Each city in the Northwest has it’s own mountain in the Cascade range—an icon of the place. Seattle has Mt Rainer, Portland Mt Hood and, to a lesser extent, the rounded dome of Mt St Helen’s, Salem claims the pointed lines of Mt Jefferson and Eugene and Corvallis have The Three Sisters. After that, the Willamette Valley narrows and disappears, and you lose the long flat expanse which allows the mountains to dominate the landscape. The mountains are always to the East, a solid presence in our lives. We watch for them in winter: ”The mountain was out today” indicates a lifting of clouds and a glimpse of white against the grey sky. In the summer, we study how the snow melts and, in autumn, when it comes back. On a strikingly clear day, we count how many of the chain we can see—sometimes we’ll see Mt Hood from the hills around town, occasionally, hiking in the Cascades, I’ll make out Mt Rainer to the north and Diamond peak to the south. That is a good day.
Mark and I just spent a week hiking around the Three Sisters—our Cascade Mountains. We’ve taken dozens of day hikes and several backpacking trips into the area over the years, but never the fifty mile loop around the three dormant volcanoes. The timing is tricky; there is a limited window between three weeks after snow melt (and mosquito hatch) and school starting. We nailed it this year.
The loop starts out at 6000 feet near a small lake on the shoulder of the North Sister—a craggy, glacier ridden peak. The lake—beautiful, but too well loved, really, to allow overnight camping—is on a ridge that the winds dance around all night long. We woke at 6:30, packed, and headed south and east down into Douglas Fir forests and streams. The first day was pretty—walking through the trees—but not extraordinary. A good day to work out snack times and backpack issues. After a night on a green and brown woodland pond, we moved into the extra-ordinary….
First, a lush meadow where three deer stared us down and a dozen marmots frolicked on a warm rock outcropping. Flowers bloomed. Then we climbed to 7000 feet, slowly, steadily, each step bringing more of the mountains into view. Rounded South Sister appeared on one side, the craggy ridge of the aptly named Broken Top on the other. We moved out of Doug Fir and into pine, more twisted and broken as we went. Finally, at the high point, we were on an open pumicy plain, scattered with tough alpine plants. Ten more steps, and the Green Lakes (and lunch) lay before us, 500 feet down. We camped by another lake that third night, on the shoulders of South Sister this time.
The fourth day, we turned the corner of the trail and headed north on the wetter western side of the range. We struggled uphill through Pumice Slog speckled with tough, drought tolerant plants like Dirty Socks (think warm, dry, deep sand with a full pack), crossed ridges, and dropped into lush lupine meadows—waves of bright blue flowers, sparked with pink monkeyflower, red Indian Paintbrush, white Valerian, and yellow groundsel. The warm dry air was sweet with the scent of blooming lupines. Small cool mountain streams threaded their way through the fields. The trail danced between Douglas Fir and Mountain Hemlock; rise out of the majesty of fir into the mystery of hemlock, and then drop back down, depending upon slight changes in elevation and moisture.
At the same time, the view of the mountains to our right shifted. We spent the fourth night staring at the north side of South Sister, sitting in the tent hiding from mosquitoes, wrapped in sleeping bags, with hot tea, as the sun went down, bringing out the rusty reds of the peak and woke the next morning to deep frost and some cat ice on puddles. That day, while we walked, the dark, sparkling cone of the Middle Sister’s south face appeared; a mile later, we saw the glaciers on her north side. These were all new views for us; we were at least a day’s walk in on all sides. Then, the North Sister reappeared.
The final leg of the trail left behind the lush meadows for dramatic lava flows. There were several eruptions a thousand years ago, which is quite recent in geological history. The terrain is rough. The trail climbed over the Opie Dilloc pass at 6900 feet, totally exposed to the sun and wind. We moved slowly, carefully over the rounded pumice stones, red and black mixed together underfoot. They slip and slide and rattle downhill. Last afternoon light, tinged with smoke from a forest fire not too far away, turned everything golden and obscured the peaks around us. We paused at the top, looking for the rounded red butte that rises over South Mathies lake, where we began. The last night, we dropped down to the larger north lake, surrounded on three sides by trees and one by a grey and brown lava flow thirty feet high. We have been here, to this specific campsite, before and felt like we are coming home. The next morning, it was a quick two mile trot down the trail for a second breakfast in the small tourist town of Sisters—the smoke so thick, now, that we could not see any of the mountains—before we drove two hours home.
The trail around the Sisters was the most beautiful and varied hike I have ever taken—and I have walked into the bottom of the Grand Canyon and seen the oldest exposed rock on the planet, crept along the Knife Edge of Mt Katadin at the end of the AT in Maine, and circumnavigated Mt Rainer in Washington. It is in my own backyard. I do not have to fly anywhere, or drive for days, to get there. I can do it all again next year, if I wish. And, on grey winter afternoons, when I am biking out to the dentist—who just happens to have a office located high on a hill, where you can, if you are lucky, glimpse the Cascades—I can see them from town.