South Sister Summit and Circumnavigation

The idea for this route started  formulating in my mind about a year ago. Having done the circumnavigation by itself twice as well as summiting South Sister numerous times I was thinking about more challenging and epic routes in that area. It occurred to me by putting these together it would be an awesome route. I then did some searching on Strava and elsewhere and it appeared nobody had completed this route before so I became all the more intrigued. Then when covid-19 hit this year and many runners took up FKTs (fastest known times) as a replacement for cancelled ultra marathons the seed was planted.  Therefore this write up is not just about my experience but also a guide for those who might like to do the route as an FKT attempt. 

The route begins and ends at South Sister Climbers Trail #36 near Devils Lake by the posted signs. I began my journey on October 31st at 6:19 am.

Official start and finish.

This route to the top of South Sister is popular not only with runners but with hikers too as it does not require any climbing gear, just a healthy set of lungs and stamina.   Because of its popularity during the height of summer one can literally get caught in conga lines on the final push to the summit so I decided to start the route with the climb instead of ending with it. This way one can plan a pre-dawn start and miss the biggest crowds. It’s approximately 5.5 miles to the summit and 4,500 feet of elevation gain. The trail starts by going through forest and gnarly roots are frequently entrenched across the path. It’s actually helpful at times as I use them like steps going up but makes for a tricky descent on the way back.   After about 1.5 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I reached the junction for Moraine Lake Trail and continued straight. Even at this time of year there were already a few other people on the trail and at about 3.5 miles in I came upon a most unusual and comical scene. Four costumed hikers taking photographs of themselves as they hiked up South Sister. Well it is Halloween and they found a novel way to celebrate.

Happy Halloween on the mountain.

After my chuckles subsided it was back to work. The trail from this point on continues to steepen with plenty of opportunities to challenge my rock scrambling abilities. However I couldn’t help myself but to keep pausing to take in the magnificent views.

The moon set while the sun continued to rise.
Sunrise with Mt. Bachelor to the left.
Sunrise selfie.

Soon after this selfie I came to a steep ridge that blocked out the view of South Sister. After clambering up with a few slips I popped up on top with views of the Lewis Tarn fed by Lewis Glacier and a magnificent view of the last ridge to the top.

South Sister ridge to summit, Lewis Glacier and Lewis Tarn.

The way up to the top is self evident as one just follows the ridge line. However it is quite steep and full of scree and this particular morning I had an added bonus of frozen ice on many of the rocks. Fortunately is was quite early so the sun did not have a chance to start melting the ice but I made sure to be extra careful.

Ridge line to the summit.
Scree and ice.

Finally after some lung burning effort I came to the top of the caldera. This however is not the turn around point. Most times up here I make a point for hiking around the entire caldera counter clockwise.

Caldera and ridge to follow to the right towards summit.

Runners doing the FKT route might be tempted to dart straight across the caldera if the water there is frozen over but for safety and for the fantastic views I ask you to stick to the ridge. After all the reason I chose the route for this journey was in large part for the scenery and believe me you won’t regret it. Usually the path along the ridge is self evident if not covered by snow and ice. This will take you towards the actual summit.

Path to summit.

No need to climb to the highest part but when you come to this view of Middle and North Sisters you can stop.

Middle Sister and North Sisters view and turn around point.

Taking a few minutes to take in the seemingly endless views I also peered to the areas I’d later be traveling as I looped around this volcanic mountain. After exchanging pleasantries with the only other person at this time on the mountain I briefly admired the tear drop pool which happens to be Oregon’s highest lake before making my way back.

Treading careful back along caldera rim.
Another view from the caldera before heading back down.

I returned as I came and began my descent back to the glacial lake at the base of Lewis Glacier. Fortunately the crusty ice that clung to the edge of many rocks was feeling tacky when I had to step on them so my descent was slow but uneventful.

Upon reaching the glacial lake I began following the unnamed trail which is on the east side and then followed the intermittent cairns heading to Green Lakes. There is a Strava segment called Lewis Glacier Toe to Dubious Crossing. The dubious part I believe refers to the rock and scree one has to descend all the way to Green Lakes.

I highly recommend one carry a gps track of this section of the trail. Although the way is marked with cairns and most of the time you have a trail to follow sometimes I find it gets tricky. The first time I tried this descent I really didn’t know which way to go and got myself into a precarious situation. So be forewarned, study the map, look for the cairns and refer to the gps if you are unsure. Other then that it’s a peace of cake! Ha, ha!

Look for the cairns.

