The Three Sisters have proper names: Faith (North), Hope (Middle), and Charity (South). But nobody ever uses them because they’re terrible. I like the family thing, but it feels weird to name mountains after dead virtues. I’m not even sure that they are virtues.* When old ways get a little wobbly, I somehow always want to invoke the Brady Brunch, so I prefer to call the mountains Marcia (North), Jan (Middle), and Cindy (South). Those girls had real virtues. Or, at least, Cindy did. Plus, the naming convention provides proper names for geological features that previously only had relational ones: The Husband is Mike, The Wife is Carol, Little Brother is Bobby, Bachelor is Sam the Butcher…
Anyway. There’s a very nice ~50 mile trail around the Three Sisters, but, at the rate I walk, that’s a little long for a weekend. So, stealing from someone on Portland Hikers, a couple months (!) ago we set out for a quick, three night loop around North and Middle Sisters. The basic idea was to start at Pole Creek, take the Green Lakes Trail north to Scott Trail, follow Scott Trail west-ish to the PCT, ramble south down the PCT to Reese Lake, turn left on the unofficial but obvious trail from Reese Lake to Chambers and Camp Lakes, and finally walk down the Camp Lake trail back to Pole Creek.
Just in case that’s confusing, here’s a map:
We left Portland way before the sun came up, and were at Pole Creek by around eight. I’d never been there before. The place was packed. We were thinking it must have been some sort of aberration, but an apparently long-suffering ranger told us that it gets much, much worse. He was right: when we got back on Monday, cars were parked a quarter mile down the road. Whew! The trailhead bathroom does have some of the best graffiti I’ve ever seen, though.
The area between Park Meadows and a little before the Scott Trail got hit really hard by the Pole Creek Fire, and the first few miles of this hike are through very recent burn. It opened up the views, but still makes for sort of dreary going.
After a couple easy, ashy miles we stopped at Alder Creek for some lunch. Before the fire, this must have been a wonderful place to camp.
Then it was just more of the same to the end of burn area and the beginning of the Scott Trail. There’s not a lot of scenery, but we did see this little guy – a Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard. Handsome fella!
According to The Deschutes Land Trust:
The pygmy short-horned lizard indeed ranges throughout much of the open, semi-arid sagebrush-juniper country of the Northwest. But it also occurs in sunny clearings among pine woods on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains. Surprisingly, populations even manage to survive along the Cascade crest, nearly to timberline at about 7,000-feet elevation. In that harsh alpine environment with it’s relatively short warm season, these hardy little lizards probably spend more time in hibernation each year than out basking in sunshine. Recent studies indicate that when winter arrives short-horned lizards bury themselves in sand a mere four or five inches deep, freezing solid as an ice-cube for months at a time. Then when the renewing warmth of spring arrives, they thaw out and become active again, dining on their primary food, ants. As an adaptation to a limited high-elevation breeding season, these lizards bear live young rather than laying eggs (ovoviviparous) and have a relatively short reproductive cycle.
We invited the dude to come with us, but to no avail. Oh well. On to Scott Pass and South Matthieu Lake. The lakes were, as expected, totally packed. We camped just west of the pass, at a nice campsite overlooking… um, some hills that I don’t know the names of. There’s also a (use?) trail that goes south from the pass, which has both good spots and great views of North Sister. If I’m in the area again, I’ll probably camp there.
with views of Mount Washington…
and North Sister…
and the sunset.
The night was windy. Like: bend your tent poles windy. We woke up to overcast skies that looked about ready to pop, put on our rain gear, and headed south on the PCT. We quickly went from being under clouds to in clouds to somehow both in clouds and dumped on by clouds.
“Maybe we can walk through it?” [Krista interjects: Note my ridiculous optimism in keeping my sunglasses out and accessible.]
We couldn’t walk through it. Passing over Opie Dilldock Pass, the rain turned to something closer to snow or hail and suddenly I couldn’t stop shivering. It’s weird how quickly it happened. One moment I was happily taking pictures of lava and the next I couldn’t move my hands. We stopped in some trees just below the pass and I put on every piece of clothing I had. I play this game with myself when things are bad, where I talk about the situation in past tense. “Remember that time you almost got hypothermia in the Three Sisters? That was hilarious.” Or: “Remember that time you got snowed on in September? So weird!” Or: “Remember that time you walked through clouds for ten miles, but it turned out okay?” We ate lunch and I did jumping jacks, then we left, thinking that sitting around wasn’t doing our body temperatures any favors.
