How to Hike South Sister, Oregon

Thuc, our Marketing and Events Coordinator, shares her tips for hiking Oregon’s tallest non-technical mountain, South Sister.

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WHERE IS SOUTH SISTER?

South Sister is located in the Three Sisters Wilderness, an amazingly varied and very dramatic landscape.

South Sister is Oregon's third highest mountain and is one of only a handful of peaks in the Cascade Range that can be summited without technical ability and climbing gear. It is Oregon’s tallest non-technical mountain. Also named "Charity", South Sister is a volcano that last erupted 2,000 years ago. In 2001, scientists discovered an uplift in the surrounding area but apparently, the growth has since slowed. Some reports do say that eruption is inevitable, but we just do not know when…

HOW LONG IS THE HIKE?

This hike is a 17 kilometre return trip and it took us 8 hours.

HOW HARD IS THE HIKE?

Though it is a non-technical ascent, this hike is very challenging with an elevation gain of 4,900 feet or 1,494 metres over 8 kilometres!

The hike starts with switchbacks through a thick, dark green hemlock forest before opening up to meadows and rolling hills. South Sister can now be seen! We had started out very early and reached this point in the hike just as the sun was rising; it was very beautiful.

From the base of South Sister, it is a 1-mile or 1.6-kilometre ascent to Lewis Glacier. The average walking pace is approximately 3 miles or 4 to 5 kilometres an hour so technically, one mile should take only twenty minutes…but the steep incline meant it took us 1 hour.

South Sister up ahead as we strolled through beautiful meadows and rolling hills

South Sister up ahead as we strolled through beautiful meadows and rolling hills

Sunrise over Broken Top, which you can also hike up. It is a 10-kilometre return hike with an elevation gain of 427 metre so significantly more gentle than South Sister. Broken Top is 2,797 metres tall.

Sunrise over Broken Top, which you can also hike up. It is a 10-kilometre return hike with an elevation gain of 427 metre so significantly more gentle than South Sister. Broken Top is 2,797 metres tall.

We reached Lewis Glacier and crest at 2,743 metres with the sizeable remainder of South Sister looming ahead. 

The next hour had us trudging through loose cinder rock along the ridge line. With every step forward, we would slide at least half a step back.

Sitting near Lewis Glacier, looking back on the track and the Three Sisters Wilderness

Sitting near Lewis Glacier, looking back on the track and the Three Sisters Wilderness

MAGIC.

MAGIC.

Cinder rock makes for a very arduous hike, slide at least half a step back with every step forward!

Cinder rock makes for a very arduous hike, slide at least half a step back with every step forward!

We then reached the false summit where there is another glacier here that can be crossed to reach the true summit. Apparently, in summer, part of the glacier melts to become Oregon's highest lake, magically named Teardrop Pool. We chose to follow the rocky ridge that hemmed the glacier.

Along the way, we saw a handful of manmade windbreaks, constructed of volcanic rock, that would make for amazing campsites. It would be worth it, to go through all the efforts of hiking up South Sister again, just to be able to camp on her summit and witness the sunset and sunrise from 3,157 metres...

Up on the summit, it was bitterly cold. We had all started out that morning with just one layer on and now, we had our fleeces, windbreakers, beanies and gloves on. I was so cold that I truly struggled to appreciate standing atop this mountain that I had dreamed for so long of topping out on! But we all braved the cold for a frosty summit beer huddled against a rock outcrop.

The descent from South Sister's peak was debilitating and was more of a fumbling skate than a hike down the mountainside. I accepted that it was inevitable that I would land on my bottom more than once and resorted to simply moving as fast as I possibly could, to get it over and done with. The forest felt like it took forever to get through. When we finally reached our car, it had been a long but exhilarating eight hours since we had left that morning. 

What a stunning and testing mountain! Given the chance, I would return to South Sister in a heartbeat. 

Following the rocky ridge that hems the glacier on top of South Sister. In summer, this glacier melts to become Oregon’s highest lake, Teardrop Pool.

Following the rocky ridge that hems the glacier on top of South Sister. In summer, this glacier melts to become Oregon’s highest lake, Teardrop Pool.

SUMMIT BEERS.

SUMMIT BEERS.

WHAT TRAILHEAD DO I START + FINISH AT?

Devils Lake Trailhead is your start and end point and is about 46 kilometres from Bend. There is a small, free campground with 10 sites here. Parking needs to be paid for so make sure you do so at the trailhead fee box before you head out. We slept in our car the night before to start the hike before sunrise.

WHEN SHOULD I DO THE HIKE?

The track is open only from August to mid-October.

Please be mindful of weather conditions before heading out. If you are unfamiliar with alpine environments, consult the ranger stations for advice. If there are clouds hanging around the summit, there could well be a blizzard up top!

WHAT SHOULD I WEAR/PACK?

We did the South Sister hike in early August so well and truly in summer.

We started out in just one layer but once we passed the base of South Sister, the wind picked up and it was super strong and very cold. As with all alpine environments, you need to be prepared for all weather conditions so just because it is sunny and warm down below, doesn’t mean it will be the same up top. Bring your beanie, gloves and GoreTex!

Keep in mind that you will be on the mountain for 8 hours and pack sufficient water and snacks (including summit beers :)). I don’t remember there being anywhere to refill water bottles.

If you have trekking poles, I would highly recommend bringing them for the descent. I also think sturdy hiking boots instead of trail runners are optimal for most people for this hike.

Random last note: once you are on the cinder ridges, it is steep and exposed so if you find that you need to go to the toilet now…good luck!

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