Basic Information (from GPS)
- Driving Distance – 2 hours 14 minutes
- Hike Distance – 6 miles
- Hike Duration – 7 hours 27 minutes
- Elevation Gain – 4,913 feet (Alltrails.com says 4,901ft)
- Starting Elevation – 5,445 feet
- Summit – 10,358 feet
South Sister Information*
The South Sister is located in the Three Sisters Wilderness, in Lane County Oregon. The Three Sisters are a complex volcano of three volcanic peaks of the Cascade Volcanic Arc and the Cascade Range in the U.S. state of Oregon. Each exceeding 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in elevation, they are the third, fourth, and fifth highest peaks in the state of Oregon, and are located in the Three Sisters Wilderness, about 10 miles (16 km) south of the nearest town of Sisters. Diverse species of flora and fauna inhabit the area on and around the mountains, which is subject to frequent snowfall, occasional rain, and extreme temperature differences between seasons. The mountains, particularly South Sister, are popular for climbing and scrambling.
Although they are often grouped together and seen as one unit, the three mountains evolved under differing geologic situations, and the petrologic composition of each mountain can vary significantly. Whereas North Sister is extinct and Middle Sister is dormant, South Sister last erupted about 2,000 years ago and still could erupt, threatening life within the region. After satellite imagery detected tectonic uplifting near South Sister in 2000, the United States Geological Survey made plans to improve monitoring in the immediate area.
South Sister, also known as “Charity,” is the youngest and tallest volcano of the trio. Its eruptive products range from basaltic andesite to rhyolite and rhyodacite. It is a stratovolcano overlying an older shield structure. The first such episode, termed the Rock Mesa eruptive cycle, first spread tephra from flank vents from the south and southwest flanks, followed by a thick rhyolite lava flow. The second cycle, the Devils Hill eruptive cycle, was similar in result, but was caused by the intrusion of a dike of new silicic magma that erupted from about 20 vents on the southeast side and from a smaller line on the north side.
Unlike its sister peaks, South Sister has an uneroded summit crater about 1⁄4 mile (0.40 km) in diameter that holds a small crater lake known as Teardrop Pool, the highest lake in Oregon. The slopes of South Sister have a number of small glaciers, including the Lewis, Clark, Lost Creek and Prouty glaciers near the crater rim.
*Information from Wikipedia.
Why the South Sister
I had first hiked the South Sister over 15 years ago with a friend. On that trip, we backpacked up to Moraine Lake in the evening and setup camp. In the early morning we hiked to the summit and then hiked all the way back to the car. The very next weekend after the climb, I went car camping at Wikiup Reservoir. You could see the South Sister from the camping spot and it was completely covered in snow.
A few months ago, I was approached by a different friend who asked me to join a group of guys who were going to climb the South Sister in August of 2016. I really wasn’t interested at first, but then I thought it would be a great accomplishment for my oldest son, who was, Interestingly enough, conceived the weekend after the aforementioned climb. Due to football season and other factors, however, my son was unable to make it on this trip. I decided to go anyway.
We met at Life Bible Church in Harrisburg, Oregon and planned to leave at 4:45 am (I’m not sure when we actually left). There were 11 of us riding in a passenger van, four of which I had never met before. The drive took about 2 hours and 30 minutes to get to Devils Lake Campground where the trailhead is located. We joined the 50 or more cars parked along the edge of the road and then headed out on our adventure. Do not plan on being alone on this hike. It seamed like there were hundreds of people out on the trail.
The first section starts by leaving Cascade Lakes Highway at Hell Creek (about 5,444 feet) and climbs roughly 1,076 of elevation gain through the forest to about 6,520 feet – mostly switchbacks (as one guy put it, it was “a slap in the face” start). This first section can really weed out those that aren’t truly up to the task of making the summit. I feel it’s best to warn you now… this first section is as easy as walking from your bedroom to the bathroom compared to the torture of climbing the last 2,000 or so feet of elevation to the summit! Once you come out of the forest, you come to the cross-trail to Moraine Lake. We stopped here for a a minute or two and moved on. The next section wasn’t really bad at all. The trail was wide and the elevation gain seemed minimal. This section is a good place to pass the slower groups of people headed up the mountain. The trees become further and further apart and the ground is real dusty. If you keep your eye to the right, you will spot Broken Top in the distance and Moraine Lake down in the valley below.
As you leave the last area, the next section starts to get a little steeper with a lot more rocks. The trees become fewer and shorter and as you move above timberline the rocks turn to boulders. The boulders begin to dominate and at one point everyone is all over scrambling via their own path across a boulder field.
You eventually make it to a summit where a ton of people are resting at the Lewis Glacier. There is water at the base of this glacier and it is a great place to fuel up before the torture fest to to top begins. From here on out the trail gets steeper and tougher.
After about 4 hours of hiking, we finally made the crest. In my opinion, I would consider this the “first” summit. As you come over the edge, the first thing you see is the Tear Drop Pool Glacier. When I saw it this time, I found myself saying to myself, “Wow, that glacier has really shrunk!”. For some reason it seemed like it was much higher to me from where I remember it 15 years ago. The second thing that some of us may notice once we reach the “first” summit is that the highest point of the mountain is on the far side of the glacier, I’ll call this the “Second summit”. You absolutely have to go over there because that is where you are able to view of all the north peaks from. 15 years ago, a well worn trail went strait across the glacier to that point, however, this time there was no glacier trail and a well worn trail traversed along the east rim – that must have been under the glacier when I was here before.
When you get to the second summit, you will notice that it drops straight down, frighteningly steep. If you search a bit you will find a ledge just below the highest point of the mountain, hanging out there. This was the only place to get out of the ferocious wind last time up. This time it wasn’t very windy. I remember sitting on that little ledge and some of the climbers sitting with me were talking about a lady that fell off that ledge to her death the weekend prior. Not sure if it was true or not, but i tell ya, if you fall over…your probably going to die. After resting while taking pictures, I decided to walk barefoot on the glacier before my decent. that felt so good on the feet!
I was finally ready to head back down. Of course, you would think it would be easy, think again. The thing I wasn’t prepared for was going down the torture section of scree. Your feet just slide and slide (see the video). I, however, was determined to get down as fast as possible. By the time you get through the third section (boulder section), your legs are so shaky you can barely keep yourself up. I passed lots of people, and you could see their legs shaking, just like mine, with every step. I hiked as fast as I could, without actually running, the whole way down. I just wanted to get to Devils Lake to cool my feet and body in the water. After about two and a half hours, I made it down and soaked in the lake. It felt so very nice! I then had two and a half hours to rest and soak before the last two guys made it back to the van.
Update: Now that I have finished typing this story I think I may do it again if any of my kids ever decide they want to climb it. I would love to do that with them!
Videos from the trip…
Map and GPX File
(Information generated from GPX files)
Max elevation: 10361 ft
Min elevation: 5449 ft
Total climbing: 5548 ft
Total descent: -761 ft
Total Time: 04:35:06
Max elevation: 10361 ft
Min elevation: 5456 ft
Total climbing: 322 ft
Total descent: -5203 ft
Total Time: 02:52:18