We motored down the pass and through the Obsidian Limited Entry Zone, where we met a ton of very unhappy day hikers. As we were passing one group of Bro Dudes all in camo, one looked at me and asked indignantly if this was supposed to be fun. “Remember that time you ran into those assholes in the freezing rain, then laughed to yourself so hard that you actually warmed up for a minute?”
After leaving the limited entry zone, we started to look for a spot to hunker down – casually at first, then with increasing desperation. At one point Krista sat down while I went looking around, but she had to get up because stopping for too long made the shivering worse. I don’t usually get scared in the wilderness. In fact, I should probably get scared more often. But I was really scared. After another couple shivering miles, we found a place – not flat, exactly, and definitely not sheltered, but it would do. We’d made the totally rookie mistake of not bringing pack covers, so most of our stuff was soaked. “Remember that time we set up the already wet tent in the rain, then spent the next few hours shivering in our soaked sleeping bags?” Or: “Remember that time our tent turned into a swamp?” Or: “Remember that time neither of us could move our hands well enough to pull our water from our backpacks, so we just poked our hydration hoses through the tent zipper? That was a crazy night.”
We woke up Sunday to gloriously… well, okay, it wasn’t really gloriously anything, but at least it wasn’t raining. We yard saled our stuff for a while trying to dry it out, but the morning was cold enough that things weren’t really evaporating. But, again, at least it wasn’t raining. And, as we stuffed wet clothes into wet packs and started the wet walk down to Linton Meadows and Reese Lake, that was enough.
“Look at where we are!”
“The sun exists!”
After a little wandering around, we found Reese Lake, just south of Linton Meadows, and sat down for a wonderful, and wonderfully dry, breakfast. It’s funny how much a little sun can mean sometimes.
After a ridiculously long break for breakfast and coffee and snacks and drying clothes and and and… we found the trail up to Chambers Lakes, and headed off. I was worried about route finding, but, from the south shore of the lake, things were exceptionally clear.
The area between Reese and Chambers Lakes – from Separation Creek to the Frazier Uplands – is one of the prettiest places I’ve been to in the Three Sisters.
Views of South Sister and The Husband were just fantastic. The trail was a lot easier than I expected, but it still took a while to get up, mostly because I was lagging at every possible chance, taking “just one more.”
Mike, in his Sunday best.
Cindy, still a little sad to be left out.
After what seemed like just a short stroll, we came to the first of the Chambers Lakes. There were a few pretty great campsites in the trees on the northwest ridge above the lake, so we decided to call it a (very short) day, and spend the afternoon loafing around, drying our clothes.
I really love this side of Cindy.
And look at Jan!
We finished the day with a short sunset stroll down to the lake, with flowers and snow and clear, starry skies.
The night was cold but calm. We woke up early, then made our way through the basin and down to Camp Lake for some breakfast. On the way, the meltwater streams had frozen.
There are actually a bunch of Chambers Lakes. In our basin, there were two, which I’ll (unimaginatively) call west (where we stayed) and east (a little further along).
East, with Jan looking over its shoulder.
The trail down from the Chambers Lakes basin to Camp Lake is a little steep. It was no problem, but if it were earlier in the year and there were snow, I’d definitely want some sort of traction.
“You want me to go down what?”
Camp Lake is beautiful, but it almost came close to Green Lakes for overcrowding. We were happy to have stayed higher up, but happy too to have some coffee on the shore.
The walk back to the Pole Creek TH was pretty uneventful. There are a few great views, and a few beautiful streams, but the crowd was so thick that it felt a little like a theme park. I guess everybody loves the Brady Bunch.
Here’s Jan and Marcia, with a few guest stars thrown in for color.
Marcia insisted on a closeup.
North Fork Squaw Creek (couldn’t figure out a clever name there).
Soap Creek (there either).
In the last couple miles back to the trailhead, we leapfrogged a little with the most wonderful pair: a young-ish father and his son, maybe three or four years old. The dad had an unbelievably overloaded backpack – a huge tent, sleeping pads, several stuffed animals, the works – but seemed happy to be out all the same. The kid had a tiny pack, maybe just a teddy bear and a juice box or something. They were walking down the trail holding hands. “Remember when we saw the sweetest thing?”
* Hope might be. Adrienne Martin’s got a great recent-ish book about hope where she argues that, at base, hoping involves treating one’s beliefs about the desirability of a particular outcome as reasons for acting as though that outcome is more likely than it actually is. That seems right to me. And, insofar as it’s right, hoping seems like less of a virtue and more a form of self-delusion. It might be that hoping is tied up with intentionality in interesting ways – so, for example, hoping might provide otherwise missing reasons to undertake risky but desirable actions – but, on it’s own, I don’t think hoping is worth much.