Just after I rounded away from Lewis Glacier I decided to shed some layers as the temperature went from about freezing at the summit to above 40 degrees. I also needed to shake out some small pebbles from my shoes and took the opportunity to grab a quick snack. If one has gaiters it would be well worth it to wear them as this was one of several times I had to empty my shoes of unwanted stow aways. The way follows a stream that eventually becomes a waterfall, depending on time of year, and is a good source of water when available or one can wait as I did to refill at Green Lakes. I used a filter as it’s always best to be cautious when dipping and sipping. As I began my way down another volcanic peak Broken Top looms in the distance but today’s adventure will keep me from climbing that mountain.

The end of the Dubious descent.

After numerous slips, stops to seek the trail and careful maneuvering I come to the end of the scree. I follow the trail towards southern most part of the largest section of Green Lakes, there are three main bodies of water, and cross at Fall Creek. I take a short look at South Sister and grin with satisfaction and on most days this would have been close to the end of my trip. However now it is time to start running around this big girl so I then pick one of the trail connectors to hook up with Green Lakes Trail that follows the east side of the lakes.

Fall Creek and South Sister.

There are several trails to choose from that connect to Green Lakes Trail and I take the less direct one so I can pass by the small lake with an awesome view of Broken Top looming above. For those running the FKT you can choose any of the others just please stay on a trail as this is a fragile environment. Now begins the circumnavigation of South Sister and the trail now allows for some faster running. I continue north on Green Lakes Trail towards Park Meadows junction about  4 miles away. 

A classic view of Green Lakes and South Sister.
An unnamed lake along the trail.

Upon reaching the Park Meadows junction I follow the trail markers to stay north on Green Lakes trail for another 5 miles to Camp Lake Trail.  The trail from Green Lakes up until this point has been very runnable and I expected it to continue mostly this way until the Camp Lake trail 5 miles away. Little did I know just how wrong my assumption was. After running about another half mile or so I began entering a large burn area. The charred landscape is the result of the 2012 Pole Creek fire and although that was eight years ago many dead trees still stand. During the winter months and probably spring and summer too strong winds have knocked numerous trees down. This is not unexpected however due to the covid-19 pandemic I believe the National Forest rangers and volunteers have not been able to come in and clear this area. My expectation of going through this 4.5 mile section rather easily became anything but.

Downed trees obstructing the trail.

Not only did I have to climb over, under and around more trees than I care to remember on two occasions I had to stop and search for the trail. It literally seemed to vanish into the log jumbles. I expect it may be some time before these get cleared out so be prepared to have some patience. I will try and remember to offer some help to restore this section of trail once trail work begins again. Those who live in the area might want to consider as well.

Despite the many burned trees in places it was quite evident that the forest was on its way to making a comeback.

After getting through the last of these downed trees I finally came to the Camp Lake Trail. At this trail junction Soap Creek meanders by and I considered topping my water off but the smell of horse manure had me reconsider. I didn’t want to take time to go upstream so I continued on knowing there would be another opportunity about 3.5 miles away at North Fork Whychus creek. From this point on until entering the chamber lakes area the trail would continue up from an elevation of 5,500 feet to about 7,200 feet, the highest point since summiting South Sister. Mercifully the trail was mostly clear of trees and I could focus more on steadying my uphill pace than going over obstacles. As I drew nearer to Camp Lake I came up a ridge and had wonderful views of Middle and South Sisters. Such a contrast from the aerial view from early this morning to this lower one.

As I neared Camp Lake I looked for the sign indicating which way the trail continued and as the sign says it is unmaintained. However plenty of people do hike this way so it’s fairly easy to follow along the lake.

Sign post just before Camp Lake.

It was nearing 2 pm at this time and although I had been taking some gels and bars and even one mozzarella stick wrapped in prociutto ( I love those from Trader Joe’s) my stomach was craving some real food. So I took what felt like a luxurious 15 minute break and found a flat rock to eat the half burrito I’d been carrying all these hours. When I took my first mouthful as always it immediately reminded me it was worth the extra bit of weight.

Lunchtime!

I also took the opportunity to take off my shoes, eat some more sugary snacks, took a salt capsule and gorged myself on the nice ice cold water from the lake. The sun was getting low in the autumn sky and I knew I had a lot of miles and some rugged terrain to still get through. Once past Camp Lake I climbed a steep ridge and just beyond this point was the access to the Chamber Lakes area. It would be a bit slow going for the next 4.5 miles until I hooked up to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Steep ridge towards Chamber Lakes area.
View of Camp Lake.

The way on from here is pretty straight forward as you keep South Sister on your left and Middle Sister to your right and eventually you hit the PCT.

Another view of South Sister, about 3/4 way done with the circumnavigation.

