THREE SISTERS LOOP – DAY 1: LAVA CAMP LAKE TO CAMP LAKE
3,396 ft el. gain
The alarm buzzes at 5:20 a.m. Thankful for a good night’s sleep I slip in my hiking clothes, execute the last gear check and by 5:50 a.m. Dave and I are checking out of the Sisters Inn and Suites. After a quick stop at the Sisters Bakery, which you should definitely visit if you ever find yourself in Central Oregon in a small town called Sisters, we are on the way to our next adventure, a loop around those Three Sisters almost everything in this area is named after.
The Three Sisters, Faith (North Sister), Hope (Middle Sister), and Charity (South Sister) are a trio of closely spaced volcanic peaks, each rising above 10,000 feet. In their feet lies a wilderness of lava fields, alpine meadows, glacial lakes, and waterfalls spread across 281,190 acres and crossed by 260 miles of trails. Our goal is to sample approximately one third of them.
There are four of us in our group. Dave and I, and our two friends, Lisa and Lisa. Motivated, we leave Lava Camp Lake trailhead in the North part of the wilderness shortly after 7:00 a.m.
It does not take long and we enter a zone charred by a wildfire. We are surrounded by sad remnants of lodgepole pines and subalpine firs. Fireweed blooms at our feet bringing a bit of color into this mostly black and white landscape. Occasionally we see short green shrubs and huckleberry bushes but it’s staggering how little life has returned even now nearly a decade after the fire which was ignited by lightening on September 8, 2012 and during its rage burned 41 square miles.
The higher we get, the more we realize what this number means, as our eyes graze over the endless hillsides devastated by this natural disaster.
The going is not easy. The winter was not kind to this region and the trail crews have not yet reached this part of Green Lakes Trail which makes a large portion of our hike today. We weave our way through the deadfall the best we can but the sharp ghastly branches claim their victory, leaving us scraped and exhausted. Dave’s sports an L-shaped tear on his hiking shirt.
After nearly 7 miles of hiking, we reach Alder Creek and take our first longer break. The water is cold and refreshing. It springs me back to life. The rest of my crew not so much but they are trucking bravely along. At this point we still have ten more miles to go.
Our next water source, Pole Creek, is a bust. We cross the dry creek bed and continue our uphill journey. The sun is now directly over our heads. The heat is intense. Blowdowns continue to block the trail. For a moment I imagine how different the experience must have been for those who had the privilege to hike the trail prior to the fire and were able to seek refuge from the elements under a canopy of the evergreens.
Soap Creek (mile 11.7), where we arrive just in time for lunch, supposedly earned its name from white glacial silt, but today it runs clear and along the stream monkey flowers bloom in abundance together with lupine, though the majority of the lupine is past its prime. We cross the creek on a log bridge and enjoy a well-deserved break in a semi-shaded area on the south bank.
Soap Creek also marks the intersection where we veer off from the Green Lakes Trail and start climbing towards our destination – Camp Lake.
Leaving Green Lakes Trail behind; however, does not mean leaving the burn. Not immediately anyway. The trail eventually leads us into a lush green forest unscathed by the fire but it’s not for another mile and a half of skirting around deadfall and climbing over charred tree trunks.
More shade. Less dust. Birds sing above our heads. This combination adds pep in my step. Dave does not share the enthusiasm. I see a clear disappointment on his face when we reach North Fork Whychus Creek, 2.8 miles shy of our destination.
“You’re so lucky,” he says and I know that if the creek did not look like a carton of rapidly poured chocolate milk, he’d suggest camping right here. But without a source of drinking water we have no such choice and so we cross the swollen creek on a log upstream from the trail and we trudge up a series of switchbacks gaining the final 680 feet of elevation that separates us from our destination.
The trees thin out when we walk into the basin where Camp Lake sits in between North and Middle Sister. Behind the lake there is a green meadow and a world of glacial moraines. The path visibly continues into the inhospitable terrain beyond the lake and I immediately wish we had an extra day here to explore that area. But that will have to wait for another trip.