavy usage the area receives. Marie explained that with the short growing season -- from June to September in warm years, and shorter this year -- the vegetation doesn't get a chance to recover from the incidental abuse of the hiking and camping season. She added that we should expect to see more areas with limited usage rules in the coming years, like Green Lakes and Moraine Lake, if the number of hikers continues to increase.

When we woke the next morning and started up South Sister, we saw the numbers that she spoke of. Looking up the trail, small clusters of hikers dotted the climb all the way to the summit.

The morning was beautiful and clear. Snowfields lay across and beside the trail for most of the way up as we walked from Moraine Lake (6450) toward the summit (10,358).

Fabulous vistas reward your efforts as you climb South Sister. Initially, Moraine Lake forms a placid background. Then, the Obsidian lava flow come into view, revealing its entire expanse, where we had only seen the edge the previous day. Higher up, Bachelor Butte rises behind Devils Hill, with the ski runs winding through the trees. At about 8000', Broken Top emerged to the east from behind the Newberry lava flow. At the foot of the Lewis Glacier (8900'), the whole southern landscape lies at your feet, with Mt. Thielsen on the horizon, 66 miles away.

Climbing the last 1400' of scree to the summit is an effort. Not only is it the steepest part of the trail, but the red volcanic pumice shifts underfoot.

After about an hour of arduous climbing we finally reached the summit plain and cross over the snowfield to the actual summit.

Although the clouds obscured some of the view to the north, we could still spy Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood off in the distance. Strangely, the summit wasn't windy at all -- Mike and I were comfortable in shorts and t-shirts.

As we began to head down, we ran into Ranger Marie again. She estimated that about 200 people would summit today -- actually a slow day for a Saturday in August. She added that the summit trail had been snowed in until a few weeks ago, when a week of thunderstorms cleared away the last of the snow at the higher elevations.

You could spend your life hiking in Oregon, never retrace your steps, and never cover every trail. But the dramatic and diverse landscape and ecology of the Three Sisters Wilderness rewards return trips. I'll be back again. Next time: summiting Broken Top.




Read more . . .
Prospectus for a climb of South Sister in summer  Two pdf pages
Climbing to the summit of South Sister
Prospectus for a Broken Top Circle  Two pdf pages
A cross country circumnavigation of Broken Top in late summer
Prospectus for two day adventure with friends  Two pdf pages
A cross country circumnavigation of South Sister in September

Views of the Cascades from the ridge above Three Creek Lake
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