Where: Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon. Broken Top Loop. Start at Tam McArthur Trailhead near Three Creek Lake. When: July 5-7th, 2018 Who: Ben, Marisa, & Jeanette
I originally planned this trip starting in February with two of my lovely Oregon friends but unfortunately by the time July other things had gotten in the way of them being able to go. I debated traveling solo but the long drive and hiking would be more pleasurable with company so just a few weeks before the trip I asked my friends Marisa and Jeanette if they could go and luckily they jumped on board, Hooray friends! Jeanette and I drove up to Sisters, Oregon from Oakland, Ca on July 4th and met Marisa (who lives in Portland) at Driftwood Campground on Three Creeks Lake, right by the trailhead. We lazed around in the hammock most of the afternoon watching the hundreds of orange and black butterflies flit around us and people paddling on the lake. I got to bird nerd out and saw my first Western Tanager and watched several Osprey’s fish on the lake. We then had a lovely cheese, salami, and bread spread for dinner with beers, oh the luxury of car camping!
After dinner around 7:30pm Marisa was going through her gear to get ready for tomorrow when she realized that she forgot her hiking boots!!! She only had the slip on sandals she was wearing which would definitely not work for hiking, Ruh Roh! Her boots were sitting at home in Portland, which is a 6 hour round trip drive from the campground, so that was not a real option. Matters were also tough since it was the evening of Fourth of July and open store pickings would be slim. I mentioned to Marisa that likely Bend would be her best bet as they have an REI and other bigger stores that may be open…? So she jumped in her car and drove off in the gathering dusk. Jeanette and I got into the tent as the sun went down and I kept waking up wondering if Marisa had made it back here yet. I never did hear her car return so spent the night wondering but luckily she did make it back around 10pm and had found an open Walmart and bought a pair of hiking shoes (I think they were called Ozarks?) that actually worked out great! Crisis averted, on to the hiking!
July 5th: Tam McArthur Trailhead to campsite near Todd Jct, 6ish miles
My little watch alarm beeps at the agreed upon 6am wake up time and we pack up pretty quickly and hit the trail at 7:15am. I feel proud of us for getting ready so fast on the first morning. It always takes some time to get all packed up from all the odds and ends strewn about in the car and making sure you have everything. You’ll almost always forget something, I usually do. Thank goodness I’ve so far never left anything major behind, knock on wood!
As our feet hit the dirt it immediately starts climbing switchbacks and that’s the theme for most of the day. We quickly settle in to puffing along at a good pace and taking breaks to catch our breath. The views are amazing and the butterflies are keeping us company, so the work is totally worth it!
We enjoy the views of the far off volcanoes and the increasingly smaller lakes below as we work our way up the mountain. So far we have not seen another soul since leaving the trailhead. After an hour or so of work we hit the “off trail/end of trail” sign at the top of our first big climb. We turn to our left to look at where the trail might go and find that, so far any way, it looks pretty easy to follow. It runs along the ridge and is snow free for a while. The tread looks well worn in the crushed lava rock sections so we are hopeful it will be easy to stay on course. We are a little concerned about the possibility of snow obscuring the trail higher up or making things dicey in some sections, although it is supposed to be melting off quickly so we will just have to wait and see. We are relieved of this worry pretty quickly when we hit the first snowy sections, they turn out to be short and have easy to follow boot paths kicked into them. Whew!
As we traverse along the open ridge in between snow patches the wind picks up to knock us around. The strong wind is making staying on track a little tough and then we come to a long snow field ahead, which is truly daunting and sketchy but that’s our path so we give it a go. It is especially sketchy because the snow bank is on a long flank of the mountain at a tough angle and stabby rocks are jutting out of the snow far down below it. AKA if you slip, then you will slide down a long ways and maybe hit sharp things… NOT ideal. Marisa volunteers to go in the lead since she has the most snow experience, then me with Jeanette as our caboose. We take our time stepping in other peoples kicked in boot holes and try not to look down. Marisa and I are okay with heights and even we are feeling the potential scary on this one.
Jeanette is having a rather unpleasant time on this death trap and after she’s finally across the snow resting on some boulders, she tells us all about her bee friend who buzzed around her face almost the whole way across! It sounds awful but it actually helped her because she talked to it on the way, mostly asking it not sting her in the face on this dicey ass snow slope, which helped keep her distracted long enough to not panic, stay focused, and make it across safely. Thanks bee friend!
After the scary snow crossing we zig-zag through a choose your own adventure talus area before cresting the rim to look down into the beautiful unnamed turquoise lake below Broken Top.
