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While the Three Sisters Wilderness near Bend offers easily accessible trails that lead to some dramatic alpine locales, hikers might want to venture farther south as summer winds down in Central Oregon.

Officials with the Deschutes National Forest are encouraging would-be hikers in the Three Sisters Wilderness to consider alternatives as a large chunk of the wilderness is closed and thick — even unsafe — smoke lingers from the Milli Fire southwest of Sisters. As of Wednesday, the fire was at more than 12,000 acres and 23 percent contained.

State Highway 242 west of Sisters, the scenic McKenzie Highway, is closed, cutting off access to numerous hiking trails at and around McKenzie Pass. West of Bend, popular trails such as Green Lakes, Broken Top and South Sister remained open as of Wednesday, but hikers there will likely have to deal with smoke.

A large swath of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, north of Sisters, also remains closed due to the Whitewater Fire.

Kassidy Kern, public affairs specialist for the Deschutes National Forest, recommended that hikers head south from Bend to other areas of the forest, such as the Diamond Peak Wilderness and the Mount Thielsen Wilderness.

“Diamond Peak is maybe not as dramatic views, and maybe not quite the climb, but there is still some beautiful areas in there,” Kern said this week. “You’re going to still get an overall nice experience. I would just really encourage people to go there and explore the trails. It’s a really good place for people to go to escape the smoke, but also to get out in the Central Oregon national forest.”

Diamond Peak Wilderness, west of Odell and Crescent lakes, straddles the Cascade Range and covers more than 50,000 acres. According to the Forest Service, about 14 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) pass through the wilderness, and another 38 miles of trail, including the 10-mile Diamond Peak Trail, stretch across the west side of the peak.

“There’s trails there that are moderate and anybody can do it,” Kern said. “I’ve taken my young son there.”

South of the Diamond Peak Wilderness is the Mount Thielsen Wilderness, which also includes more than 50,000 acres and runs along the Cascades just north of Crater Lake National Park. Climbers can reach the 9,182-foot summit of Mount Thielsen via a relatively moderate trail, though some technical rock climbing is required near the top. A nearly 30-mile segment of the PCT runs through the Mount Thielsen Wilderness, which also includes stretches of the scenic North Umpqua River Trail.

“In Central Oregon, we’re pretty spoiled in our communities,” Kern said. “Bend, Redmond, Sisters, La Pine, we all have very close access to the national forest. So going south, first of all, you might experience some different trails and find a new favorite. I think that we’re all pretty familiar with the trails along Cascade Lakes Highway. We’re all pretty familiar with the Black Butte climb, and South Sister and Mount Washington. It’s a really cool opportunity for people willing to do a bit longer drive to explore a different part of the forest.”

While several trails remain open in the Three Sisters and Mount Washington wilderness areas, Kern warned hikers and backpackers about potential unhealthy or hazardous air quality due to smoke from the fires.

“Not everything is closed west of Bend,” Kern noted Tuesday. “There are openings on Mount Washington (wilderness), but I would just be cautious about that because they’re harder to get to right now because of the closures. And smoke impacts in Jefferson and Three Sisters (wilderness areas) might be greater.”

Kern said the Milli Fire, which started Aug. 11, surprised fire and forest managers by how quickly it spread into the Three Sisters Wilderness. On Monday it burned close to Dee Wright Observatory atop McKenzie Pass, she added.

“I think that was anticipated to be a slower move,” Kern said. “(Monday) it made a big push and kind of fingered out very close to Lava Camp Lake, which is right by the Dee Wright Observatory. It’s really bumped out and now there are Level 1 (pre-evacuation) measures in place for Black Butte Ranch.”

Until the fire season settles down in Central Oregon, hikers would be wise to head in another direction. Right now, that direction is south.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,