Starting in the fall of 2015, I began circumnavigating mountains. I enjoy summiting mountains as long as they are not too technical, but there is something special about seeing every angle of the glaciers, high ridges, and alpine meadows experienced while circumnavigating. My first mountain was Mt. Hood. It was close to home with many familiar trails that I knew like the back of my hand. I had been hiking and snowboarding the terrain on Mt. Hood since I was little. Learn more about hiking around the 40-mile Timberline Trail here.
In July 2016, I decided to circumnavigate Mt. St. Helens. I wanted to see if I could day hike the total of 32 miles to hit my personal record of miles hiked in a day without the need to carry overnight gear. It was a success but pushed me to my physical and mental limit. Check out the Loowit Trail adventure by clicking this link.
That brings us to this year, July 30th-31st, 2017. Due to pre- planned summer trips, I decided to backpack the Three Sisters Wilderness Loop Trail earlier than expected. Given the high snow fall during the winter, I was cautious that even late July would be a good time to give the loop a go. After hiking in the area and seeing how quickly the snow melted, I committed to the trip dates and began preparing for the adventure. See my post on How to Prepare for the Three Sisters Loop to learn exercise, training, nutrition, and gear tips.
I awoke at 4:30 am on Sunday, July 30th, ate a solid breakfast and drove to Green Lakes Trailhead. I started hiking at 6:05 am in the surprisingly frigid mountain air. At that moment, I realized I had forgotten gloves! Thankfully, as I ascended away from the creek toward Moraine Lake, I entered an inversion layer with warmer air. My goal for Day 1 was to travel West to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail, head North on the PCT, and find a place to camp at around Scott Pass/South Matthieu Lake. Maintaining a hiking pace of 3 mph was my goal and I reached the PCT in 2 hours and 20 minutes. The mosquitos were horrible until I reached an open meadow at Mesa Springs that had a strong enough breeze to keep them away. I took my first long break (around 20 minutes) there to fill up my CamelBack and water bottle and to grab a snack. I typically eat about every 60-90 minutes to keep my energy up while backpacking. My favorite trail food ranges from Lara Bars to almonds and dark chocolate, dried dates and apricots, and carrots. I also packed 4 organic beef hot dogs to eat for more substantial protein on Day 1.
The Pacific Crest Trail never disappoints when it comes to spectacular scenery, meadows, lakes, and diverse terrain. The PCT lead me through stunning views of all Three Sisters, a unique rock formation named The Husband, a limited entry Obsidian area where I was walking on top of shiny obsidian, arid lava rock fields, a large flowery meadow, ending the section at Scott Pass. This section of the Oregon PCT surely ranks up there with Jefferson Park and Paradise Park in my book.
I reached Scott Pass around 4:00 pm, took a short hike around South Matthieu Lake to find only 3 designated camp spots that were occupied. I got the sense that the area is heavily used because there was easily enough space to allow for 6-7 camp spots although it was clearly stated on the signs to only use marked sites. I didn’t want to hike further North on the PCT to check out North Matthieu Lake, so I made the decision to continue on the loop trail, which was now trail 4068, to see if I could find a spot away from people, but that was not mosquito laden. South Matthieu Lake was highly desirable in that it had an abundance of water and no mosquitos. I was risking descending into the trees to find an open site where mosquitos could be horrible. Thankfully, right around the corner from Scott Pass was an open undesignated site off of the trail, secluded, and with a view looking East toward Smith Rock and Black Crater. I set-up camp then went back to the lake for a swim and to filter some drinking water for the next day as well as water for dinner. I logged about 25.5 miles on Day 1 around the Three Sisters Loop and my body held up really well. My outer hips, glutes and TFL’s, and upper trapezius were already sore and tired from carrying the pack. While waiting for my dinner to soak, I performed self-massage on my hips, calves, shins, upper trapezius, neck, hamstrings, quads, and feet. I followed-up the self-massage with specific yoga stretches to reduce acquired tension in those areas, which I know enhanced my recovery going into Day 2. Learn how to self-massage your body with specific yoga stretches for backpackers in my book Self-Massage for the Outdoors.
Day 2 began at 4:50 am with complete and total silence. A silence so quiet it was kind of strange and foreign, yet peaceful and welcoming. I slept about 8 hours through the night which had never fully cooled-off as expected. It must have stayed in the 60’s which is warm for 6000 feet elevation in the Cascades. I watched the sunrise as I snacked on dried fruit and almonds, packed my gear, and headed out at 5:35 am to complete the loop. The trail quickly descended into snag forest comprised of an old burn for two miles, then headed South on the Green Lakes trail. I filled up my Camelback and water bottle again at Alder Creek and made the push toward Park Meadow, hoping for a climb out of the snag forest into something with a mountain view. I hiked through a combination of ash and loose dirt for the first 4 hours of the day totaling around 12 miles before reaching the more lush Deschutes forest.
I reached Park Meadow after 14 miles of hiking at 10:45 am which was a breath of fresh air full of greenery and welcomed views. I continued onward toward Green Lakes climbing to one of my favorite vistas at 6,900 feet directly in between Broken Top and South Sister. I took a break at 11:20 am to eat once again, rest my feet which were really starting to ache and take in the alpine air. I knew I was getting close to the end, but still had about 6 miles, or 2 hours, of hiking to go until I reached the car. I was hiking in the peak heat of the day now and was ready to soak in the cold lake water waiting below.
Seeing Green Lakes for the first time motivated me to pick up my pace without losing my natural gait. It was getting too easy to rely on my trekking poles too much at this point to take some of the pressure off of my lower body, but they had become an extension of me after 40 miles! As soon as I found a good place to rest, I changed into my shorts, kept my long sleeve on, and jumped into the refreshing water at Green Lakes. The view, the water, and the air were amazing. I was stoked to have ended the journey this way after the burn area rather than the other way around. I knew I would want to bring my family back to Green Lakes to enjoy the same experience and to be able to slow down more and play. I refilled my water for the last time and continued onward. 4 more miles to go and I would be to the car!
I passed a lot of hikers on the way in and out of the Green Lakes area. After seeing it for the first time, I now know why it is so popular. I caught a final rush of energy for the day and picked up the pace. The temperature was rising and I dipped my neck cover in every stream I crossed when it was dry, which was about every 15 minutes. After hiking 48.14 miles, climbing 6,057 ft of elevation over 16 moving hours, I reached the Green Lakes Trailhead to find the friendly faces of two Forest Service employees who happily snapped a final photo of me.
Overall, circumnavigating Three Sisters was a success! I enjoyed the majority of the trail, the terrain, scenery, and experience. Highlights included the PCT section because it had great views, unique and diverse terrain, and chatting with PCT thru or sections hikers is always enjoyable. Even though the trail is highly used I still felt a great deal of solitude. I loved being away from civilization and distractions alone with nature. For me, the act of hiking becomes a place to meditate, ponder the past and future, and to live in the present moment with every step.