Big Loop Around The Three Sisters

I’ve done everything imaginable when it comes to climbing the Three Sisters in Oregon: one at a time, two at a time, all three, all three and Broken Top, Mt Washington and the three of them, etc, but I had never run around them in a single push until yesterday.  Known locally as “The Big Loop,” the distance is somewhere between 45-47 miles with about 8000+ feet of climbing and descending. The high point is almost 7000′ at Opie Dilldock Pass and the low point is about 5300′. It’s entirely in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area and the diversity of terrain and vegetation is impressive.

Scott Diamond wrote a good description of the route on his volcano running website.  If you plan on doing it, do check it out.  While there are lots of people doing various activities, keep in mind that this is entirely in a wilderness area so plan accordingly.

Water sources were good, but be careful on the PCT to fill up at each source.  I made the mistake of filling up too early heading north, skipping several good creeks, only to run dry in the very exposed plains south of Obsidian Falls during the heat of the day.  I was reduced to a slow walk, catching rests at each shady spot I could find.  I had started at 3am so I had plenty of time to sit and hope that some trail goddess would magically appear with a big glass of Tejava Ice Tea and chips and salsa and guacamole, but it never happened.  When I did get to Obsidian Falls I thoroughly enjoyed two bottles of the ice cold water while watching some 60 year old female hiker mack out on cheese and crackers and wine and what looked like enough food to feed five people.  Nope, she never offered me anything and I never asked.  But a little while later I came across a sister and brother who must have recognized the look on my face:  “Are you running around the sisters in a day?  Do you need any food or water?”  I immediately sat down and ate the food they offered.  Not quite ice tea, chips and salsa, but the bag of trail mix they gave me was awesome and propelled me the last 10 miles.

While I didn’t set any records, and never intended to, my 15 hours total time is probably a very conservative time.  I figured on being out 12 hours.  I started at Lava Camp off of 242 at 3am and ran clockwise.  I took lots of pictures and talked to anybody that would engage me.  I spent time sitting at the beautiful locations and of course all the shady spots south of Obsidian Falls. The fastest time I have heard of for the Big Loop is Rod Bien’s 8.5 hours starting at Green Lakes TH, counter clockwise.  Pretty sure I couldn’t run that fast if there were aid stations and trail goddesses with ice tea, and I was wearing a bib number.

I did take lots of pictures which you find below.  Enjoy.


  1. Congrats on the solo loop! Thought of you this weekend while running the gentle rollers of Yachats River Rd: high point of 150′, low of 50′, must’ve gained/lost 500′ on this run! Did you use the SteriPen for water, or just take your chances? I’ll pick your brain on it tonight…I think this would be a good way to spend my 3.4th decade anniversary, next weekend.

  2. Not too many people know this about me, but I used to be a wilderness ranger in the Three Sisters. Your story and especially your pictures brought back that warm happy nostalgia that comes all too infrequently in my life these days. The hikers who gave you food and water embody the spirit of “trail magic” that I encountered on the Appalachian Trail. I tried to explain in words the concept of trail magic to my Idaho friends, but until you experience it for yourself, well, there really is no explaining. Thanks for the vicarious memories.

    • Sparky, glad this brought back some good memories for you. The first time I spent any significant amount of time in the Three Sisters was on a 22 day Outward Bound trip in 1985. I remember at the time thinking that being a wilderness ranger would be a great job. Of course, I was studying to be a nerd at the UO so I never pursued it. Maybe in my retirement years…

  3. I’ve wanted to run this loop for many years, ever since I fastpacked it in 2.5 days about ten years ago, way before I started running ultras. My favorite part is the Wickiup Plain, south of South Sister. It’s like a moonscape.

    If you want company next time, send out a note. You’ll probably get some.

    See you at McKenzie.

    • JL, I think if I had just studied the map a little more I would have filled up at Linton. Problem was I got dry in Wickiup and then filled up my bottles at the first stream I came to. Then, instead of filling up again when I wasn’t completely empty I just continued north through more exposed high plains where there weren’t any creeks.

  4. Your post and pictures came along at the right time. I was thinking about trying this loop on 9/17, and I had some questions: Any difficulty in finding the route, various junctions? Any surprises? How smooth / hard was the trail for running? It looks beautiful to me. Water (steri-pen) issues, got that.

    I was planning on carrying an adventure pack (Mobex) with a sleeping bag, bivy, pad, steri pen, map, GPS, extra food, headlamp, gloves. Too much, too little? If I ended up on the PCT after dark, how clear is that section of the trail for night travel?

    • Doug, good questions.

      Route finding in the dark at the beginning on the north east side was a little time consuming. I had the map out a lot and without the aid of light (and because I never took the compass out) I often didn’t know what direction I was headed. I thought I had missed the turn to 4070 so I backtracked a little there only to discover that I hadn’t missed it. Other than that the route finding was easy, especially once I got on the PCT. Anybody can follow the PCT – hmmm, nevermind I know someone who might not be able to. I had absolutely zero problems following the PCT and I doubt you’d have any troubles in the dark.

      As for the trail surface, most of the east side was dusty but not technical at all. The route had a surprisingly large number of sandy sections, especially on the west side. And, of course, the lava on the north side is pretty challenging to run on.

      I personally wouldn’t carry that much stuff. Are you fast-packing or running? Skip the sleeping bag, pad, and bivy sack – that will just slow you down – and instead bring a lighter, birthday candle (to start a fire in wet conditions), and emergency blanket. Stay well within yourself in terms of effort so you don’t crash. Just keep moving. We’ll be at Pine To Palm that day so you’ll have to count on EMR to come rescue you should that be required 🙂

      It is definitely worth doing. Have fun.

  5. Craig,

    Todd Glender and I did the loop back before we got into ultras. But we started at Pole Creek and went clockwise. With no running, it took us somewhere around 16:40… We missed some trail in the dark (we started at midnight) down by the creek out of Green Lakes going to Moraine Lake, but otherwise, a great loop. It’s on my list to go back and run…


  6. good lord this was hard. first and only ultra i’ll ever do. agree with JL that westside first would be optimal, i needed shade and water and good footing more than natural beauty in the last stretch.

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