I am able to continue following the trail and stop to admire the view which mercifully is now downhill. Full of rocks but downhill none the less.

I stay to the left and above the first emerald green lake in the distance and stay up on the trail before going over the ridge. I pause to decide which way to continue as it seems a path continues through rocks on the edge above the basin I’ve come to as well as a path heading down into it. I then remember I’ve previously dropped into the basin as although it’s full of rocks I can run slowly through them and avoid climbing them until farther up about a half mile away. I look at the steep grade and cautiously step forward and sure enough I take a spill. I stick out my right arm to break my fall and jam my shoulder but fortunately stop on the spot. I had a feeling that was going to happen but I counted myself lucky as it was my first and to be only fall of the day.

Second larger Chamber Lake and basin I just ran through.

I found the trail again as sometimes people do camp in this basin, although I’d be a bit nervous about an unexpected stray boulder coming down the mountain while lying in my tent, and continued to another large pile of boulders. Fortunatley there were plenty of cairns and I made my way to the next ridge and kept to the left. On my first time through this area I lost the path up on the ridge and kept to the right. I was able to make my way but was a bit slower so be sure to stay to the left and you’ll have an easier time following the trail. After dropping through some moss covered trees the trail once again became easier to run on and was flatter the rest of the way to the PCT.

An interesting geological formation.
Another view of South Sister and almost to the Pacific Crest Trail.

As I finally came up to a trail junction I hung left onto the PCT and was back on some nice single track. The remaining distance of the route would be mostly like this, fairly smooth and runnable.

Forest along the PCT trail.

I now continued about 5.5 miles until the Le Conte Crater Trail.

Making my way towards the Wikiup Plain and Le Conte Crater.

The sun was setting fast and the light was creating beautiful highlights on the higher ridges and mountains. After getting to Le Conte Crater Trail I ran on sandy, gravel covered terrain to Moraine Lake trail. Despite a low battery I turned my phone back on to get some last photos of South Sister before the alpenglow dissappeared.

South Sister bathed in the setting sunlight.

This view momentarily made me forget my tired legs. The trail still had some hills although not as steep but having been out running and tramping around for almost 12 hours now these last few miles were tough. After 2.6 miles I made my way back to the intersection of the Climbers Trail and felt a sense of jubilation because I was almost done. I passed a hiker with a radio booming and for me that just seems wrong. I much prefer the sounds of the natural environment over any human sounds and to fully immerse myself in what Nature offered. Ah well, to each his own. I stopped one last time to again empty some gravel in my shoe and put on my headlamp. I had hoped to get through this last mile and half without it but I didn’t quite manage to go fast enough. I put it to it’s highest setting and made my way down the steep path, gingerly climbing over the many tree roots until finally hearing the sound of a small creek which told me the finish was finally at hand. I smiled and took a selfie which didn’t come out very well and headed back to my vehicle.

I do advise that this is not a run for new trail runners. Be sure you are capable of all the climbing, route finding and other unexpected obstacles you may encounter. Have a good map and gps of the route with you. Not trying to discourage anyone but just be prepared. I myself hope to try it again one day and will take fewer photos, well maybe, and try to better my time. It was a long but blissful way to spend the day and I hope my write up and images inspire some of you to try this route. I know there are plenty of capable runners in my own town who could probably knock off a couple hours from my time and look forward to seeing what others can do. Happy trails!

Some Data

  • Elapsed Time: 12 hrs 20 min 38 sec
  • Distance: 37.30 miles
  • Elevation gain: 9,232 feet
  • Elevation loss: 9,380 feet
  • Maximum elevation: 10,169 feet
  • Minimum elevation: 5,312 feet
  • Average pace 19:51/mi
  • Average moving pace 16:34/mi
  • Approximate calories burned 5,624
  • Ran unsupported

Nutrition

  • HUMA chia energy gels x 4 (could have used 6)
  • RXBAR x 3
  • 1 Honey Stinger Waffle
  • 3/4 of a beef burrito
  • 1 Mozzarella Prosciutto stick
  • Water: approximately 3 liters
  • 1 salt tab

Equipment

  • Black Diamond Distance 15 pack
  • 1 bladder pack
  • 2 Hand held bottles with one having a Katadyn BeFree water filter
  • Hiking poles – one Leki pole one Black Diamond, each of those the other broke and time to replace.
  • Saucony Peregine 10 shoes
  • Short sleeve as well as long sleeve tech shirt
  • Salomon rain shell
  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Hand warmers (did not use)

Some Links

My run submitted to FKT (Fastest Known Time)

My STRAVA link

My Garmin link

GPS on GAIA link

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