The South Sister Summit has a reputation that proceeds it.
Is it worth the challenge? That’s the question we were looking to answer when we landed our South Sister Trail permit.
The hike up South Sister Summit is steep and scrambly from the moment you set foot on the trail. Though my hiking crew exchanged some what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into glances at first, it didn’t take long to realize what all the hype was about.
South Sister Trail is physically demanding, but 100% worth every challenging step it takes to reach the summit. From 360° views of snowcapped peaks to untouched, turquoise-blue alpine lakes, this trail is brimming with unbelievable beauty.
In this guide, I highlight what to expect hiking (or backpacking) South Sister Trail, how to obtain permits, additional fees, getting to the trailhead, what to pack, and more.
Table of Contents
Complete Guide to Hiking the South Sister Summit in Bend, Oregon
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South Sister Trail Stats
Distance: 11.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,986 feet
Time: 8-10 hours
Know Before You Go
Does South Sister Trail Require a Permit?
A permit is needed to overnight or day-hike the South Sister Trail between June 15th and October 15th. If you are hiking outside of these dates, you do not need a permit. However, keep in mind it is likely the peaks already have snow for the dates outside of the permit window.
All hikers must secure a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit for the Delta Lake/Wickiup (South Sister) Trailhead before beginning the hike.
You can obtain a permit here.
Forewarning — A ranger sits at the trailhead and checks permits as you both enter and exit the trail. Make sure you have the necessary permit before beginning South Sister Trail.
How Do You Get a Permit for South Sister Trail?
Securing a permit for the Three Sisters Wilderness can be tricky.
The first wave of permits is made available on the first Tuesday in April. These permits account for 40% of all available permits to hike the South Sister Trail.
But don’t worry — if you miss the first wave you’re not entirely out of luck. This is especially good news for me because I miss the permit rollout every.single.season, without fail.
The good news is, the remaining 60% of permits are released 7 days in advance of any desired date. Snagging one of these permits is how we scored our permit to hike the South Sister summit and a great option for more on-the-go planners.
The key to scoring a Three Sisters Wilderness permit is checking the website daily and being ready to pull the trigger when there’s one available.
As with all permits of this nature, they go quickly.
Do You Need a Parking Pass?
In addition to needing a permit to hike the South Sister Trail, all hikers must also pay for a parking pass. All trailhead parking lots require a Recreation Pass.
Before beginning your hike, make sure to display one of the following passes in your vehicle:
- $5 Northwest Forest Day Pass (Day passes can also be purchased onsite)
- $30 Northwest Forest Annual Pass
- $80 American the Beautiful Annual Pass
You can read more about the different pass options here.
How Do You Get to the Trailhead?
From Bend, to reach the trailhead for South Sister takes around 35 minutes.
Take the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway toward the Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort. Continue along this road for approximately 27 miles.
Roughly 10 minutes after passing the ski resort, you’ll spot a sign for the Devil’s Lake Trailhead. Take this turn out and look for parking.
The parking lot fills up quickly as it services both Devil’s Lake Trail and South Sister Trail. I recommend arriving at the trailhead no later than 8:00 a.m. to ensure a spot.
What to Expect Hiking the South Sister Summit
As a new resident of Bend, I was eager to see if the South Sister Summit lived up to all the talk. I’m happy to report, the hike exceeded my expectations — and then some.
South Sister Trail begins in a forested area. For the first 5 minutes or so the trail is flat as you make your way through the trees. I distinctly remember turning around and saying “Well, this isn’t bad at all!”
I laugh thinking about that now as I’m pretty sure that was the last step we took that wasn’t uphill.
As the saying goes, famous last words.
After a two-mile climb uphill through the trees, the trees thin, and the trail momentarily levels out.
This section of trail is beautiful because there is no coverage so you have a clear shot of the South Sister Summit in the distance as well as a bird’s eye view of Moraine Lake.
Keep in mind, from this point on there is no tree coverage.
Along this stretch of welcomed flat trail, you have the option to take a detour off to the right for Moraine Lake or to continue on straight towards South Sister.
Tacking on the stretch to Moraine Lake adds a little over a mile roundtrip to the hike’s total distance. We chose to skip Moraine Lake this go around and head straight for the summit.
Moraine Lake is a popular camping location for hikers with overnight permits.
However, if you only have one night I wouldn’t recommend camping here, as it’s not a great spot to break up the trail — the most difficult part of the hike still lies ahead.
Instead, I would recommend camping further up the trail at Lewis Tarn. More on this later.
Soak up the flat section while you can because once it ends, it ends.
Up ahead, there’s a steep climb over large boulders and rock rubble. Luckily, the steeper the trail, the better the views. Don’t forget to turn around momentarily to appreciate your surroundings.
We climbed South Sister Summit in August and the trail was lined with colorful wildflowers. The vibrant Indian Paintbrush flowers provided a nice distraction from our burning quads.
