Climbing the Three Sisters: A Volcanic Adventure in Oregon’s Cascades

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In the heart of Oregon’s Cascade Range stand three majestic volcanic peaks known as the Three Sisters. Officially named North Sister, Middle Sister, and South Sister, with elevations around 10,000 feet, this closely grouped trio offers a diverse range of mountaineering experiences. From gentle ski slopes to technical ascents on crumbling rock, climbing the Three Sisters provides an unforgettable adventure for outdoor enthusiasts of varying skill levels. Let’s explore what makes this region so special and what it takes to reach the summits of these iconic Oregon volcanoes.

climbing the Three Sisters

The Three Sisters Region

The Three Sisters are located in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area just west of the town of Bend in central Oregon. Unlike most of the other widely spaced Cascade volcanoes, the Three Sisters are clustered closely together, disrupting the typical pattern. This area has seen the greatest number and variety of recent volcanic eruptions anywhere in the Cascades.

In addition to North, Middle, and South Sister, nearby volcanic peaks include Mt. Bachelor (with its popular ski resort) to the south and Broken Top to the southeast. The Three Sisters Wilderness, originally designated in 1937, surrounds the peaks and features an extensive network of about 240 miles of trails, including a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail.

South Sister: The Gentle Giant

At 10,358 feet, South Sister (also called Charity or Big Sister) is the highest of the trio and the least eroded, boasting the most extensive glacial cover. Its relatively moderate slopes make it a popular destination, often cited as the most frequently climbed glaciated peak in the U.S. after Mount St. Helens.

For mountaineers looking for a non-technical ascent, climbing the Three Sisters usually means heading up the South Sister’s south side from the Devil’s Lake or Green Lakes trailheads off the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. In summer, the summit crater even hosts Oregon’s highest lake, the Teardrop Pool. Winter ascents and ski descents of South Sister are also a favorite among the backcountry skiing community.

Middle Sister: The Overlooked Sibling

Middle Sister, at 10,047 feet, is perhaps the least remarkable and least frequently climbed of the Three Sisters. Most ascents are made via the non-technical but long and strenuous north or south ridges, making Middle Sister a popular goal for peak baggers aiming to complete the Three Sisters Marathon in a single push (more on that below).

North Sister: The “Black Beast”

In contrast to its more approachable siblings, 10,085-foot North Sister has a notorious reputation. Ominously known as Faith, the Ugly Sister, or “The Black Beast of the Cascades,” climbing the Three Sisters’ northernmost peak should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers comfortable with steep, loose, exposed terrain.

The crumbling rock and volcanic ash that makes up much of North Sister is often compared to a pile of kitty litter – not the most confidence-inspiring surface to climb. When snow-covered, these loose slopes are somewhat stabilized but require snow and ice climbing skills. The standard route’s Terrible Traverse and Bowling Alley features speak to the seriousness of the endeavor. While a successful North Sister summit is immensely rewarding, it’s critical to weigh the risks and know when to turn back.

The Three Sisters Marathon

For intrepid climbers seeking an extra challenge, climbing the Three Sisters in a single day, known as the Three Sisters Marathon, is an ambitious adventure. Covering roughly 16 miles with over 1,300 feet of elevation loss between North and Middle Sister and another 2,700 feet of loss from Middle to South Sister, this marathon is no cakewalk.

The typical route starts at Pole Creek Trailhead on the east side below North Sister, traversing all three peaks from north to south and descending the South Sister climber’s trail to Devil’s Lake Trailhead. With around 10 miles and 5,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain from the final summit to the trailhead, many hardy climbers opt to call it a (very full) day on Middle Sister. True gluttons for punishment sometimes add on Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor for the “Five Sisters Marathon.”

Planning Your Three Sisters Climb

When climbing the Three Sisters, it’s essential to be prepared with the right gear, permits, and information. Sturdy boots, trekking poles, and snow equipment for early-season ascents are a must. Fill out a free wilderness permit at the trailhead and carry plenty of water or a filter, as much of the route is dry.

The Obsidian Area near North Sister has a quota system limiting daily entries from June through October. Check in advance with the McKenzie Ranger Station in McKenzie Bridge for availability. Whenever and wherever you go in this region, practicing Leave No Trace principles helps protect this precious wilderness for all.

Embrace the Adventure

Climbing the Three Sisters is a rite of passage for many Oregon mountaineers and a worthy goal for visitors eager to experience the Cascades’ rugged volcanic beauty up close. Whether you’re making an early morning ascent of South Sister to catch the sunrise, taking on the Three Sisters Marathon, or testing your mettle on North Sister, a climb here is sure to challenge and inspire. As you follow in the footsteps of the indigenous people who first revered these peaks, and the countless modern climbers who’ve come since, remember to tread lightly, respect the mountain, and enjoy the incredible journey climbing the Three Sisters provides.