Just when the wildfires began to dissipate last month — clearing the lingering smoke and helping to reopen many trails in the Three Sisters Wilderness — the snow arrived, covering some of those trails and blocking access.
But fall is always an ideal time to explore the wilderness west of Bend, as the Cascade Lakes Highway will likely remain open for several more weeks, giving hikers opportunities for a last few outings of 2017 before the snow stays for the long haul on Cascade mountain trails.
Some higher-elevation areas in the Three Sisters Wilderness are still covered with a dusting of snow that fell a couple of weeks ago, but hikers can expect access to trailheads in the wilderness probably at least through the end of this month.
“Very rarely do we ever close (Cascade Lakes Highway) before the first of November,” says Chuck Schutte, interim operations manager for the Deschutes County Road Department. “We’ve already plowed it three times this year because of the snow we had a couple of weeks ago. But right now it’s too early to even think about closing.”
Schutte adds that the road department typically closes the highway, west of Mount Bachelor, about mid-November after significant snowfall.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, an area closure remains in place for the Three Sisters Wilderness due to wildfires. But the South Sister Climber Trail, Moraine Lakes Trail, Soda Creek Trail and Green Lakes Trails reopened last month after reduced activity on the Nash Fire.
Certain areas south of those trailheads remain closed. But one area of the Three Sisters Wilderness that remains open and snow-free and should stay accessible until well into the fall is the Six Lakes Trailhead just south of Elk Lake along Cascade Lakes Highway.
Located at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, the Six Lakes Trailhead gives hikers access to the pristine Blow and Doris lakes, and several other lakes in the wilderness. I made the 45-minute drive there from Bend last week on a crisp, sunny day. The relatively flat trail took me through thick, quiet forest. At certain points along the way all I could hear was the sound of busy woodpeckers.
Blow Lake was the first I came to, and I saw several other hikers enjoying the view of the clear, blue-green water. During the summer the lake makes an ideal swimming spot, but the mosquitoes are notoriously vicious. In October, however, those pesky blood-suckers are nonexistent.
I continued along the trail to Doris Lake and was surprised by its size. It seemed pretty large for a backcountry wilderness lake. The trail took me along the lake’s south shore, where I took in mountain views of South Sister and Broken Top to the north.
Both Blow and Doris lakes are stocked with brook trout by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and they make ideal hike-in fishing lakes for anglers seeking wilderness solitude.
From Doris Lake, hikers can continue west to the Pacific Crest Trail and to the Mink Lake Basin, which features dozens of other lakes deep in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Another option is to link up to the Senoj Lake Trail, which leads south to that lake and to 6,304-foot Williamson Mountain.
I opted for an out-and-back to Doris Lake for a round-trip hike of about 6 miles that required about three hours. I ran much of the way back to Six Lakes Trailhead, as the flat, rolling nature of the path makes for ideal trail-running terrain. Many other Three Sisters Wilderness trails might be too steep or technical for all but the most nimble-footed trail runners.
Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer for the Deschutes National Forest, advises hikers this time of year to be ready for winterlike conditions, especially at higher-elevation areas of the Three Sisters Wilderness such as Green Lakes, South Sister and Broken Top.
“If they’re going to go up into those areas, they need to be very well-prepared for cold and inclement weather, and take precaution to turn around, and not just be like, I have to get to point B,” Nelson-Dean says. “Turn around if you start getting into some weather so you don’t get stuck. People should expect some snow. It might be OK, but turn around if you’re getting into it.”
Nelson-Dean also recommend that hikers venture farther south into the Diamond Peak Wilderness, which did not get the snowfall last month like areas closer to Bend. She suggests the Rosary Lakes and Trapper Creek areas as viable hiking options in the fall.
“There’s some nice hiking in the more southern part of the forest still,” Nelson-Dean says. “And there’s not as much snow now as the Three Sisters Wilderness.”
Nelson-Dean notes how strange it was to go straight from the smoky wildfire season to the snow season with little transition.
“It was a rapid change in the weather,” she says. “It was welcome to put an end to the fire season, but I think in Central Oregon we all enjoy a slow entry into fall. This year’s just a little weird.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,