There is no clear path to get to the trail that we can see winding along the lake down below us. So we decide to slide down the rocky slope on to another decent sized snow field. This snow field is a lot more fun as we glissaded down it on our butts, much faster and more pleasant! Then we walk right along the beautiful blue lake. There is an exposed small campsite right above the lake that a few people are packing up at and of course all I could think of was where do they go to the bathroom?!? I really hope this beautiful area is not a disgusting rocky hill of people poo…
The trail follows along the lake all the way to it’s outlet and then the water disappears under a large snowfield. We cross over this snow a good ways until we find the trail again wandering on in the crushed dirt towards South Sister on the other side. You can hear the water gurgling underneath the snow at times, which is not super comforting.
We finally hit a little flat/descent area and stroll along the trail with wonderful views of South Sister in the distance. Per the guide I had read for the area there should be campsites at the first trail junction you hit after coming down from the lake along the creek. So when we hit the area it describes we looked around a ton for campsites but are unable to locate any or anything flat really … huh. This being the case we decided to continue on down the trail and hope we can find something flatish near water at the next creek crossing.
Finally after a decent amount of time in the hot sun we hit the next little creek and another trail junction. We start scooping the area out and see a little rise in the distance to our left. It has a cute clump of trees and what looks like a flat area on a durable, leave no trace friendly camping surface. We are all getting pretty worn out at this point and hoping to stop for the day. Marisa goes to investigate and calls us over with a wave and a thumbs up. We crunch along the large gravel rocks mixed with hardy little plants to a surprisingly great spot! The views of Broken Top and South Sister are fantastic and there are nice flat areas with a bonus breeze near trees and water, done and done!
We settled in, take a little foot dip in the creek, and chill out the rest of the afternoon. I unfortunately left my puffy jacket in the car like a dummy but have a fleece and a rain jacket so hopefully it will stay warm enough to not freeze my buns off like it has so far. We each got a few mosquito bites today but nothing like I was expecting for Oregon and that’s awesome too! Winning at life!
All too soon the afternoon turns to a dusky evening and after a family dinner we all head off to bed excited for tomorrow’s adventures!
July 6th: Campsite on the hill near Todd Lake Jct to Golden Lake, 6ish miles
Our planned hiking for the day is around 6 miles with less climbing so we plan to sleep in a little. It’s always hard for me to sleep in on backpacking trips since my back gets sore lying down a long time so I’m usually awake with the first rays of sun. Plus early morning hiking is my absolute favorite so it feels hard to lay in my sleeping bag as the morning fades away. I do a pretty decent job staying in the tent until 6:30am but then I can’t lay here any more and I need to have coffee with the rising light. Marisa and Jeanette turn out to be morning people too so we are all up early even without the alarm. So much for sleeping in! 🤣 Our tents are a little wet from condensation last night and so we wait for the sun to hit our little oasis to dry them a bit, enjoy our caffeinated beverages slowly, and we still end up hiking out around 8am.
The morning is cool with some wispy fog and clouds swirling around the mountain tops. We are traversing around Broken Top with lots of views of South Sister, open plains of wildflowers, and meadows far down below us. Absolutely Gorgeous.
After a while our trail turns North and we start seeing Middle Sister light up with the morning sun. The trail continues to draw closer to the Middle Sister and the popular Green Lakes area, where we see a lot more tents and people. As the lakes come into view we can see why this is so popular, it’s very impressive!
Our trail crosses between the lakes and we chat with a Ranger briefly who asks about our permit and tells us a little about Golden Lake, our planned stop for the night. After that we cross the creek connecting the lakes and take a morning break on a little rise to our left with a view of the lower lake.
We fuel up on snacks and continue on the trail as it follows along the lower lake with Middle Sister looming above it. We try to really enjoy this flatish section because our big climb for the day up Green Lakes Pass is coming up. And all of a sudden it’s time to sweat but it feels a lot easier then the climb from yesterday and Jeanette jams up the climb ahead of us, get it! We pop out of the trees from the switchbacks onto a beautiful flat volcanic plateau and stop to soak it in and take a few pictures. The clouds are dark and threatening above us so we don’t linger as long as we like, especially after some distant rolls of thunder join us.
We rush across the open plateau and before long the trail loops back East and descends into a few stunted trees with views North to Mt Jefferson. We chat with a few other hikers coming the opposite way and the two gentleman tell us they just came from a break at Golden Lake and that it is beautiful. We are now super excited to stay there and the last few miles fly by until we hit the little use trail on our right to Golden Lake. It’s a quick 3/4 mile to the lake and it is GORGEOUS, I am so glad we are going to stay here instead of the busy Green Lakes area. The lake sits in a little bowl with a big green meadow at one end. A clear, cold creek is running through the green expanse and Middle Sister and Broken Top loom all around us. WTF, Magic.
