Saturday, September 20, 2014

Exclamation Mark! - South Sister Summit Hike Review

Starting out.  Not sweaty or tired yet. 
Did you know you can hike to the summit of Oregon's third tallest mountain peak? 

Neither did I until a couple of years ago.  When I found out the summit of the South Sister was accessible via a hiking trail that did not require mountain climbing gear, I freaked out.  Then added it to my list of things I just HAD to do while living here.

Last summer (August of 2013) was our weekend to summit the South Sister. says this about the South Sister trail, "Admittedly the trail up 10,358 foot South Sister is exceedingly steep, long and rugged, but no technical climbing skills are required and the rewards are great."  I wanted IN on those rewards.

Curt and I set the kids up with some cool people to take care of them and headed to Central Oregon.  We scrapped our original plan to backpack because Curt's Jeep was dying a slow and painful death and we had to spend time in Bend researching new vehicles.  It was a blessing in disguise though because we stumbled upon Hosmer Lake, a "hidden jewel of green and blue surrounded by dark forests."  

Further off the beaten path than Elk Lake, the campground around Hosmer Lake has large, secluded camp sites.  The one we selected was like having the campground entirely to ourselves.  Really private.  Really beautiful.  Really quiet.  Perfect for a getaway centered around time together and without the chaos of our large family.  

The only drawback to Hosmer Lake is that it's not a swimming lake.  The campground hosts told us it has leeches in it and that if we wanted to swim we should go to nearby Elk Lake.  So we did.

We slept like babies on our new camping cots (why on earth did we wait so long to invest in cots?!?) and were at the South Sister Summit Trailhead by 8 a.m. the following morning.

Our hiking map suggest the South Sister Summit as a possible hike. Techinical skill was marked "Advanced" and the Aerobic category was listed as "Strenuous!"   We both laughed at the exclamation mark.  It was the only hike on the map with an exclamation mark. 

Let me tell you - we earned that exclamation mark!  It was a "strenuous!" hike.

The South Sister Summit trail is only open August through mid-October.  The "extremely difficult trail to the summit gains a staggering 4,900 feet of elevation in 5.5 miles." All hiking books and guides make sure to give this warning:  "Do NOT attempt to climb the summit in anything but perfect weather.  If there is a cloud on the summit, even on an otherwise sunny day, hikers could well encounter a blizzard whiteout at the top."  

  • Trail shoes.  We each hiked in our favorite trail shoes.  Most hikers wore hiking boots, but a good solid pair of trail shoes will get you there and back.
  • Gaiters.  Gaiters are protective coverings that go over the top of your hiking shoes and socks.  They prevent trail debris from sneaking inside your shoes and socks.  We don't own gaiters and didn't buy any, but they sure would have come in handy on this hike.  The cinder scree (rocky, lava soil toward the top of the mountain) filled our shoes on the ascent and descent.
  • Hiking Poles.  We borrowed hiking poles for this trip and they were crucial.  We relied heavily on them for a big portion of the ascent and the descent.  Having the extra support and balance saved us both from multiple would-be falls on the trail.  I wouldn't do South Sister without hiking poles.
  • Backpacks.  Every hiker on the mountain needs a backpack stocked with layers of clothing (it's cold at the top), a lunch, hearty snacks, a whistle (in case you get lost), a poncho to keep dry in case of emergency, and some toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
  • WATER.  Hiking guides recommend a minimum of two quarts of water per hiker for this hike.  We brought our backpacking water filter and were so grateful we did because we filled up our 48 ounce water bottles multiple times on the trail.  We couldn't stop drinking water.  We also filtered water for several unprepared hikers who were really suffering because they were so thirsty.  Do NOT mess around on this trail.  Bring more than enough water and food.
  • Camera.  Why would you put yourself through so much work and not take pictures at the top?  Reviews say you can see half the state of Oregon from the summit.  It might be an exaggeration, but maybe not.  It was impressive.

The day we hiked South Sister wispy clouds swirled around and past the summit.  Hoards of hikers were hitting the trail, so we decided it was safe enough to give it a go.  We parked in the Devils Lake Trailhead parking lot and started hiking from that point.  12.5 mile round trip to see it all.
Heading out.
The trail crosses a little creek and then launches straight uphill through thick and dense forest with no view of mountains.  Our hiking book (100 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades by William L. Sullivan), our hiking map, and the trip reviews we read all stated that this first 1.5 miles is a litmus test for the remainder of the hike.  If the hike through the dense woods feels too difficult, stop at Morraine Lake for lunch and head back to your car.  
We assumed that the moss on the trees shows how high the snow is in the winter.  For frame of reference, Curt is 6' 3".
It was tough.  Hard, sweaty work putting one foot in front of the other on steep terrain to get out of the woods and into a sandy plateau that showcases Morraine Lake, South Sister looming straight ahead, and Broken Top to the right.  We couldn't believe how spectacular it was once we got out of the woods.

take note of the wispy clouds at the summit
The plateau offers a respite for burning legs too.  Nice and flat, it's a great place to catch your breath and eat lunch or a snack.  After our break we continued climbing.  The terrain on the trail changed the further up we got.  What used to be hard packed dirt changed to sandy, lava rock that shifted under our feet.  The grade of the trail was STEEP.  It took us a long time to pick our way up another 1.1 miles to the saddle overlooking a glacier lake so green that it didn't look real.

