PCT Ramble: Sisters Wilderness – hats off to Forest Service!

Some hikers are bound to hike from one point to another (either a loop, out / back, or drop / pick up), some others like me use points as boundaries and travel within them based on delight and joy (avoiding unnecessary risky / unfun sections). With that intro, this backpacking trip was 4 days within the Sisters’ Wilderness area – bound to the north by a highway & lava flows, bound to the south by terrible squitos and bound to the east by burnt area with incredible blowdowns.

The path went like this …

Day 1 – Obsedian TH to Middle / South saddle at Reese Lake and then back to PCT to Mesa Creek for the night

Day 2 – Mesa Creek to S Sisters Summit and then back down to Moraine Lake for the night

Day 3 – Moraine Lake back to PCT then to S Mathieu Lake for the night

Day 4 – S Mathieu Lake to Mckenzie Pass (turn around go south) to Mini Scott Springs (lunch) and then to car via Scott Trail (warning! the Scott Trail to Obsidian TH is CLOSED, so my last 1/2 mile was on road)

Link to map

The milage is off based on my recording on AppleWatch as well as comparing it to GaiaGPS. I had terrible time with All Trails on this trip and vow to stop using. It quit 2x when it lost connectivity (cell) – how many hikes do I take where cell connectivity is sure thing?

Summary:

Hats off to the Forest Service! Two tremendous experiences all due to National Forest Service policy and personnel. First, the new permit system is a smash for hikers like me. No more crowds, camping in logically protective areas not on fragile high use areas, and clear directions / expectations. I am a fan of the new system. Second, I observed a helicopter rescue mission on South Sister where Forest Service rescue team carried down (by hand) a woman w/ broken ankle to their waiting helicopter. I have never seen braver, more protective professionals – ever. I spoke w/ father of injured and he was just amazed at the care daughter was receiving – a sad moment, but a great moment when professionals show up to save the day!

The hike was fabulous. Crowds just right with passing hikers 1x/hour more or less the entire 4 days; traffic on South Sister was the least in 6 years – almost felt like hiking / climbing in wilderness. Leapfrogged with 1 PCT hiker on day 3 and spent night at same lake. Wild flowers were spectacular and hard to imagine a higher peak blooming time. Deer tracks were plentiful (not so last year) and several visited meadows at same time as I.

The decision to forgo the full Sisters Loop was made based on 2 feedbacks from Pole Creek burn area – high volume of blowdowns this last winter and none cleared as well as dangerous fall down risk. That made it easy to spend time on west side of spine, rather than loop around. A decision well made. The PCT is in great condition with few blowdowns and only 1 ice walk-around. Early July hiking in the Sisters is never a sure thing, but this year was perfect.

Gear was well tested over the 4 days, and a separate gear review was posted.

The Route – Day 1

Started the morning at TH leaving before 7:30 and was quickly to the Obsidian / Glacier Way junction. I took the Glacier Way to make sure to hit Sisters Spring on the PCT. Glacier Way had a large blow-down section that required tree jumping, going around and climbing thru – a huge clean up project (might be easier to move trail) – another hiker said Obsidian trail had same.

Just a small section – there was at least 100 yds of that

Once on the PCT, the views shift between recent burns, a waterfall, vegetation recovery and spectacularly N / M Sister views as one hikes down to Reese Lake.

This is also when the first meadows and their flowers really started to kick in.

At Reese Lake, I took the User Trail up toward the saddle between Middle and South Sister heading towards Camp Lake to look for a common uphill path to Middle. Unfortunately, I was about the only human up there and did not pass further than the second lake. It’s a scramble but the glacier lakes up there are different as the glacier extends over the lake on the east side – the water was surprisingly warm.

Returning back to Reese Lake to head down to Mesa Creek on PCT one must pass thru another burn before landing in a most beautiful meadow (Mesa). Even after dinner, I had a visitor. I was the only camper in this meadow.

The Route – Day 2

On the trail by 5:45 with a different look at the meadow and another visitor in the next meadow over

After a short uphill after Mesa, the S Sister cinder meadows open up for a walk to avoid in hot afternoon – but I arrived just as the sun was coming over the ridge.

At this point, the route turned east from the PCT following Moraine Lake trail to the S. Sister climber trail to go straight up. This was the 5x in 6 years up South and the helicopter reminded me that my luck going solo has run dry – i’ll most likely only go again guiding other(s). This year was by far without exception the best – crowds, weather, trail conditions … and staying the night at Moraine Lake was fab.

The first two sections i call a) the table and b) the boulders – the most dangerous section to scramble thru at a steep angle with path confusion (i learned to ‘stay east’ thru this section). At the lip of the glacier lake is where the rescue team started carrying the injured down (thru the boulders). The last pic is section three, ‘pumice scramble’ and is the hardest as one is beat tired and the walking is hard (i learned to ‘stay west’ thru this section). A new lesson hit me this year (a v-8 moment) that people going up are walking blind – don’t follow them; the folks coming downhill see all options and retracing those are safer.

From the summit, the views were a bit hazy to south and north east due to fires … I grabbed a quick lunch, chatted with several folks and looked down to the paths covered – a key surprise (pics couldn’t capture) was how Mesa Meadow was sparred from fires all around it – such mysterious strength or randomness? (…. note: some pics are similar to previous years, but astute long-time readers will look for deltas). I had not see the ‘circle’ pond so blue or round and the larger oval pond was frozen atop and gladly this year people were NOT walking on glacier like last.

The night at Moraine Lake was perfect – 22 campsites spaced out around the lake so nobody can see another – yet know they’re there. I camped at #20 – loved it. From trail-side of lake, S Sister looms above …

The Route – Day 3

Another 5:30 start from Moraine Lake retracing my steps from the day before back to PCT and up north to Reese Lake for a lunch.

During lunch at Reese Lake, the camera took over. The pic of log sliding down the bank shows the water level – scary.

Skipping over the section from Reese Lake to Glacier Way trail on PCT as repeat, the PCT between Glacier and Scott trail is nothing short of hot and modor-like.

Mini Scott spring is the reward for crossing Modor and then the Scott Meadow (my name). The decision made here to continue on w/ another PCT hiker to S Mathieu Lake for the night.

the last pic above (lower right) is the actual spring – those little rocks are bubbling … the water was soooo good.

After >20 miles, it was time to camp at S Mathieu up on a ridge tucked in from the winds (big that night) but just enough exposure to be bug free paradise.

The Route – Day 4

Decision day – wake up; hoof it up to Mckenzie pass (~4m) and verify that north of highway is nothing but lava beds and if so, turn around and head to the car … the morning from Mathieu to the pass and back was sunrise heaven.

North of McKenzie Pass is … not fun imho under a burning sun

The remaining route was covered except the ‘off-ramp’ Scott Trail which was blocked to Obsidian Trail …

Would I do this exact hike again? Who knows, but will I go back to Sisters’ Wilderness? — surely unless I’m no longer breathing. Sisters is magical.

2 Responses

  • Oh my, I sighed a lot following your pictures! Thinking of doing the PCT in total??? Love, Mom

  • Michael
    I’m glad your trip worked out! I too loved Mesa Creek, where I camped, and Moraine Lake where I enjoyed a glorious late breakfast on my loop trip in 2019. A good decision not to visit the east side if the trail hasn’t been cleared; although, Alder Creek and Green Lakes are worth a visit. Too bad you couldn’t (or wouldn’t risk – a wise decision-) make your way to Camp Lake. There is always another time.

    I’m off to the Dosewallips Trail in ONP next week, July 26 – July 30. Not high mileage days like your trip 🙂 but new country for me.

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