Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Three Sisters Wilderness

Size: 281,190 acres
Trails: 240 miles
Elevation: 1,500ft – 10,358ft
Managed:  US Forest Service

Located in Central Oregon the Three Sisters Wilderness is 281,190 acres, the second largest wilderness area in Oregon after Eagle Cap Wilderness, and the State’s most visited wilderness area.  Three Sisters Wilderness is sandwiched between Mount Washington Wilderness to the north & Waldo Lake Wilderness to the south.

Shaped by volcanic history the landscape includes mountains, high desert, lava fields, cinder cones, alpine meadows, crystal clear streams, bubbling springs,14 glaciers, cascading waterfalls and more than 300 lakes.  There has been more volcanic activity in the Three Sisters Wilderness during the past few thousand years than any other part of the Cascade Mountain Range of the Pacific Northwest.


Three sisters is part of a series of major volcanoes running North/South.  Other mountains include Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Mt Washington, Diamond Peak, Mt. Thielsen, Mt. Mazama (Crater Lake), and Mt. Mcloughlin.
360' view of the area

 Sunrise from the summit of south sister

Middle Sister on the left and North sister on the right, Mt. Jefferson in the distance.

Large eruptions have occurred at least 4 times in the last 700,000 years.  Explosions sited near Broken Top and Three Sisters produced pyroclastic flows that stretched from Sisters to south of Bend.  The latest eruptions which were moderate in scale occurred on South Sister about 2,000 years ago.  After the eruptions, lava emerged from two vent areas, forming a large flow, Rock Mesa, and several small domes.

South Sister

South Sister Lava Flows

Broken Top to the Right - looking northwest
Broken Top Mountain is the best example in the Pacific Northwest of the effects of advanced glaciations. 
Despite the look it isn’t an exploded crater like Crater Lake.

One of the more popularly visited sites, the Obsidian Area on the northern end of the wilderness, was used for centuries by various central Oregon Indian tribes to mine the valuable rock.
Obsidian Shinning in the Sun 

Samples of this particular obsidian have been found as far away as the eastern coast of the United States, suggesting that it was a lucrative trade for the natives of Oregon.

Central Oregon was inhabited by:

The southernmost Sahaptin. (Ni Mii Puu = "the people", "we the people") who lived to the east in the High Desert of Central Oregon.  They fed themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering roots and berries. Tribal size estimates in 1805 exceeded 6,000.  By 1848 they were officially at 3,000, and by 1910 they were down to 1,530.  Reasons include fighting, measles epidemic in 1847 from immigrants, small pox and other diseases brought in by minors after the 1860s.   
The northernmost tribes of the Northern Paiute.  Piaute's meaning is unclear but guessed to be = "Water Ute," or "True Ute"
1. (Wadadokado = "Wada-Root and grass eaters") who lived to the east in the high desert. 
2. (Hunipuitoka or Walpapi = "Hunipui-Root Eaters")  who lived along the Deschutes, Crooked, and John Day Rivers today recognized as the Burns Paiute Tribe.

Daughter of Chief Winnemucca, the Chief of the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca - the first indian woman to write a book highlighting the plight of the Indian People

Obsidian, which is comprised of a combination of silicon dioxide and magnesium or iron, is formed when lava cools very quickly. The rapid cooling prevents crystals from forming. The color varies depending on how much of each element the piece contains.  Most obsidian is less than 20 million years old, which is young compared to most rocks that are part of the Earth’s crust.  Obsidian was very valuable to the Native Americans, due to its sharpness. They used it to make arrowheads and other tools


Lewis and Clark came though the area in 1805 and acknowledged seeing the 3 peaks as well as Mt. hood and Jefferson. The Oregon Trail brought settlers into the area during the mid 19th Century.  In 1855 the Army  Corps of Topographical Engineers mapped the area in preparation for a railroad route.  In  1865 Captain Charles Lafollett leading the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry Regime established Fort Polk to protect early settlers from Indian raids.  There were never any attacks so the army left and soon after folks began to homestead, using the areas wide open lands for Ranches.  

1856 The Three Sisters appear as the "Three Sisters" on Preston's map of Oregon.  The name was probably originally applied by members of the Methodist Mission in Salem in  the early 1840's and the individual peaks were given the names "Mount Faith", "Mount Hope", and "Mount Charity", beginning from the north.  

Preston's Map of Oregon 1856

It was declared a Primitive Area in 1937 comprising 191,000 acres, with 55,000 more acres being added in 1938. It was reclassified as a wilderness in 1957.

