Hiking South Sister: Oregon’s Third Tallest Mountain

Hiking to South Sister’s summit should be at the top of every hiker’s bucket list for so many reasons. Not only is it a unique hike, but it is also one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have!

Sparks Lake In Oregon

The hike is unique because this trail provides the opportunity for non-technical climbers to see some of Oregon’s few remaining glaciers up close. It is rewarding because at over 10,000 feet, reaching South Sister’s summit is certainly considered an accomplishment.

From the top are phenomenal views where on a clear day you can almost see every peak in the eastern half of the Cascade Range including Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, and even Mt Hood.

South Sister is the third tallest mountain in Oregon standing at 10,363 feet. Its sister mountains, North Sister and Middle Sister, are the fourth and fifth highest peaks in Oregon. Unlike its sister peaks, South Sister has an uneroded summit crater. Sitting below South Sister’s summit is a small lake named Teardrop Pool, which is the highest lake in Oregon.

If you decide to hike up South Sister, not only will you summit Oregon’s third tallest mountain and visit the highest lake in the state, but you’ll also get up close with eight glaciers, one of which is the largest in Oregon. Going clockwise, the names of the glaciers on South Sister are Prouty, Lewis, Clark, Lost Creek, and Eugene Glaciers.

The trio stratovolcanoes were originally known as Faith (North Sister), Hope (Middle Sister) and Charity (South Sister) by pioneers. Each of the three volcanoes have their own individual geology and eruptive history.

Both North Sister and Middle Sister have not erupted in the last 14,000 years and apparently it is unlikely they will ever erupt again. South Sister on the other hand, which is the youngest of the trio, last erupted only 2,000 years ago and it is highly likely it will erupt again in the near future.

Psst… You can watch a video of our hike to South Sister’s summit below!

The Three Sisters are located in the Three Sisters Wilderness which is the second largest wilderness area in the state of Oregon. This part of the Cascade Mountain Range is one of the most densely populated volcanic centers in the world!

Hiking The South Sister Trail

The trail to South Sister’s summit has become one of our favorite hikes we have ever done. Yes, it is strenuous and the type of trail that has you wondering why you ever signed up in the first place. You’ll probably be cursing as you near the summit, and possibly even consider turning back. If you’re a hiker, I’m sure you know what I mean.

But if you persist until the end, I guarantee you will be proud that you were able to rise to the occasion. The saying “nothing worth achieving comes easy” absolutely applies to this hike.

Once you reach the end of the trail and see how far you’ve come, and look out and see the magnificent views across Central Oregon, you will realize it was totally worth the effort. I promise this is one of those hiking experiences that will stay with you forever.

Trail Details

Summit: 10,363 feet
Distance: 12 miles (return)
Time: 6-9 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation Gain: 4,820 feet
When To Go: July to early October

Best Time To Hike

Mid-July until the end of September is the best time to hike South Sister as there is less likelihood of adverse weather conditions, however increasing chances of forest fires can hinder visibility during summer.

Before I give you a description of the South Sister hiking trail, I’ll cover some need to know information first such as where the trailhead begins and when the best time is to hike this trail. Here are some need to know facts.

Do You Need A Permit To Hike South Sister?

Yes, you do need a permit to hike South Sister. However, the permit is free. At the beginning of the trail there is an information board where you can fill out the free wilderness permit. Be sure to place the original copy in the wooden permit box and keep the copy with you.

Where Does The South Sister Hiking Trail Begin?

The South Sister hiking trail begins at the Devils Lake parking lot which can be found along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway about thirty miles west of Bend.

A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park here or you can pay $5 for a day parking pass. The Northwest Forest Pass is $30 and good for all national forests in Oregon and Washington. If you have a National Parks Annual Pass you can use that here too.

From the parking lot, you will need to cross the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway to get to the official start of the trail where you will find the information board and wilderness permit forms that need to be filled out.

When Is The Best Time To Hike South Sister?

The best time to hike South Sister is from June to October, however mid-July until the end of September is ideal as there will be less chance of snow on the ground. Keep in mind though that forest fires become very likely in late summer which can hinder all important views from along the trail and summit. Also know that most of the trail is exposed and it can get very hot during the summer months.

Hiking in spring or autumn will be less crowded although you may need to hike through snow at higher elevations and you will need to be prepared for adverse weather conditions. Winter hiking should be left to experienced hikers only.

