Monday, October 10, 2011

The Big Loop around The Three Sisters

There are a few versions of this loop depending on where you enter and which side trails you follow. It is all essentially the same, depending only on where you want to shave miles off as an ultra-runner and where you want to get your water. We parked at McKenzie Pass, followed the PCT the entire way down and then Green Lakes back up to Scott's Pass. If the LeConte Crater Trail still exists, we missed it completely, and that put us at 57 miles exactly. A 43.7 mile version is available here. Be aware that the Volcano Running itinerary uses a different entry point with a smaller parking lot.

When we returned home from the Loowit, school was officially starting. Due to Jules being a public school teacher, our homeschooling follows much of the same schedule. We don't really do holidays or anything, but we generally get a bit more lax in the summer and then pick up more standard work stuff around September. We figured we'd give a couple of weeks to finding school again before we took off on another hiking trip.

The third weekend in September seemed good. It was enough time given to schoolish pursuits for it to seem like we kinda cared, but not so long that the season had ended. Jules took off Friday, and we picked him up Thursday after school to make the long drive down to central Oregon.

The Three Sisters Wilderness is the second largest wilderness area in Oregon and is flanked on three sides by other National Forests. It allows for one rather giant expanse of "middle of nowhere" feeling. With the largest concentration of 10,000+ foot peaks in the entire Cascade Range, the Three Sisters Wilderness sports the only three triple peaks in the nation. They are also the third, forth, and fifth highest peaks in Oregon. The North Sister (Faith) is the oldest of the three and also the smallest. She is an extinct shield volcano held together only by a system of lava dikes and a large plug dome. There is no hope of The Barracuda ever summiting her as she is quite derelict. The Middle Sister (Hope), however, has an untrailed "Climber's Route." Though not exactly a walk-up, it looks like a good one for our Summer of Summiting in the future. Being an extinct stratovolcano she is quite solid and doesn't appear to be going anywhere, anytime soon. The South and final Sister (Charity) has a well established trail to the summit. It is brutal, but a walk up day hike. It was hard for The Barracuda to walk past the trail marker leading to the South Summit, but we had miles to go before we slept and it wasn't going to happen this year. She is a stratovolcano perched on top of an old shield volcano. Though this made her interesting for geological geeks, it wasn't until 2001 that people really took notice of this peak. In 2001, the South Sister began to awaken. By 2004 earthquakes were appearing and vulcanologists were getting excited. In 2007 things began to cool down, but her status has been upgraded to "Active" and eruptions might occur within the next 10 years. This knowledge made the hike even more exciting. The Barracuda versus the Volcano has become a rather interesting thought for our son.



Day 1 - McKenzie Pass to Linton Meadows - 15.2 miles

The North Sister and the smallest bit of the Middle Sister call you forward in the distance when you start at McKenzie Pass. The South Sister is still too far away to see. The weather was incredible all but the last day, and by that time, the rains were a welcome change.


We have never had a whining child. Even as an infant, he didn't whine or cry much. When hiking he has always been happy and ready to go. Imagine our surprise when less than 5 miles in, on level terrain, the child breaks down in tears exclaiming he cannot go on. I mean, complete freak out. We discussed it, he calmed himself down, continued less than 20 yards and more break downs. He said he wanted to quit, we turned around, less than 20 yards and he wanted to continue. To use the word "agitated" would not adequately describe the level of frustration Jules and I were feeling. On the last, "I can do it" it was decided that hell or high water the boy was going to walk. So we walked.

Thankfully, by the middle of the first day he had rallied and we pulled out 15.1 miles. Not what we were hoping for, but it didn't put us too far behind. (Shortly later he began to sniffle a bit. Ever since he has been on the edge of a possible cold whenever he gets tired. We think this might have had something to do with it.)

The alpine meadows in the Three Sisters are home to some of the worst bugs on the entire PCT. However, if you go after August, there aren't any. We found the meadows some of the greatest and most beautiful we had seen.


Living amongst the Cascade Range you see mountains all the time. In fact, fellow homeschool moms and I have often laughed at real estate agents calling something a "view lot." Around here you are either looking at a river or a mountain from some angle on your property. Everything is a view lot. However, the mountains in the Three Sisters are different. They have been formed lower on the tectonic plates than our mountains. This means they are in the middle between the granite peaks of the High Sierra and the composite volcanoes of our Northern Cascades. The granite substructure still exists, but the upper layers of more mailable volcanic rock are exposed. When the last Ice Ages came though, the entire state of Oregon was covered in glaciers. These glaciers ground away the upper structures of the softer volcanic material. What is left, are the crumbling remains of once giant volcanoes. Rather than the basalt we are used to, the ground is covered in red, porous extrusive volcanic rock which blew out of the last eruptions from the area. Acres and acres and acres of it. Every once in a while there will be a small, scraggly, misguided tree trying to eek out existence, but not much. Unlike the small, soft pumice we walked along at Mt. St. Helens, this rock is jagged, hard, and dense. It has the tell-tale bubbles of most lava rock, and is just as annoying to walk on, but adds a much more severe quality to the landscape. Rather than stark, the area looks brutal. Think Mordor from The Lord of the Rings.

