Climbing South Sister, Oregon

Katie and I both had the day off Friday, so we drove South with our tent trailer to Cultus Lake campground on Thursday night. We woke up early Friday morning to hike to the top of South Sister (also known by the name "Charity"), Oregon's third tallest peak at 10,358 feet in elevation. The approximately 5.5 mile long South Sister Climber trail # 36 (11 miles round-trip) starts at Devils Lake off the Cascade Lakes Highway and climbs nearly 4,900 feet to the summit. Although the trail to South Sister is rated as difficult due to the elevation gain and long length, no technical climbing skills are needed. South Sister is the youngest volcano (stratovocano) of the Three Sisters with North Sister being the oldest.

South Sister Climber Trail Elevation Profile

I wanted to get a really early start, but Katie was not too fond of the idea, so we compromised. We woke up at 5 AM, ate a quick breakfast, drove to the trailhead at Devils Lake, and started hiking shortly after 6:30 AM. The trail begins by crossing a small creek that flows into Devils Lake. There is no bridge, but a small log made crossing fairly easy. Before long, the trail crosses the highway and immediately begins to climb. There were a few patches of snow on the sides of the trail as we began.

South Sister Trailhead     South Sister Climber Trail # 36

Shortly after hiking above 6,000 feet in elevation, we hit solid snow. The trail was gone, but there was a fairly well-defined boot trail through the snow in the correct direction. The terrain leveled out at Wickiup Flats and we had our first glimpse of South Sister.

Snow on South Sister Trail at the End of July     South Sister Summit Sign

As we continued climbing, we had great views of Mount Bachelor, which we planned to climb on Saturday. We could also see Broken Top.

South Sister, Oregon     Mount Bachelor

We met several people on the trail and one gentleman was kind enough to snap a photo of Katie and I.

Jason and Katie in Front of South Sister     Broken Top

The views became increasingly splendid as we climbed higher towards the summit of South Sister.

Mount Bachelor Above Sparks Lake     Snowy Slope on the Way to the Summit of South Sister
Diamond Peak     Cascade Lakes Basin

The conditions were unusually snowy for considering it is almost August. Where wildflowers would normally be, there was still a couple feet of snow. The ridges, however, had melted out, creating a place for wildflowers to thrive in the short alpine growing season. Unfortunately that also meant there was scree for us to climb up. I had large dose of crumbly rock last weekend on North Sister and now Katie got to enjoy it first hand with me. Boy did she love (read:loathe) it!

Drummond's Anemone (Anemone drummondii) Wildflowers     Katie Charging up the Scree Slopes of South Sister
South Sister with Small Tarn Below     Katie Climbing Towards the Summit

I decided we should take a shortcut to the top, so instead of traversing to our left through more scree, we went straight, up kicking steps into the snow to the summit plateau. We made it to the summit in about 5 hours. Katie decided to rest instead of walking around the crater rim, so I scrambled off alone.

Summit Pinnacle (leftmost of the three)     Jason Standing on Summit Pinnacle with Middle Sister in the Background

The views North around the rim are amazing. Middle and North Sister are right in front of you. Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood and Mount Adams can all be seen, even with the hazy skies caused by the nearby wildfires. Tear Drop Pool (the highest lake in Oregon) was still frozen under several feet of snow.

Middle and North Sister with Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood in the Background     Frozen Tear Drop Pool

Before heading back we enjoyed lunch near the summit pinnacle while watching a couple people walk across the frozen summit plateau of South Sister. I was surprised how large and flat it actually is there.

Two People Walking Across the Summit Plateau     Katie Heading Down from South Sister

On the way down, we enjoyed a few sitting glissades using our now trusty glissade diaper sleds\>. It made our descent quicker, not to mention loads of fun.

Tarn Below South Sister     Katie Glissading Down Slopes of South Sister

Prior to heading back into the trees, we passed Moraine Lake which we had missed on the way up due to the path we took. It was still partially frozen.

Moraine Lake

Including our hour long stop at the summit, our round-trip took about 9 hours. The weather was beautiful starting off at about 38°F and finishing just below 80°F at Devils Lake. It was challenging at times with the scree, but well worth the effort.


Tim, Mon, 08/01/2011 - 18:50

We went up Shriner Peak in Mt Rainier Natl Park over the weekend and did not make it all the way up due to losing the trail in the snow. Any truth to 'avalanche conditions; on the South Sister trail?

jloomis, Mon, 08/01/2011 - 19:49

We did not observe any unstable snow on the South Sister trail, but the trail is obscured by snow much of the way. I did not see any sign of recent avalanches on the steeper slopes either.

I always have my GPS with me and often use it to be sure I am close to the trail. I highly recommend carrying a GPS on every hike (provided it is a model with trail maps).

Anonymous, Wed, 08/03/2011 - 23:56

Nice Pics! Would snowshoes be helpful on this hike? I would like to go in the next week or so. I don't have a GPS unit so hopefully the boot tracks are defined well enough to get to the top.

jloomis, Thu, 08/04/2011 - 05:13

Thanks. We had snowshoes with us, but did not use them. I would leave them at home. If you start early, microspikes would be helpful until the snow softens up in the morning sun. The trail is pretty straight forward, so you should be fine with out a GPS, but it is still a good idea to have at least a map and compass.

Anonymous, Tue, 08/09/2011 - 18:10

Thanks for that info. I hiked it on Saturday with microspikes and didn't have trouble staying on the trail.

Anonymous, Thu, 08/18/2011 - 12:42

What are the snow conditions like now? Does it make sense to snowboard down? Also are permits required?

jloomis, Thu, 08/18/2011 - 13:00

I have not been back to the Three Sisters area since my trip in July, so I am not sure of the current conditions. But, based on the warmer weather we have been having, I would imagine quite a bit of snow has melted since then. Therefore, I don't think skis or snowboards would be worth it at this point in the season.

Free self-issue wilderness permits are all that are required. They are available at the trailhead.

Anonymous Hiker, Fri, 09/09/2011 - 19:46

There is no snow along the lower part of the trail, though there are patches alongside the trail in a few cooler, shady places. The entire trail is dry and dusty. Just below the cirque at Lewis Glacier there is one unavoidable patch of snow which is not too hard to navigate, being a stretch of only about 20 - 25 feet, though it is a bit steep and slippery. No snow from the cirque to the summit. Just dry scree all the way.

Cameron, Fri, 06/29/2012 - 06:18

I found this blog when looking for more info on south sister climb. Me and another individual plan on doing climb in september. 2 question. Any known issues with theft in devils lake start point? How far is devils lake start point from bend on cascade lakes hwy. Excellent blog.
Thanks, Cameron.

jloomis, Fri, 06/29/2012 - 21:26

I do not know of a theft problem at Devils Lake, but you can never be too safe. Use common sense and never leave valuables in plain sight.

The South Sister Trailhead at Devils Lake is about a 45 minute drive from Bend (~30 miles) on the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. I suggest familiarizing yourself with the area and especially the route you plan to take to the summit. Always carry navigational aids like a compass, map, and GPS.

Good luck and I wish you a fantastic adventure!

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