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Middle Sister: West Approach

Central Oregon, Oregon

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Middle Sister: West Approach

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  • The trail begins through a thick, classic Oregon forest of ponderosa pines, western larches, and Douglas firs.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The Obsidian Trail opens up to a vast lava flow.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • First views of the North Sister (left) and Middle Sister above the lava flow.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A hiker makes his way through some old-growth forest.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Meadows become more frequent as the Obsidian Trail nears the PCT with the Middle Sister above.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Creek crossing below Obsidian Falls.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Obsidian Falls.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Nearing Sister Spring below Middle Sister with the summit trail on the right.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Along the PCT below the Arrowhead Lake bluff.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The user trail to Arrowhead Lake crosses Scott Spring below North Sister and Middle Sister.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Scott Spring and the headwaters of Glacier Creek.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Ascending the user trail to Arrowhead Lake.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Ascending the user trail to Arrowhead Lake.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A portion of Arrowhead Lake in late season below North Sister.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Sunset from the Arrowhead Lake bluff.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Blue hour after sunset from the Arrowhead Lake bluff.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The husband to the southwest from the climber's trail.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Diamond Peak to the south at sunrise with Middle Sister's slope in the foreground.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Inversion layer from the climber's trail ascending Middle Sister.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Inversion layer from the climber's trail ascending Middle Sister.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Summit shadow stretching over the inversion layer from the climber's trail at sunrise with The Husband on the left.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The trail skirts the toe of the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A climber makes his way up the route with the inversion layer far below.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A climber checks the route alongside the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Mount Jefferson and Mount Adams above the inversion layer to the north from the climber's trail.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Following the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • First view of the summit from the climber's trail.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The summit of Mount Washington peaks above the inversion layer.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Traversing the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Now above the Renfrew Glacier, surveying the route taken.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • View to the summit from the Prouty Point saddle.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The trail ascends through a lose scree field to the summit.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • From left: Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams in the distance as the inversion layer dissipates. - Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A climber ascends the scree field below the prominent North Sister with the other Cascade Peaks to the north.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • View to the south of South Sister (right), Broken Top, and Bachelor in the distance.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • View to the foothills to the west from the summit.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Contributor Daniel Sherman takes in the view of South Sister from the summit.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Looking back on the rocky scree field on descent from the summit.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A climber descends the loose scree field.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Climbers ascend the Hayden Glacier below Prouty Point and the prominent North Sister.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The Husband above the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Descending the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Descending the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Interesting volcanic formation above the Renfrew Glacier.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The route more or less follows these snowfields to the left of the ridge.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A dry tarn at the base of several snow fields with the summit on the right.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A climber descends the trail with The Husband above.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The route rounds the ridge on the left of the frame.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The distant summit from the beginning of the climber's trail.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • North Sister and Middle Sister above the plains near Arrowhead Lake.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A climber searching for the best route with North Sister in the background.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Typical campsite near the shore of Arrowhead Lake with the Cascades to the north in the background.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Middle Sister reflected in Arrowhead Lake.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The headwaters of Glacier Creek from the Arrowhead Lake bluff.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • North Sister and Middle Sister reflected in Arrowhead Lake.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Small lakes dot the landscape along the PCT.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • North Sister and Middle Sister reflected in Arrowhead Lake.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Little Brother above the user trail to Arrowhead Lake.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Weathered trees are ever present on the Arrowhead Lake Bluff with Scott Spring and the Cascades to the north.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • The Husband from the Arrowhead Lake bluff.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Colorful sunset over (from the left) Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Sunset from the Arrowhead Lake bluff.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • North of the Arrowhead Lake bluff from the user trail.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Surveying the headwaters of Glacier Creek below the Arrowhead Lake Bluff and the northernmost two Sisters.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Middle Sister peaks above the trees and the PCT.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • Abundant wildflowers along the Glacier Way Trail.- Middle Sister: West Approach
  • A hiker marvels at the scorched forest from a wildfire that burned in summer, 2017.- Middle Sister: West Approach
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Solitude. Big vistas. Walk up. Spring water.
Cons: 
Steep scree slope.
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Region:
Central Oregon, OR
Access: 
Hike-in
Climbing:
Snow / glacier / ice route
Congestion: 
Low
Pets allowed: 
Yes
Site characteristics: Drinking water: 
Snowmelt
Recommended Equipment:
Helmets
Highest point: 
10,047.00 ft (3,062.33 m)
Distance: 
7.40 mi (11.91 km)
Alpine climbing NCCS rating: 
Grade II
Net Elevation Gain: 
5,347.00 ft (1,629.77 m)
Year round: 
No
Open from: 
June 01 to October 31
Parking Pass: 
National or state forest pass
Permit required: 
Yes
Permit reservation URL: 
https://www.recreation.gov/wildernessAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=111434
Permit self-issue on site: 
No
Preferable Season(s):
Summer
Primary aspect: 
West facing
Total Distance: 
19.00 mi (30.58 km)
Total elevation gain: 
4,714.00 ft (1,436.83 m)
Trailhead Elevation: 
4,700.00 ft (1,432.56 m)
Typically multi-day: 
No
Current Local Weather:
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Adventure Description

Adventure Description

Pro Contributor

Solitude may just be the theme of this trip. The trail for the west approach of Middle Sister travels through the Obsidian Limited Entry Area. Advanced permits are required to day hike and overnight camp here. Only 30 day hikers and 40 backpackers are permitted each day. Once on the climber's trail, some route finding may be needed, as the path is not so worn. The route travels through a significant variety of terrain and features including old-growth forest, recently burnt forest, a vast lava flow, wildflower meadows, a waterfall, springs, sub-alpine forest, rocky plains, alpine lakes, obsidian cliffs, less-than-welcome scree, and a glacier. Once above treeline, and if camping at Arrowhead Lake, views of the Cascade Peaks to the north all the way to Mount Adams may be had during the majority of the climb. There are also the up close views of the jagged North Sister and, of course, South Sister and the nearby peaks from the summit.