Lava rock, lava rock and more lava rock. After the first mile and a half a trail emerges, but for much of the first day we were either walking over, or surrounded by lava rock. Here The Barracuda is descending down Yopoah Crater and the subsequent lava flows surrounding it. The lava rock really works the lateral muscles of the feet on all the uneven terrain. It cuts into your shoes, your pants, your skin and anything else it happens to scrape against.

These lava rocks were created from the flows of the North Sister's lava dikes. They protrude out the front end of the mountain to hold it together. By mid-day we began to pass the North Sister and into the saddle-like structure of her Middle Sister. Here the shield volcano status of the North Sister really shows through. The Obsidian Cliffs were a highlight of this trip. The trail is not only littered with obsidian rocks, but huge boulders of it make cliffs which shine in the sun. The rocks were everywhere. Their beauty was both stunning and dramatic with how prolific it was. Conversations quickly turned between geology and the native practices which valued the rock so much.


Day 2: Linton Meadows to Red Meadow - 24.7 miles

When the sun shot out and over the Middle Sister in the wee morning hours and illuminated the meadow in front of me, I was reminded of why we pack up before the sun and start hiking when it is still freezing outside. The beauty of moments like this is why we backpack.

We were moving by 6:30 and got to watch the sun rise over the mountains. I much prefer sleeping in places of exposure to watch the sun come up. At this point, when both Jules and I are there, we have figured out our morning packing up routine. Everything in our backpacks has only one place in the tent. Each person unpacking the tent has only one role. It all moves with a level of precision which allows us about 20 to 30 minutes from waking up to dressed, packed and moving. For someone like me who hates surprises this is a soothing and quite enjoyable experience. The Barracuda knows exactly what to expect as well, and this has greatly helped with the process. He knows his jobs, he knows the expectations, and there needs only minimal instruction. It gets the day off to a good start.

We filled up water at Reese Lake and began moving briskly to beat out the morning chill (another added benefit of an early start). It wasn't too long before we left the Middle Sister completely and began once again seeing evidence of obsidian. The South Sister is an old shield volcano, with a stratovolcano perched on top. Now the obsidian was in giant rubble style piles. Huge moraine mounds of obsidian followed us down from the meadows of the Middle Sister to the barren plains of the South Sister.

At this point we were supposed to take a short-cut side trail called the LeConte Crater Trail. It runs between the various rock outcroppings, craters, and mountains in this barren stretch. We completely missed it. If it exists, it cannot be signed well or marked as far as we are concerned. The trail stretches out for miles in front of you and no side trail could be seen.


The obsidian was a highlight of this trip. The entire pile of rock on the left side of this picture is made of obsidian - huge boulders of it. The trail is littered with obsidian. It is everywhere. The Obsidian Cliffs of the day before were not piles of rubble such as these, they were sheer walled towers. Talk about a geology lesson. The entire family was entranced with the beauty of this rare place.

The first trail sign we came to was Wickiup Plains. Normally the whimsy of this bent sign post sporting three or four different trail markers all heading in different directions would have produced a fond smile from me. It looked very much so like something out of a cartoon desert scene. However, in this instance it meant an added 4.4 miles to an already long day. The plan was to do 2 twenty mile days and a leisurely walk out the third to drive home. With the bizarre, stunted behavior of The Barracuda on the first day, and now this, that just wasn't looking like it was going to happen. It was a bummer coupled with a shocking surprise for me. My stress level shot up a bit. I wasn't a happy camper, but what are you going to do? You just have to keep walking.

By the time we rounded the South Sister and headed up the backside of the mountains we had begun to see day hikers and weekend warriors again. The eastern side of the Three Sisters is where most of the action is at. With both the South Climb walk up summit and the Green Lakes area, this is the most heavily populated of region. Before this, we had only seen dirty PCT hikers trying to pull out their throughs before the season closed in. Though The Barracuda greatly enjoyed these encounters, they were only a handful. Most of the pack had moved through the area and we were only getting the tail end. The Green Lakes area was a highway compared to the rocky, barren west side.

When we rounded Green Lakes the warm rain began to fall and the storm moved in. Though we were getting wet, the scene was enough to keep us happy. The rain pelted the water, the sun still cut through the storm and played up the colors on the shore. All the while, the backside of the Middle Sister looked on.

