Ranking: 4/5 As far as hikes go for just starting out backpacking, I have travelled few trails that can compare, for ease of entry, good signage, views, and generally easy terrain to negotiate. Using Green Lakes as a base camp, and then venturing out from there for easy day hikes, is a great way to see some spectacular Central Oregon scenery. Don’t miss hiking over to see Broken Top, a worthy side trip!
Difficulty: 4/10 There are only a few things that make this trip difficult, and none are overly burdensome. The trail system is excellent and well-marked, with the exception of TOPO maps showing the main trail around Green Lakes on the west side, instead of the east. And, the confusion that I ran into trying to quickly identify the nearest campsites, from their posted campsite map. Elevation gain is at an easy grade, and so much to see and do here, that whatever slight difficulty there might be, is well worth the effort expended. Good tents sites abound, as does fresh water. The only other difficult thing? Finding available parking on the TH side. There is overflow parking across the street, but when we left, there were even cars parked along the highway for some distance on either side, so this is a very popular area, and without a reservation system in place, it seems to me you might always be taking the chance that all the sites will be taken, and you will have to hike in further up the trail, were there are some dispersed sites, just not near the lake. Suggest calling the Deschutes National Forest ranger station ahead of time, in Bend Oregon for more info, (541) 383-5300, before planning your trip.
Getting there: From north of Bend, follow highway 97 south to exit 138, turn right towards Downtown/Mount Bachelor, and at bottom of off-ramp, turn right onto Cascades Lakes National Scenic Byway/SW Colorado Ave, go 1 mile to traffic circle, and continue through on Cascades Lakes National Scenic Byway/SW Colorado Ave, and continue through two more traffic circles for another 1 mile. After the 3rd traffic circle, continue on Cascades Lakes National Scenic Byway/Hghwy 372 for 23.7 miles, and Green Lakes and Soda Creek Trail-heads will be on the right.
Permits: Will need a Northwest Forest Pass, or equivalent to park at TH, and self-issue permit filled out at TH. More info available at the Deschutes National Forest Website.
Maps: Custom Correct MYTOPO is always a good one to use, and there is always the National Geographic Trails Illustrated, Bend / Three Sisters Topographic Map.
Green Lakes, Broken Top Loop, 3 Sisters Wilderness added 9-25-17
Actually, the hike really started with Maria and I driving to Bend, Oregon first, to make sure that we got an earlier start. It’s a long 6 hour drive to get there from Puyallup, WA, so it just made more sense to get here the day before. Plus, it’s always nice to visit Bend, a great Central Oregon town with lots to see and do.
6.43 miles, 1420ft gain/290ft loss, fitbit data: 23,734 steps. The trailhead is only about a half hour from town, and we didn’t get here a second too soon. I swear, we got the last spot to park at an already crowded parking lot. Gearing up, we stop and talk to a ranger sitting by the trailhead on a park bench. She said that there were only 22 spots available at the lake to camp at, and she counted approximately 20 groups already that left today for the lakes. I figure as much, if the parking lot was any indication…We thanked her for the info, and hurriedly got on the trail.
And, a well maintained trail at that. Smooth and easy, it meandered through thin forest alongside Fall Creek, that gurgled and rushed over rock, creating perfect little waterfalls that any master landscaper would be proud to say that they had created.
It goes like this for about 2 miles, a gradual up and down, making the miles click by quickly. Red Indian Paintbrush, yellow daisies, and purple lupine dot the sparse meadows and wherever the stream runs by, both banks are lush and green amid the arid landscape, very scenic and we stop to take lots of pictures.
“…Which way to the campsites???”
By mile 2.8, the way becomes more urgently uphill, and after a 330ft elevation gain, we come to a huge lava flow, at mile 3.5, with the stream skirting its edges. The trail follows the contour around the edge of this enormous rock outcropping up through more grassy meadows to the trail junction that shows two signs. One, points to Green Lakes, straight ahead and over a rise, and the way to the right says to park meadows…Which way to the campsites??? I look at the map they had posted, (I took a picture of the map with my phone) and it was really hard to figure out where the largest concentration of sites were.