At 19 miles, it is recommended to camp on the trail for at least one night. After securing your overnight permit well in advance (they seem to sell out fairly quickly - especially on the weekends) and as early as May 1, ensure you also have a Northwest Forest Pass to park. The trailhead has very limited, individual parking spots. A gradual incline through thick forest meets hikers initially, quickly giving way to the starkly bleak burnt forest, a result of to the Milli fire of 2017. The trail travels in and out of lush and burnt forest a couple of times before ascending switchbacks and meeting the sidewall of the young lava flow. At nearly 3,000 years old, this laval flow is considered quite young. Marvel at the expansive desolation dotted with saplings. Spot the nearby Obsidian Cliffs to the south, which reflect the light as glass does. First views of the North Sister and Middle Sister will be had here. After meandering through the lava, drop down into wildflower meadows, cross the small White Branch creek before again ascending through thick old-growth forest. The meadows, obsidian cliffs, and lose chunks of obsidian along the trail become more abundant as the hiker gradually ascends nearer to the tree line.

Meet the PCT and follow it north, taking in views of the impressive Obsidian Falls, and then marvel at the Sister Springs, the headwaters of Obsidian Creek, in the plains below the Arrowhead Lake bench. Just above the south Sister Spring, in a gulley at the southeast nook of the plain, the somewhat obvious climber's trail may be spotted. However, for prime backcountry campsites, continue north on the PCT for another half a mile, then take the next right marked user trail to Arrowhead Lake. It is recommended to stop off at the Scott Spring at this trail junction to fill up your reservoirs (you may find filtering optional). Continue on the unmaintained user trail as it ascends above the trees through scree to the top of the apparent bench above and to the south where Arrowhead Lake resides. Spectacular campsites can be found along the lakeshore with expansive vistas just to the west from the edge of the bluff. View the pristine reflection of the intimidating North Sister and Middle Sister in the lake. To the north, note Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mount Jefferson. Depending on your departure time, you may decide to proceed from here to the summit before camping. However, it is recommended to plan for an alpine start on your summit day.

From Arrowhead Lake, some cross-country travel is required to meet up with the summit trail. Be sure to adhere to the second princple of Leave to Trace and travel on durable surfaces, avoiding fragile meadows. Alternatively, you may chose to retrace the user trail from Arrowhead Lake back to the PCT and to Sister Spring to take the obvious gulley trail mentioned earlier. Otherwise, take the path of least resistance over the mostly featureless plains to the south-southeast from Arrowhead Lake searching for the climber's trail. A GPS may be necessary. For some guidance, proceed just past the jagged ridge that juts out of the plains to the east, separating North Sister and Middle Sister. The climber's trail ascends just south of this ridge, taking quick switchbacks through small boulders and trees. Note The Husband to the southwest. At the top of this slope, traveling parallel to the aforementioned ridge, reach a plateau and dry tarn bed that may be filled with snowmelt in late season. Here, scope your route up the gully to the toe of the Renfrew Glacier. A boulder moraine lies at the base of the glacier, providing a natural ramp-like route that skirts the south edge of the glacier. Climbers without an ax and crampons may prefer this short detour instead of the steep glacier. Otherwise, drop down onto the glacier as it levels out where the western ridge juts up near to a near vertical angle. Traverse the glacier south, rounding the rocky ridge back to the east. The summit will now be in view, lying above a hanging snowfield.

Continue along the gradual incline of the glacier, crossing a rocky island, sighting the Prouty Point saddle. Once cresting the saddle, you'll have views of the opposing Hayden Glacier on the eastern slope and may spot other climbers on the route - this is where the west and east approaches join up. The North Sister sits, crumbly and jagged, occupying the view to the north. Follow this saddle ridge to the south toward the summit as the trail traverses through a scree slope, becoming steeper. The scree here is incredibly loose. By scree slope standards, it may just be the loosest scree on any Cascade volcano's summit push. Fortunately, the terrain becomes slightly more stable nearing the summit. Abrupt views of the massive, glacier-clad South Sister (just 3.5 miles away) and her friends Broken Top and the Bachelor are enjoyed here at the summit. 

Descend the route taken, perhaps opting to camp an additional night at Arrowhead Lake. Enjoy the accomplishment by marveling at the impressive Middle Sister on the shore of the lake. This is an ideal photo location with North Sister and the rest of Oregon's northerly Cascade peaks. Not to mention the unimpeded views of sunset from the edge of the west cliff. For a somewhat shorter return route, hiking out via the Glacier Way to the north is an option. Once returning to the PCT via the user trail, continue north for a half mile before taking the marked trail to the west. This trail follows Glacier Creek, where thick patches of wildflowers grow creekside. Then link back up with the Obsidian Trail after another 0.6 miles and hike out through the lava flow and subsequent live/burnt forests. The Glacier Way reduces the return trip by about a mile, as opposed to taking re-tracing the original route in.

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