Spirits were lifting as we hit Green Lakes. We were obviously making good progress, regardless of the detour. The weather was looking a little treacherous, but we had managed to out hike the storm this far which added to our feelings of accomplishment. When the rains began to fall in sprinkles they were warm and we just kept pushing on. If it had to rain, it was a beautiful place to do it.

We were well past Green Lakes when the storm finally cracked above us. With thunder claps and pouring rain showers, we dawned jackets a laughed at our now familiar mantra of wet hiking, "At least it isn't New Mexico!" It all passed quickly enough and within a little over an hour we were dry again. By now we were meeting back up with a couple of people we had seen from the other side. One older gentlemen startled us with the comment, "You guys have come a long way." It took us a minute to place him before we responded with the same. He had been doing the same hike from the opposite direction. His starting place was south and clockwise, we were north and counter-clockwise. We shared trail conditions, water, and good tidings before pressing on. Much like the PCT hikers we saw the day before, this encounter raised The Barracuda's confidence a bit. He greatly enjoys seeing others who hike like we do.

By the time we were ready to find a campsite the day had been long and tiring. Though we had eaten lunch, our normal snacks weren't munched upon with the rains. The tent was pitched and food made as I went into sugar shock. I hate sugar shock. It sneaks up on me and really throws me for a loop. The Barracuda's blood sugar sensitivity comes from me and my side of the family. Jules forced food into me (almost literally since your body begins to feel extreme nausea and gag) and I sucked on extremely concentrated Gatorade before going to sleep. By morning all was well, but it worries Jules every time.

No mileage had been added up since we were slightly worried what the result might be for the last day. Jules had to make it to work the next morning regardless so it didn't really matter. It was only after coming home that we realized The Barracuda had reached another milestone. It was nearly a 25 mile day.

Day 3 - Red Meadow to McKenzie Pass - 17.2 miles

The trail was so very different from the backside of the North Sister. Gone was all the lava rock and open meadows. It was replaced by glacial sand and scrubby evergreens nearly the entire rest of the way.

Somewhere around day 2 or 3 the food conversation begins. This is about the time Jules and The Barracuda start in on what they want to eat. These discussions torture me even though I am often dragged into them. Why on earth do I want to think about the tastiest thing I could imagine when I can't eat it right now?! That just seems brutal. However, they love it. Discussions usually go something like this:

Jules: "You know what sounds really good? Taco Del Mar with a mocha and some Thai food."

The Barracuda: "You know what sounds really good? Dairy Queen blizzard with a side of steak and some pizza! We should go to Izzys!"

Jules: "Oh, you know what sounds so good? Los Reyos and some sushi!"

The Barracuda: "CHICK-FIL-A!"
By this point in time The Barracuda is practically squealing with delight. Jules is trying frantically to outdo him and they are both giddy. They begin to groan and moan in joy as if they are pleasurably eating the food right there in front of them rather than staring at miles more trail. I hike behind them thinking that many of these ideas sound really good. My mind begins to wander into territory of what I would like....a giant salad bar from Sweet Tomatoes....a really good breakfast skillet and some pancakes from the Hot Cake House or maybe a giant burger with a side of pancakes (a very hard decision even under normal circumstances)....a steaming hot bath with tea and cookies.....some Gorge Juice or maybe a Jamba Juice or maybe a peppermint latte..... It is a level of masochism that borders on psychotic. I don't know why hikers do this to themselves.

The last day of hiking a loop is often times the quickest and easiest. Somehow the terrain is never bad, the weather seems easy, and you are pressed on by the thoughts of either food or a warm car. This day had by far our worst weather. By the end of the day we were all in rain gear and cold with wind screaming by. We had moments of great weather, but nothing that would count as warm. The last few miles we were hiking to just stay warm and keep our resolve to make it to the car. It had the worst elevation. Scotts pass was 2 solid miles of unrelentingly steep uphill switchbacks. Every once in a while you would get a tenth of a mile of slight uphill only to once again tilt dramatically skyward for another long stretch. It had the most uncertainly. We didn't know what time we would be driving home, or how late we might be driving to get Jules to work the next day. There were also a couple of sections that seemed unusually long prompting Jules and I to shoot uncertain looks of "did we miss the sign?" Yet, it was by far our easiest day. We pounded out 17 miles before 3 o'clock and were hobbling into McDonald's before 4.


The whole family at McKenzie Pass just about a mile before the car. Don't let those smiles fool you, we are freezing! Guadie is sporting her backpack, and that giant, sad looking dog is Optimus. I have not formally introduced Optmius Prime yet. He is our family's 200 lb British Bull Mastiff puppy. He is still little and will probably gain another 20-50 lbs. This was his first long distance hiking endeavor so he didn't have to wear his backpack. He wasn't too sure he liked it, but he did really well.