The Forest Service reduced the protected area by 60,000 acres due to timber production.

With the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960's the Three Sisters were included in the National Wilderness Preservation System as part of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Afterward the French Pete Creek valley became the center of a hot debate between timber producers and conservationists, with the conservationists eventually winning back protections for the area in 1978.

The last additions to the wilderness came under the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984, bringing the total protected area to 247,102 acres.

Detailed History of the Willamette National Forest and Timber related issues. 


"The Wilderness Concept and the Three Sisters Wilderness"

By Les Joslin
Central Oregon Community College
Oregon State University

The weather in the Three Sisters during the summer is generally mild, with sunny days and high in the 70s and 80s common for most of the season. Hikers can expect to find snow covering the higher trails up until early to mid-august.  A general high elevation creates cold nights and unexpected alpine conditions.  Winter preparedness is recommended year round. 

The high Cascades probably began to erupt about five million years ago.  These mountains originally began as quiet outpourings of lava, but in a period beginning one million years ago, the mountains were a scene of explosive activity which built the massive peaks that are still visible today.  Glacial erosion has modified all of these volcanoes. 

North Sister - 10,085 feet
Along the northern slopes of the North Sister are many barren basaltic flows discharged from a cluster of cinder cones, part of a succession of volcanic eruptions that may have been as recent as only one thousand years ago. These include Yapoah Crater, Four-In-One Cone, and Collier Cone. The Pacific Crest Trail passes through this area via the Oppie Dildock Pass. The Ahalapaim Cinder field was formed by outpouring from Collier.

Middle Sister - 10,047 feet
Last erupting approximately 50,000 years ago, it is considered extinct. The mountain's form is that of a cone which has lost its east side to glaciation. The Hayden and Diller glaciers continue to cut into the east face. The large but retreating Collier Glacier descends along the north side of Middle Sister and cuts into North Sister's west side.  Middle Sister is the smallest and most poorly studied. It is also the middle in age, but only somewhat older than South Sister, with the most recent flows dated to 14,000 years ago

South Sister - 10,358 feet
The South Sister was built up in three major stages.  The lower portion is a basaltic shield volcano which became covered by a steeper cone and topped by two recent cones. Basaltic eruptions from the Le Conte Crater on the southern base of the South Sister created one of the most beautifully preserved craters in the Wilderness. It consists of an extensive sheet of almost barren obsidian at Rock Mesa just east of the PCT.

Broken Top - 9,175 feet
Due to extensive erosion and glaciations, the contents of Broken Top's cone are exposed.   Eruptive activity stopped roughly 100,000 years ago


Eileen Lake

Obsidian Falls

Lower Proxy Falls

Water Quality
The waters of the lake systems within the Three Sisters Wilderness have low alkalinity levels and are believed to be especially sensitive to acid deposition. The mountain snowpack exceeds 20 feet at higher elevations, and as with other Central Oregon Cascade highlands, feeds the tributary streams of the Willamette and Deschutes Rivers, which are the major north-south drainages along the east and west sides of the cascades into the Columbia River. These river systems are the major spawning grounds for several species of salmon, steelhead, and trout. The relatively undisturbed vegetative cover and soil mantle within the wilderness currently produces the highest quality water that supports these great Oregon river systems.  The headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Squaw Creek emerge here as well.

Other interesting geologic features within the Wilderness include Sims and Condon Buttes. Flows from Sims Butte covered the valley of Lost Creek. Water originating within the Wilderness disappeared between the blankets of lava before reappearing in a series of larger springs further down the valley.
Minnie Scott Spring

The Newberry Flow, which blocked the drainage between Broken Top and South Sister, was responsible for the formation of Green Lakes, one of the most popular attractions on the east side of the Wilderness.  One of the flows from Collier Cone spread westward 13 miles, damming Linton Creek to form Linton Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness. It also formed small Spring Lake.

There are 14 glaciers offering arguably the best examples of glaciations in the Pacific Northwest.

Collier Glacier located between North and Middle Sister

Another look at Collier Glacier - the largest sheet of ice in Oregon.