portion of the trail between the plateau and the glacial lake

From the glacier lake we followed a rocky trail to the left, up the spine of the ridge.  The lip of the South Sister crater (we called it a false summit) is .7 miles from the glacial lake, but it felt much farther.  It was .7 miles of one step forward, slide back half the distance.  The shifty, rocky soil turned dark red.  We learned its called cinder scree and it is really difficult to hike in.  The trail is narrow and there are lots of hikers on it.  Everyone was courteous of each other and no one went fast.  
the ridge spine above the glacial lake
one of my favorite photos from the hike.  This photo is not color enhanced.  It really looks like this.
The air was thinner and Curt started to experience some altitude sickness - dizziness and light-headed feeling.  We found a nice rhythm of taking ten or so steps then stopping to rest.   We did a happy dance when we reached the top.  The hardest part was over.
almost there.  That's the glacial lake we just hiked past.
the last .7 miles up the ridge were tough!
the lip of the crater of South Sister.  That little blue section on the bottom left is Teardrop Pool
A tiny lake called Teardrop Pool sits inside the South Sister Crater, surrounded by unmelted snow pack. We filtered more water to drink from Teardrop Pond and stopped to take bazillions of pictures.  It was COLD and windy at the summit and we couldn't believe how fast we cooled off.  We reached the lip of the crater dripping sweat.  Within minutes we were both wearing every layer we packed, including stocking hats and gloves.  Be prepared!   

all these pictures were taken at the lip of the crater.
The official summit was .4 miles further around the crater.  We hiked the trail along the right edge of the crater toward the summit. It was slow going because of the altitude, the wind, and the breathtaking views that we wanted to really absorb. Plus we were starving and I was getting "hangry."  
working our way to the official summit.
We decided to stop for lunch first and then finish our journey to the summit.  Curt found this awesome nook in the rocks that was sheltered from the wind.  We nestled in and ate our lunch at the top of South Sister, staring down at the places we've backpacked already and getting a bird's eye view of all the places we've scouted out for future trips.  It really was surreal.

our lunch spots.  Not bad, eh?
While we were eating a summer storm rolled in.  The wispy, pretty clouds we saw from Morraine Lake got thicker.  The wind picked up.  The temperature dropped.  Middle and North Sister are so close to the South Sister that it looks like you can touch them, but the cloud cover from the storm completely obliterated the view before I was able to get any good photos.  
making our way to the official summit we had a few clouds 
that quickly turned to this 
and finally this. 
The little bumps on the ridge are hikers.  This is the official summit.
We stayed for about fifteen minutes hoping the storm would roll out, but instead it seemed to get worse.  Hikers packed up and left in droves, and we joined them.  A good picture wasn't worth the risk of getting stuck in a storm.  Plus now I have to do it again for the photo op that I missed out on.

The descent shreds your quads and is almost as slow going as the ascent.  With the rocky terrain constantly shifting under our feet, each step was unstable, and the grade of the trails was just so steep.    We had to be really calculated and even then we relied heavily on our poles to not fall.  We joined the other hikers who were slipping, sliding and tripping back down to the glacial lake.  
Curt on the descent.
coming down you get a really great view of all the ground you covered to get to the top.
working our way back down.  That's Broken Top.  
We stopped again at the glacial lake for a break and to refill our water bottles.  The next portion of the trail had less cinder scree but was still brutally steep.  It's hard to stay balanced and upright on unstable ground and we both tripped and fell a couple of times.  Nothing injured except our pride.  

It was a welcome relief to hit the plateau by Morraine Lake.  We ate one more snack and then hit the steep descent through the forest as hard and fast as we could.  The last 1.5 miles through the forest seemed to drag on forever.  Our legs were tired and the magnificent views were gone.  It was hard to stay motivated, but we finally saw the parking lot.   Mission accomplished!
exhausted but so satisfied!
We went to Elk Lake for an evening swim to wash off all the dirt and grime from our journey.  We stood on the water's edge and gazed up South Sister.  It was surreal to think that hours earlier we had lunch at the summit!  
night time swim
morning swim.  Checking out the mountain we climbed the day before.
The high from our adventure lasted for weeks.  It's part of why it took me so long to write about it.  How was I supposed to capture an adventure like this in a blog post of hopefully 1,000 words or less? 
I know we'll tackle the South Sister again, and hopefully soon.  I really want unobstructed photos from the summit and I'd love to take our kids with us.  I know they could do it if they set their minds to it.  It would be a really sweet memory to make together too.  Maybe next summer...

Happy hiking!


  1. Thanks for the great story. I have been looking for a blog of what others brought for gear and what they should have brought. As I read your story I could visualize the trail. Thanks again and keep writing these great stories.

  2. hey jodi was it easy to navigate on the trail? or should i get a map? or just print off your blog haha

    1. HI Amie. The trail was well marked and easy to navigate. With that said, I never attempt a hike without a map and/or a hiking guide with specific directions. This website has a link to a free map and a link to a recommended map that you can purchase. Happy hiking.