Jules has been wanting to hike the Sisters since he lived in Georgia. It is a hike he would have flown across the United States to do and I was very glad we were able to complete it together as a family. It was a great ending to the backpacking season this year. With snow now moving in, our weekend/overnight trips might have to simmer down a bit, but there are still plenty of mountains we can summit all the way through October. Our move has pushed us to begin thinking about what is possible. We live close by and we've got gear so now all we have to do is make time!

6 thoughts:

Mr. H. said...

What an amazing hike, I'm glad that Jules was finally able to do this hike and how much better that he go to do it with the whole family. My wife is curious as to how much weight you all carry for a trip like this? And wow, Optmius Prime is a big one.:)

Granola Girl said...

Hey Mr. H (and Mrs. H)~ The amount of weight we carry varies a bit with how much food and water we need to carry and how many people/dogs are going. So the answer isn't incredibly simple, but I'll try to be a specific as possible.

Right now, The Barracuda and I are training for the PCT so Jules isn't allowed to carry very much other than his clothes and personal items. He also carries a lot of the water when we have to hike in places where there isn't much. Water weighs 8 lbs per gallon so it can add up fast. His pack weighs about 10-15 lbs. In this last hike, Optimus didn't have to use his backpack so Jules was carrying Opie's food. That put him at about 30 lbs.

The Barracuda is only allowed to carry 14 lbs maximum. That is a little less than a quarter of his body weight. Sports therapists have been very specific that he can't carry more than that without starting to do joint damage. Usually he weighs in at about 8-10 lbs (including water) and we weigh his pack very carefully.

I am currently carrying most everything so that I can build up my weight limits. My backpack weighs somewhere around 25-30 lbs when we start out. That includes water and food, however. So it starts dropping in weight by the first day or so. I try to keep it somewhere around 20-25 lbs. If it is a long section without water, I'm at about 35 lbs, but we drink the water so it starts falling. With my body weight at about 110-115 lbs, I can't carry much more than about 35 lbs and still pull mileage. As we start to eat down food/drink down water, I will sometimes shift the various contents of The Barracuda and my packs if a difficult section is coming up so that he has less weight in stuff and more weight in water and I have more stuff.

All those weights include the weight of the backpack, too. I have a kitchen scale that I get all neurotic with so we can start shaving pounds and upgrading our gear slowly. By the time The Barracuda and I leave in May, we are going to be able to shave a good 5-10 lbs off the combined weight. We want to try and get him down to 5-8 lbs and me at somewhere around 15-20 without food and water.

When Jules joins us for the PCT, we are going to be in Northern California/Oregon border. This means we are in prime sections for pounding out serious mileage (30 or more miles a day). The goal is to then have Jules carry at least 5 days worth of food and take The Barracuda down to 5 lbs so that he can walk the extra miles. At that point our packs will weigh approximately Jules and I 20-25 lbs and The Barracuda 5 lbs.

The dogs normally carry their own food and drink water as we go. They each carry 1 quart of emergency water and Optmius carries a Nalgene bottle of rehydrating high calorie glop to pour over their dog food so they can minimize their weight but still get enough calories. Guadie's pack weighs about 10 lbs and Optimius can carry up to 50 lbs. He is normally around 35.

Mr. H. said...

Thanks! I think we have to learn to rely more upon dehydrated/freeze dried food stuffs to keep the weight down. I was just re-reading your posts on dehydrating potatoes, salsa, and making tasty oatmeal to bring with. Glad I have this blog full of your knowledge and experiences to read.

Mel said...

Wow, that boy can log some serious miles. I was so proud of my 4-year-old for getting up to 6 miles. I know he can go farther, but I didn't want to push it. Maybe it is time to push it a bit...

Granola Girl said...

Hey Mel,
Around 4 The Barracuda was pulling somewhere between 6 and 8 miles. You're all right on track. There seem to be these weird leaps in mileage. Once you get to about 10, increasing to 14 really isn't all that hard. Fifteen seems difficult, but once you can sustain that everything to about 20 is cake. Twenty is a beast, but then up to 25 really just fall away. I don't quite understand it, but it has held true for our son and a few other people we have talked with.

Mainly, just don't underestimate your kiddos. We never planned on doing a 25. Hell, Jules and I were discussing routes for St. Helens and we thought asking for 17 miles was way too much and he pulled a 20. If you are worried about it, don't tell Anders how far you are hiking and see how it goes. He might surprise himself, too.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this post makes me want to have a kid and live out the family life. It's amazing how fast kids can learn and be interested in new things.

My folks raised me to camp and hike, and after many years we find there are relatively few of us that continue to enjoy it forever. It must be great fun to head out for days and have this type of family life. Its really rare if you think about it.

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