Lower Elevations

Cones of the Western White Pine
(Many have been attacked by the mountain pine beetle)

Engleman Spruce
White Fir

Western Hemlock
Western Red Ceader

Douglas Fir

Higher Elevations

Mountain Hemlock

Lodgepole Pines
Ponderosa Pine

Alpine Fir
Whitebark Pine

High Mountain Meadows

lupine & paintbrush & South Sister

Paintbrush and Pink Mountain Heather
White-Leaf Phacelia
Monkey flower bloom on the north side of Broken Top Mountain
Indian Paintbrush bloom along a cascading stream 

Mountain Monkeyflower
Common Larkspur
Wild Sunflower


Few-Flowered Desert Parsley
Crimson Columbine
 Broken Top near Golden Lake with grasses and foliage
Mountain Huckleberries


Black-tailed Deer
Migrate west to Willamette Valley

Mule Deer
Migrate east into Central Oregon

Roosevelt Elk
Migrate west to Willamette Valley

Black Bear

Pine Marten



Male Blue Grouse with Mating Display

Ruffed Grouse

Brook Trout

Rainbow Trout

Golden Eagle
Peregrine Falcon
Spotted Owl
Bald Eagle

Permits available through the USFS:

Bend/Fort Rock Ranger District
1230 NE 3RD
BEND, OR 97701 
Phone: 541-383-4000

McKenzie River Ranger District
Restrictions: Office Hours: 8:00 to 4:30 Monday through Friday 
Phone: 541-822-3381

Middle Fork Ranger District
PO BOX 750 HWY 93
CHALLIS, ID 83226 
Phone: 208-879-4101

Sisters Ranger District
PO BOX 249
SISTERS, OR 97759 
Phone: 541-549-7700

Wilderness permits are required in every part of the wilderness between Friday of Memorial day weekend and October 31 for all group.

Permits are available for free at every trailhead; the fine for not having one is $200.

LIMITED ENTRY PERMITS are required for overnight and day visits to the Obsidian area (Three Sisters Wilderness).  Limited Entry Permits are only issued at McKenzie River Ranger District (Willamette NF) and Sisters Ranger District (Deschutes NF).

Group Size:  Limited to 12 people or fewer. Stock use is limited to 12 head.

Camping is limited to designated sites in husband, Eileen Lake, and Obsidian Limited Entry areas

Rehabilitation Sites:  Camping or being within an area posted as closed for rehabilitation is prohibited.

Campfires are not allowed within 100 feet of permanent lake, stream, spring, pond or trail.  They are not allowed at all in the Husband/Eileen Lake and Obsidian areas.

Northwest Forest Passes are not needed anywhere on the western side in the Willamette National Forest, but they are needed at most trailheads in the Deschutes National Forest on the eastern side of the crest.

Proxy Falls on Highway 242 requires a $5 day pass for use, but no wilderness permit.

Possessing or using a wagon, game cart, wheelbarrow or other wheeled vehicle is prohibited.

Storing equipment, personal property or supplies (including geo-caching), unattended, for more than 48 hours is prohibited.

Dogs must be leashed or under physical control within the Green and Moraine Lakes dispersed areas and accessing trails.

Hitching, tethering, picketing or otherwise securing any pack or saddle livestock within 200 feet, of the high water mark of any permanent lake, stream, pond, spring, or trail is prohibited.

Regions of the Three Sisters Wilderness Area:
Obsidian Limited Entry Area
The Obsidian Area is one of the finest bits of scenery in all of Oregon, perhaps the Pacific Northwest. It is located on the western side of the crest near the North and Middle Sisters, and extends for about 3 miles along the PCT from near Obsidian Falls to the Obsidian Trail #3528. The area is best known for the black rock which it gets its name from – there are mounds and mounds of it lying around. There is a special permit required to enter this region on day hikes or overnighters – the permit must be reserved in advance from either the McKenzie Ranger Station or the Sisters Ranger Station and can be picked up or e-mailed to you. There is a limit of 40 people per day, and permits fill up quickly in the peak summer months.  Obsidian area itself has more than 60 established campsites waiting to be found.

ACCESS:  The Northern PCT region

 Northern PCT Region
This region extends north from the boundary of Obsidian to Highway 242 for 12 miles along the PCT and includes extensive lava flows, beautiful meadows and spectacular views of the North Sister and Collier Glacier. Oppie Dilldock Pass, Collier Cone, Yapoah Crater, Black Crater and other cinder cones are located in this area. The main trails to access this region are the PCT, Scott Trail #3531, Millican Crater Trail #4066 and Scott Pass Trail #4068.

ACCESS:  Highway 242 provides access west from Sisters or east from McKenzie Bridge.