So, being in a hurry as we knew the sites left would be limited, and we had passed a couple groups on our way in, I chose the path over the rise to Green Lakes. Appears I chose wrong…
“…it looks like she has a Mohawk, a rising flat ridge that comes to a point, protrudes across the top of the mountain…”
This section of trail leads to a day use only part of the lake, a small spit of land that juts out into the main lake body like a thumb. It has a few trees that provide some shade relief, for the day so far has been sunny and warm. It does give us a few minutes to look around and the main lake is large, surrounded on 3 sides by rolling hills, most barely covered by sparse brown grasses. The ground is pretty sandy with small pieces of pumice and other volcanic rock. To the northwest is the South Sister, bright red on top and from this perspective, it looks like she has a Mohawk, a rising flat ridge that comes to a point, protrudes across the top of the mountain. The flanks lead to the edge of the lake, and in a small cleft that has been obviously cut by running water, you can see a small waterfall coursing down through the cut. To the north, it appears to meet up with a tree covered ridge and this ridge leads west to the mountain and east to connect with another hill that borders the east side of the lake. It, too, is treed, unlike the mostly barren knolls that edge the south shore here.
We could only see one designated campsite, just to the left of the trail as it came into the lake basin, and we’re a little confused by it. There’s a marker here, signifying a site, but…There’s no trail leading to a site, just a small copse of trees maybe a 100 feet from the trail, can’t even see the site from here. And, we would find out that most of the sites here around the lake are like that. You get a nice marker next to the trail, but not always a trail leading to the site.
Sighing, we head back to the junction, and now turn left to follow the trail around the east side of the lake, which, I might add, is the opposite shore from what the TOPO maps show…
We notice that the map I took a picture of show 4 dispersed campsites at the far reaches of the lakes basin, around the smaller of the two lakes, and we decide to try those as its clear that the sites in here closer, are probably already taken. There is a very small lake that sits to the S.E. of the main body that looks pretty shallow. It’s surrounded on all sides by grass, and looks to be a popular place for people to congregate and swim.
Making our way around the lake, we see that all the sites we pass are occupied, and begin to think we may be finding a spot beyond the lake, when we come to a ridge just to the left of the trail that leads away from the lake. There’s no sign that designates a spot, but there’s a distinct footpath that branches off the main path. We’re hot, tired, and ready to shed packs, so I tell Maria I’ll scout ahead, as we don’t want to waste effort by retracing our steps…
“…#22! Last one!! “Up here!” I shout…”
Sure enough, about 150ft up this ridge, is a designated spot, #22! Last one!! “Up here!” I shout, and we decide after plopping down gear, that this is actually one of the better sites we’ve seen! There are trees here to provide shade and looking west off the ridge leads to the South Sister, and east, across the green waters of the second and smaller lake. You can also see rising up on the eastern horizon the pinnacles of Broken Top.
We’re here in good time, around 1:30pm, which gives us plenty of time to relax in the sun and set up camp, before going down to the small lake to fetch water for dinner.
“…I don’t remember this bend in the poles…”
After a 20 minute rest, it was time to get the tent set up, so I pulled the tent out, staked out the ground fly, broke out the poles, and instantly thought, “ Uh-Oh, something doesn’t look right here! I don’t remember this bend in the poles…” Upon closer inspection, I stare stupidly at them, and “Doh!” I realize I had grabbed the wrong poles! At home I keep all of my gear together on a dedicated “gear” shelf for all 3 of my tents (What? Don’t you have at least 3?).
Well, I had a 3 man Marmot tent, and those were the poles I grabbed by accident! I wrote on the stuff sack, too, “3-man Marmot Tent” guess I stopped reading after I saw the 3 man…This tent was a 3 man also, but a Big Agnes! Well, nothing to do now, but set it up and see if it’d work. With the help of a few zip ties we had a working tent, albeit a little saggy in places, but it worked! Crisis averted!
Thankfully, bugs aren’t a big concern, for the wind has been blowing steadily since we arrived. One benefit and the other is that it keeps you cooled off…
“…looks like you’re trying to catch butterflies with em…”
For this trip, we thought we’d try one of those new Lamsac couches, or water float, or lounges, whatever you want to call it…They work off the same principle as our stuff sacks. Fill them with air by scooping it in, (looks like you’re trying to catch butterflies with em) then roll up the end and clip it, which holds air in. Worked great for about an hour or so, then we noticed the air bleeding off, little by little leaving us on the ground…
Perhaps we put a hole in it? It’s gritty and sandy here, but not that many sharp sticks or stones, and we looked for a hole, but couldn’t find one…Sighing, we did the dance again many times, leaning to and fro catching wind and then trapping it in our blue baggie…Then, sit on it, and wait for the inevitable rump on the hard ground as the air slowly escaped…
Because of the wind, when we weren’t using it, we’d slip the clip end of the bag over the signpost for the campsite, acting like a leash to keep our balloon couch from flitting away on the breeze…
After dinner, we did our best to stay awake, and watch the stars, but around 9pm, the wind died down, and the skeeters arrived, driving us into the tent.