A stunning late-season hike

Late summer is a great time for Tam McArthur Rim

By Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin

I woke up on Friday morning to see streaks of rain dripping down my windows and a solid gray sky overhead. I had plans to meet my dad for a hike, but the weather made me worry. We were planning to hike to Tam McArthur Rim, high in the Cascades. The foreboding weather seemed like a warning sign. I pictured us stuck up on a rocky cliff, wind howling, rain swirling around us.

But that's the thing about late summer. By the time morning stretched toward midday, the rain was long gone and the clouds were scattering.

After some consideration, Dad and I decided to give it a go.

And, man, am I glad we did.

The day turned into one of those absolutely perfect late-summer hiking days. I think this time of year offers the best hiking conditions. It's a perfect window between the heat of summer and the snows of November. The temperatures are usually mild. And the crowds and bugs of summer are gone.

Tam McArthur Rim is one of my favorite hikes. In less than 3 miles (5.5 miles out and back), you scale to the top of a high rock rim and from there can take in spectacular views of not only the Cascades but all of Central Oregon, from Smith Rock to Paulina Peak.

The hike

After meeting in Sisters, my dad and I headed south on Forest Road 16 to Three Creek Lake. As you drive, you slowly gain elevation, heading toward the mountains. About two miles from the lake, the road turns to gravel.

We parked near the edge of Three Creek Lake, which itself is well worth visiting. The small, crystal-clear lake, featuring lovely sandy beaches, is surrounded by trees, meadows with flowing creeks and the high, striking cliffs of Tam McArthur Rim.

The Tam McArthur Rim hike steadily climbs more than 1,200 feet in elevation from the lake to the top of the ridge, which is at about 8,000 feet.

Most of the year, this ridge sits under snow. There is a relatively short window from mid-August to late September or early October to catch the area snow-free. On our hike we saw a few clumps of hail from a storm that came through the previous night.

From the trailhead, the path quickly and steadily climbs up a hillside. We encountered a few switchbacks, but the trail was more complicated and interesting than a simple zigzag, back-and-forth pattern. Up it led across slabs of rock and through stands of subalpine fir.

Every 30 minutes or so we stopped briefly to suck in some air and take a few gulps of water. We were quite thankful for the cool, autumnlike temperatures. Hiking this trail in the glare of full summer sun would not be pleasant for me.

As we climbed higher and higher we passed gnarled whitebark pine trees, which Dad said are the last trees that grow along the treeline at high elevations. As we began to emerge from the treeline, we saw great views of Broken Top peeking up over the rim. A wisp of cloud clung to the top of the mountain. Dad and I both thought it looked just like Mount Doom from “The Lord of the Rings.” We're dorks like that.

About half a mile or so before the rim came the worst section of trail. We slowly scuttled up, up, up the loose dirt hill. It felt like walking on a sand dune. I'm sure there are hundreds of Bendites who could run up this steep slope without a second thought, but it left me seriously huffing. Not too much farther, though, came the payoff — seemingly all the more spectacular because we'd had to work for it.

First, the trail leads to the edge of the rim, where we gazed down to see Three Creek Lake far below. It looked heart-shaped from so high up. Just beyond is the equally lovely Little Three Creek Lake. Looking past the lake, we traced the outline of last year's massive Pole Creek Fire. From here we could look west and see the detailed crags of the rim's largest cliff area, which kind of juts out over the rest of the rim like a knob.

The trail continues on a bit, until you get to a sign that says “trail ends here.” The sign sits at the edge of the rocky knob-like outcropping. We walked past the sign onto the flat top of the knob. The views from here are simply incredible. To the west we could see the Three Sisters and Broken Top. There was Mount Washington and Black Butte. But we could also see as far as Smith Rock to the north and Paulina Peak to the south. I felt as if I could see all of Central Oregon before me.

Dad and I sat down and enjoyed a break. With big grins on our faces, we chomped down some snacks. I love the sense of accomplishment that comes after a great workout that ends with breathtaking views.

The way down was quick. Before we knew it, we were back at the car and ready to plan our next adventure.

Tam McArthur Rim

Difficulty: Moderate

Directions: From Sisters, head south on Forest Road 16 (Elm Street in Sisters). About two miles from the trailhead, the road becomes gravel. The road ends at Three Creeks Lake. Look for parking and the trailhead on the left side of the road.

Cost: Free, self-issued wilderness permit required

Contact: 541-549-7700