My Friends joke that I am the ultimate campsite finder as I scout around for a quite a while to find just the right spot. I’m always looking for the perfect trifecta of flat, privacy, and shade. Bonuses include views, near a good running water source (at least 200 ft per LNT practices), breeze to keep bugs away, and good bathroom spots. My hunting pays off here with a tucked away site on the other side of Golden Lakes outlet in some lovely trees. It hits all my check marks and I’m stoked!
It’s around 12:30pm and we have lots of time to relax and explore, which is always such a treat. We do some laundry, soak our feet in the creek, and eat lunch by the lake. There is another lake above Golden Lake that is supposed to have the best views of Broken Top, so after resting a while we decide to hike up there and check it out.
It’s about a mile climb up to the smaller lakes above and we find the use trail next to the creek at a waterfall at the South end of Golden Lake. We climb along the winding trail and each time we look back the views get better and better. We don’t see another soul, just a giant buck that leaps out of the trees and up the hill on our left, scaring the crap out of all of us.
The climb up is all along the creek that comes cascading down from the lakes above and it’s just lovely.
There are a few patches of snow left and it’s so green, with so many wildflowers every where too! I think this is my the favorite part of the trip so far, especially when we hit the lakes above.
We spend about an hour up there just sitting at different spots soaking in the views. There are a few nice campsites up here with AMAZING views, although I am not sure how comfortable they would be if it’s stormy or windy since it’s pretty open up here. Just as I think this the wind really picks up and some clouds start rolling in again. We start getting cold and hungry so decide to head back down to our cozy campsite. A few drops of rain fall on us as we hike downwards but the storm moves away quickly and we don’t have to dive into our tents immediately on arrival.
The wind is less fierce down here at Golden Lake and we decide to eat dinner by the lake and take our little stoves to a flat spot. I start boiling my water for dehydrated potatoes and since the wind went away the bugs show up en masse, dang it. We are getting fucked up by them all of a sudden and spend most of our dinners smashing mosquitoes on our bodies. I slap my knee multiple times, killing several at a go. Why don’t they tell their friends how murdery it is over here?!? Maybe mosquitoes are really bad communicators cuz they just keep coming back for more. We eat quickly and jump into our tents to escape them around 6pm. Poor Jeanette’s sleeping pad appears to have a leak and she has to venture out to find and patch it. She does so fairly quickly and only suffers minor mosquito damage. None of us come back out the rest of the evening except to pee really quickly and hope your ass isn’t getting totally eaten up during the process. Soon enough it’s dusk and after reading a bit I’m fast asleep.
July 7th: Golden Lakes to Tam McArthur Trailhead
We are up early as usual for the hike out and hit the trail by 7am, the motivation for town food is very strong. It’s another lovely and cool morning as we cruise back to the main trail from Golden Lake. I’m sad to leave this little haven but I’m ready for beer and showers!
We pass through a few meadows and even though the guide says this side is very, very dry we have to cross 3 very full creeks…?!?
Part of the reason it is drier on this side is there was a large fire here several years ago. It’s sad to see all the burnt trees, although there is lots of signs of life coming back in the spots of green and little trees pushing up through the ash. It makes for a very dusty trail and from this and the creek crossings my shoes and legs are caked with mud, cute.
The morning heats up fast and I am glad we got started early since there is very little shade to be found. We take a few small breaks to eat a little and I change into dry socks and shorts, which feels luxurious after squishy wet feet all morning. There is supposed to be a trail that branches off to our right that would take us along the back side of Three Creeks Lake but we never find it in the burnt trees. We just follow the trail down to the gravel road we drove in on and walk along that for what feels like FOREVER back to the parking area.
Finally we come back to our cars around 10:30am and take bucket paths to wash some of the dirt off. We sit at Three Creek Lake for a bit and then head into Sisters, Oregon to Three Creek Brewery to eat and drink. It’s still pretty early and we were going to camp at a little campground in Sisters but Marisa decides to drive back to Portland since it’s only 3 hours away.
Jeanette and I debate and finally decide to drive back to Oakland today too. Ours is a 9 hour drive but it feels worth it to sleep in our own beds tonight and have a full day at home before work on Monday. We all grab coffee and ice cream before we go, even though I am still kinda full from lunch but whatever. And too quickly we are saying our goodbyes and hopping into our cars to drive away.
I’m so thankful that Marisa and Jeanette could come on this trip with me and can’t wait to plan something with them for next summer! Thanks for reading and happy trails!