Central PCT Region
This region is located south of the Obsidian Area and west of the crest, extending for 12 miles down to Horse Lake and Horse Mountain. In this section there are many alpine meadows and a number of lakes, as well as The Husband, Sphinx Butte, The Wife and routes up the Middle and South Sisters. The main trails to access this region are the PCT, Foley Ridge Trail #3511, and the Louise Creek Trail #3520.

ACCESS:  Take Highway 126 from Eugene and turn right onto Foley Ridge Road #2643 (about ¼ mile east of McKenzie Ranger Station) and follow the signage to either the Foley Ridge Trail or Louise Creek Trail. PCT is accessed via Highway 242.

Southern PCT Region
This region is located near Highway 46 and runs along the PCT from the southern boundary of the wilderness to near Horse Lake, a distance of 16 miles. This region has dense forests and more lakes than any other part of the wilderness, and as such is a home for thousands of mosquitoes. Mountains in this area include the South Sister, Red Hill, Packsaddle Mountain, Irish Mountain and Williamson Mountain. The main trails that access this area are the Six Lakes Trail #3597, Lucky Lake Trail and Winopee Lake Trail. 

ACCESS:  Take Highway 46 west from Bend; the trails are right off the highway.

French Pete Creek/Western Region
This region contains vast amounts of uncrowded old-growth forests, mountains and ridges. If you are looking to not see anybody for days, this is the place to do it. Trails extend for miles and miles without running into landmarks, such as the Horse Creek Trail #3514, which goes for 13 miles from the trailhead until it hits Horse Lake. The mountains in this region include Olallie Mountain, Substitute Point, Rebel Rock and Pyramid Mountain. The main trails to access this region are the French Pete Creek Trail #3311, the Olallie Trail #3529, Rebel Trail #3323 and Crossing Way Trail #3307.

ACCESS:  Take Forest Road 19 from Highway 126 (about 4 miles west of McKenzie Bridge, 5 miles east of Blue River) and follow it up to reach various trailheads.

Broken Top/Green Lakes Region
This region includes lava flows, meadows, the extremely popular Green Lakes, the South Sister and Broken Top. It is north of Highway 46 and can be accessed by Forest Road 16 as well. It is very popular with mountain climbers as well as backpackers and campers. Other mountains in the area include Ball Butte, Broken Hand and Tam McArthur Rim. The main trails to access this region are the Green Lakes Trail #4070, Park Meadow Trail #4075 and the Broken Top Trail #4010.

ACCESS:  Take Highway 46 west from Bend to reach the Green Lakes Trail. Take Forest Road 16 from Sisters to access the others.


260 miles of trails, including 40 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail running north-south
Green Lakes Trail

Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail:
The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail extends from the southern boundary of the Three Sisters Wilderness about 40 miles to the north end at Highway 242. Along the way it encounters the best the wilderness has to offer, from beautiful mountain lakes in the southern part, to lava flows in the central and northern sections and to high alpine meadows once near the giant volcanoes themselves. It is also the main thoroughfare for the entire western side of the wilderness, as every trail eventually meets up with it.

Detailed routes of almost every hike in the area:

Climbing/ Skiing:

The traverse over the Camel’s Hump towards the summit block of North Sister.  South Sister’s North Face can be seen on the right and Mt. Bachelor can be seen to the left.
Drop in off of North Sister for the ski over to Middle Sister

North Ridge of the Middle Sister
North Sister
Steep Climbing on the North Sister

Detailed routes of almost every climb in the area:

Nearly every lake has established campsites.  There are wonderful campsites located in the Chambers Lakes Area between the South and Middle Sisters as well. The Mathieu Lakes area or the Green Lakes area spots fill up very quickly and the opportunities for solitude are sparse. 

7500ft Chambers Lakes Between Middle and South Sisters

Horseback Riding in the Lava Flows
Green Lakes with South Sister Behind

Many of the lakes are popular fishing destinations and are stocked with 
eastern brook trout, rainbow trout, or cutthroat trout.
 Left to right: cutthroat, rainbows, brook trout.

Blue and ruffed grouse are the principle game birds and are found primarily in the timbered areas.

Hunting is permitted within the wilderness. The regular deer season extends for about three weeks in October and the elk season for about two weeks in November.

News and Politics:
lodgepole pines horses grazing and pine beetle destruction increases fire danger.

-  This wilderness area is a very highly used.  #1 most frequented in Oregon

-  Wilderness volunteers - Remove illegal campsites and attempt to naturalize the area

              • THE OREGONIANBy Mathew Preusch

VIII. Bibliography