BEND, Ore. — It was an early wake-up call, but with a particular peak goal in mind, it was easy to get up and going.
My 12-year-old son Mason and I have talked about climbing South Sister for several years, and this would be the day. Knowing that it would also be the goal of hundreds of others on a clear, hot Saturday, I wanted to get an early start.
After a 30-minute drive from Bend, we parked just off Cascade Lakes Highway along Devils Lake, then crossed the highway to the Devils Lake Trailhead.
It had been 13 years since I reached the top of 10,358-foot South Sister, and this would be my third summit of the peak and Mason’s first. The third-tallest mountain in Oregon is a popular climb because hikers can essentially walk to the summit without the use of ropes, crampons or other technical gear.
While the trail to the top involves no technical climbing, it is tremendously steep and challenging. From its starting point near Devils Lake off Cascade Lakes Highway west of Bend, the trail gains nearly 5,000 feet in elevation over the six miles to the summit.
We started from Devils Lake at about 5:30 a.m. We hiked in comfortable shade for about two hours before the sun finally came up over Broken Top.
After nearly 2 tough miles of steep climbing, we came out of the trees to a sprawling, desertlike plateau. South Sister dominated the horizon in front of us, and near its summit we could see the thin line through the red scree that marked the rugged trail to the top. Broken Top was just off to the west and just below us was sparkling blue Moraine Lake.
The trail stayed flat for a mile or so, then steepened drastically. We climbed our way up loose rock, using ski poles for added leverage.
Another 1.2 miles and we reached the first false summit, where a small blue-green lake sits at the base of Lewis Glacier. After another false summit, we made our way another half-mile across a vast snowfield to the actual summit a little before 9 a.m.
The view was as dramatic as I remembered it. Middle Sister and North Sister dominated the skyline to the north, with other mountains of the Cascade Range Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson and even distant Mount Hood in view. The dazzling array of blue sky, rugged, snow-covered peaks, and pristine alpine lakes made the climb well worth the effort.
Much of South Sister’s summit is covered by a large, snowy crater, in the middle of which sits sparkling blue Teardrop Pool, recognized as the state’s highest lake.
We walked back over the snowfield on our way back down the steep trail, sliding and walking down the loose rock in short steps, using our ski poles for support.
Maintaining balance was sometimes a struggle because of the steepness of the trail and the loose rock.
When we finally reached the trailhead at Devils Lake by 12:30 p.m., our journey complete, we soaked our feet in the ice-cold water of Tyee Creek.