Starting The South Sister Trail

We began our hike along the South Sister trail much later than we had planned, which unfortunately is not unusual for us. In fact, it’s almost a given. We had lofty goals of being on the trail by 7am but embarrassingly it was closer to 10am. Maybe even later. In our defense, we did spend some time filming an intro to a video we made for this hike back at Sparks Lake where we were camping. We also had a rough night in the tent unable to sleep because it was surprisingly very cold.

Anyway, by the time we arrived at Devils Lake, the parking lot was jam packed but luckily someone was leaving just as we turned up. We grabbed our backpacks and quickly got moving.

From the information board, the trail starts out flat and easy. However after crossing a small footbridge over Tyee Creek, the trail begins to ascend.

The ascent is a slow gradual climb, the kind that really gets your calves burning. Some people prefer these not so steep, longer climbs, while others prefer it to be short, sweet and steep to get the climb over and done with. I prefer the latter.

After this slow going ascent, which to be honest, felt like it took forever, a long and sandy plateau appears. Hallelujah!

Enjoy this flat stretch while you can because it is going to get very tough once the trail starts to climb again. But for now, you will be hiking over very gentle rolling hills. There is no shade along here, and from here on out.

South Sister will be looming ahead of you, and it will be here that you truly appreciate how large this mountain really is. Remember, it is the third tallest mountain in Oregon.

Even though it looks so close from this point, trust me when I say it is still a long way to go until you reach the mountain’s base.

Moraine Lake

About halfway along the sandy plateau you’ll come to an overlook of Moraine Lake. Behind the lake to the left is Broken Top, and to the right is Mt Bachelor. This is a great spot to stop and have a quick snack break if you need, which also gives you an excuse to enjoy the view a little longer.

There are campsites down by Moraine Lake and we did see a couple of backpackers heading down to set up camp. If you are planning to do South Sister as an overnight hike, you may want to consider camping down by the lake as it would not only be a beautiful spot to stay, but you would have somewhere to rinse off after getting hot and sweaty.

After a short snack break, we continued onwards. The plateau eventually meets up with the mountain and you will need to start climbing. This is where the South Sister hike starts to get really tough! From here you’ll need to navigate loose rocks on your way up the mountain.

This is the second hardest part of the hike. From here, I would say it is still another two miles to the summit with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain.

Views From South Sister

You will need to scramble and climb a rocky embankment before you reach a saddle where you’ll find Teardrop Lake and the base of Lewis Glacier.

Teardrop Lake

After climbing for about forty minutes or so, you’ll eventually reach Teardrop Lake, which is just below South Sister’s summit. This is Oregon’s highest lake. Many hikers choose to stop and have lunch here or take a quick break.

Where Teardrop Lake sits is considered a false summit, and like many other hikers, we were disappointed to learn that this point was not the end of the trail.

The last forty minutes was very tough, but once you look up and see the trail continue around the edge of Teardrop Lake to the real summit, you’ll quickly learn that the last stretch was nothing compared to what still lies ahead.

For some hikers, once they see what is still to come and how difficult it is about to get, they choose to turn back here. And many were turning back here.

Jamie was exhausted by this point and informed me that he wouldn’t be going any further. I was a little disappointed in him and while I also debated with myself about whether to turn back, I knew I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t continue.

It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the trail that was the problem, but that it was already 3.30pm and there was still another mile to go with 1,300 feet elevation gain! Forging ahead meant we would definitely be walking back in darkness.

Every now and then, a hiker needs to make a call of what is an acceptable risk for themselves when trying to achieve hiking goals. Since we were no strangers to hiking at night, continuing to the summit with the risk of hiking in the dark was an acceptable risk for us as long as we got back to the sandy plateau before nightfall.

South Sister Hiking Trail

At this point, from Teardrop Lake to the crater rim, there is about one mile to go. But it is a very long mile. And very slow going. I knew I would have to push myself.

The trail now becomes super steep and travels over volcanic scree. Tiny marble-sized rocks are everywhere as well as big boulders that need to be dodged.

It is very slippery along this part of the trail and it seems like for every two steps forward, you take one step back. Being the middle of August, the sun was intense and it was extremely hot.

You can see from the photos above how steep the last mile to the summit is.

About a quarter of the way up, I was shocked to see Jamie had quickly caught up to me. He had changed his mind and decided to join in the quest to the top. Yes! I had someone to grumble and whine to on the way up again!!

Finally, we reached the crater rim. Alas, we were again let down when we learned from other hikers this was not the true summit. The true summit, and official end of the trail was on the other side of the crater.