Once you reach the top of the rocky terrain, you’re rewarded with unbelievable views of Lewis Tarn — a pristine glacial blue lake. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen water so beautiful.
Lewis Tarn marks a great place to take a break or eat a trail snack. From here, the trail only gets more challenging but with it, more incredible.
If you are staying overnight, I recommend camping at one of the several sites near Lewis Tarn. We chose to set up camp here before continuing on to the South Sister Summit for sunset.
To reach the campsites, veer right at the sight of the lake instead of veering left to reach the summit. Once you’re on the far side of the lake you’ll spot the first unofficially marked campsite.
We chose to set up camp right next to Lewis Tarn for quick access to the lake — yes we jumped in!
However, if you keep exploring past the lake, you’ll come across more campsites with unmatched views of Broken Top.
After you reach the lake, consider the remaining trail the final push to the South Sister Summit.
From here, the trail only gets more comically steep and scrambly. Most of this final stretch of trail is loose dirt and scree making you work for each step forward.
While this is undeniably the hardest section of the South Sister Trail, it is undoubtedly the most stunning.
Everywhere you look you’ll find staggering mountain peaks and crystal blue lakes. Don’t feel guilty about taking breaks, turn around and enjoy them.
After about a mile of challenging uphill hiking, you reach the South Sister Summit.
South Sister Summit
I’m not sure what I expected to find at the summit of South Sister, but what I envisioned wasn’t nearly as beautiful as what I found.
Situated at the top of South Sister is a crater. In the center of the crater sits Teardrop Pool, the highest lake in Oregon.
However, once you lay eyes on the lake, you’re still not done.
Follow the trail that leads off to the right around the lake. As you make your way along the rim of South Sister you’ll have unobstructed views of Broken Top, and eventually Middle and North Sister.
We sat for a while soaking in the golden hour views of Middle and North Sister before continuing around the rim and back down the trail.
If you too are camping at Lewis Tarn and therefore enjoying the sunset from the summit, make sure to leave enough daylight to safely make it back down the mountain. A headlamp is a non-negotiable.
As for the return hike, there’s no graceful way to descend scree. Prepare to slip, slide, and scoot your way all the way back down the mountain.
The good news? It takes about half the time to get down the mountain as it does to get up it.
What to Pack for the South Sister Summit
If you are planning to overnight the South Sister Trail as we did, make sure to check out my detailed Backpacking Essentials Guide for a complete list of gear I bring on all backpacking trips.
If you secured a day permit to tackle the South Sister Summit, below are some items and gear I recommend packing for the hike.
First, you’ll want to have a trusty day pack.
For a day hike of this length, I recommend anywhere from an 18L-25L pack. I always air on the smaller side so I don’t end up packing unnecessary items and therefore carrying unnecessary weight.
There are endless day-pack options out there, but my favorite tried and trusted pack is the Gregory Nano 18L.
While not 100% necessary, when hiking a trail this steep trekking poles help tremendously. I was grateful to have my Black Diamond poles and highly recommend bringing them along if you have them.
Lastly, even if you don’t plan to be on the mountain past daylight, it’s always wise to pack one in the event that things don’t go as planned. Again, Black Diamond is my brand of choice.
South Sister Trail starts low beneath the trees and ends on the tip top of a mountain.
The weather at the base can be drastically different from the weather at the summit. Because of this, I recommend dressing in layers.
For your base layers, start with lightweight, moisture-wicking, and breathable materials.
P.S. — don’t forget to pack a swimsuit and towel if you want to take a dip in one of the lakes post-summit!
As I’ve mentioned, the South Sister Trail is very steep and made even more challenging by the loose and rocky terrain.
You’ll want a good pair of trail shoes with dependable tread. While hiking shoe preference is completely dependent on the person, I’ve tried several different brands and types from boots to trail runners and some have stood out amongst the rest.
Once you spot Moraine Lake, the rest of the hike is completely exposed to the sun. Sun protection is very important when hiking South Sister.
Snacks and Water
Reaching the South Sister Summit is no small feat.
Make sure to fuel up for the long day by choosing snacks that will give you an energy boost during the hike. Honey Stinger Energy Chews and Clif Bloks Energy Chews are my go-to for a mid-hike pick-me-up.
As far as water goes, you’ll need to carry at least 2 liters. You can filter more water at Lewis Tarn as well, but that opportunity does come until you’re a mile from the summit.
P.S. — If you haven’t already invested in a reusable water bottle, now is the time. Nalgene gal for life.
South Sister Trail is well-marked and easy to follow. With that being said, conditions change quickly on the mountain and it’s not unheard of to get disoriented.
It’s always a good idea to have some sort of offline map or GPS tracking device before setting out on a hike. If you don’t have a GPS watch or device, I recommend downloading the trail from AllTrails.
I hope this guide was helpful in helping you plan an epic day hike or overnight trip to the South Sister Summit. If you have any questions about hiking South Sister or other trails in the Three Sisters Wilderness such as Green Lakes Trail or Broken Top Trail, leave me a note in the comment section below.
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