Visit in early summer or late spring. Much of the wilderness will be covered in snow. This serves up multiple advantages for any traveler. Solitude is much easier to find when you can set your camp almost anywhere. Snow offers almost unlimited tent sites, many of which can be placed on high perches. All you need is a shovel, a four season tent, and a basic ability to read your topography map. The four giant peaks are almost always in view, so getting lost is difficult to accomplish. Snow also covers up the typically dusty geology of the volcanic landscape. In the summer, water is hard to find, and the ground is sandy and dusty. But snow covers this up in a clean blanket. Also, snow is your water. You don’t need to camp near the popular lakes or near streams. You can just boil your snow.
The summits are easier to reach with snow on the ground. Rock fall, loose boulders, and scree fields are part of the summer terrain. But if snow dominates, the even snow terrain is crampon, ski, or snowshoe ready. With early morning starts, snow is firm, easy to walk on, stable, and safe. Crevasse fields need to be navigated on the glaciers, but this is true in late summer as well.
The greatest challenge of enjoying this wilderness while snow still grips its depths is in getting back to your car. After all, the official trail is under snow. Rout finding going in is easy because the giant mountain is your target. Being “lost” probably only means missing your ideal camp site. Once you are above tree line, you can see where you are, and easily get where you want to go. However, your rout finding back to your car is more difficult. If you enter via the south side of the wilderness at either the Green Lakes Trailhead, or the Devils Lake Campground, you simply need to head South from South Sister. Additionally, both routs are along streams that are relatively easy to follow, even when snow covered. Another option is to enter from the north side at Pole Creek Trailhead but it is much harder to find your way back to your car. The road is almost parallel to your direction of travel, so you can’t just head north to find it. The good news is that many Bend locals know and use the area year round. This means you can often follow the tracks of experienced travelers. This can be a nice reassuring sign as long as you still use your map and compass.
The Three Sisters Wilderness is a treat everyone should try. If you head in before the snow melts, you will find adventures, pristine terrain, solitude, and silence. Once there, travelers of every ability can find exciting things to do, and beautiful places to stay. Summer 2011 is loaded with snow, so these conditions will last at least until mid to late July. If you have questions or need gear, stop in to the US Outdoor Store and quiz John in the basement. He led me in this year and can tell you all about it.
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