Naturally you would assume this would be no big deal, however the crater was about half a mile wide, and we were already exhausted. Plus it was getting late.

Of course it wasn’t as easy as just walking across the crater because there is a large snow field in the middle of the crater.

Feeling defeated, Jamie told me this time for real this would be the end of the line for him. Besides us, there were only two others who had chosen to keep going. One of them said that they were going to call it quits too. The other guy continued.

Even though continuing was getting even more sketchy, especially considering how long it took us to do the last mile, I made the decision to keep going.

I left my backpack with Jamie and hurriedly made my way around the caldera. Fortunately the hike around the crater is fairly easy with only a few sections of scrambling necessary. On the way were some incredible views of Broken Top and Central Oregon looking eastwards.

View of Broken Top Mountain From South Sister Summit
Looking out over Broken Top Mountain

I finally made it to the highest point of the summit. I wasn’t keeping track of time, but it felt like it took at least twenty or thirty minutes to reach the other side of the crater.

The views from this side of the crater were INCREDIBLE. There were peaks rising to the north as far as the eye could see. Middle Sister and North Sister were wildly impressive seen from this vantage point and perspective.

It was also such a scary drop off from the edge of the crater. I can’t believe me, who is afraid of heights, dared to peak over.

After hanging around for a few minutes to take in the vista and take a few photos I made the trek back to Jamie as quick as I could. I didn’t tell him immediately how amazing the views were from the other side as I didn’t want him to be disappointed.

But I urge any of you reading this, that if you make it to the crater rim, keep going to the official end because the views are not the same looking north as they are south. IT IS MUCH BETTER!

Anyway, it was a long trek back to our vehicle, and we did end up hiking back in the dark for a good two hours. At least we made it back to the flat plateau section of the trail before dark, which is the most crucial thing in terms of safety. Since it was almost full moon, the night hike was a perfect ending to our day. The trail was lit most of the way anyway until the last two miles through the forested section back to the parking lot.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, we usually end up starting our hikes later in the morning and therefore are accustomed to hiking back in the dark so it isn’t such a big deal for us. And to be honest, it is actually much more peaceful than day hiking.

South Sister Hiking Trail
The long hike back from South Sister’s summit.

Things To Keep In Mind If You Want To Hike South Sister

Here are some things I think you should keep in mind if you are considering taking on the challenging hike to South Sister; the Three Sisters Wilderness has become a popular destination for outdoor recreation and the South Sister hiking trail now sees approximately four hundred hikers per day. For this reason, as of May 2021, many trails within Three Sisters Wilderness now require a day-use or overnight permit, so unfortunately you will need to plan your trip in advance (and if you can get a permit).

Also, the trail on average takes most hikers around eight hours to complete. You do need to start your hike early in the morning so that you are not hiking back in the dark, unless you are comfortable doing so. Always be prepared either way though and pack a flashlight and make sure you have spare batteries.

And remember, this is a grueling trail and there is no shame in turning around. Know your limits and be sure to check the weather in advance!

Tips For Hiking South Sister

  • Be sure to start your hike to South Sister’s summit early in the morning, unless you are comfortable hiking back in the dark. This is a long and strenuous hike and you need to allow somewhere between six and nine hours to complete the trail.
  • Pack a flashlight just in case you do end up hiking back in the dark. It is always best to be prepared as you never know what will happen.
  • Check the weather in advance of your South Sister hike, not only because bad weather can be dangerous at the top, but also because bad weather can affect the all important views from the top. Check the weather forecast for South Sister.
  • The earlier in the season you hit this trail, the more likely there will still be snow on the hiking trail. In late August, forest fires are highly likely which can hinder views from the top.
  • Bring plenty of water with you, at least three liters as this is an all day affair. There is water along the trail but you will need to filter it. Consider taking these purifying water tablets or purchase a water filtering bottle.
  • Pack lots of food because this is a grueling hike, not only in mileage, but also vertical gain too. It’s always a good idea to pack extra food anyway just in case something happens and you end up spending more time on the trail than planned.
  • This hiking trail is very exposed so don’t forget to bring sunscreen. We like this Sun Bum SPF 30 Sunscreen Spray with vitamin E, which is not only reef friendly, but also octinoxate & oxybenzone free too.
  • Bring some light layers in case the weather does turn unexpectedly and because it is much cooler at the top and in the evenings.
  • Day use permits are required between 15th June and 15th October. Learn more here.

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