August 7 is our anniversary, but I like to think of the entire month of August as our anniversary celebration. So we kicked off the month with a trip to climb the South Sister.
Summiting the South Sister has been at the top of my to-do list this summer, especially since we hoped to do it in June, but ended up hiking to Green Lakes instead because the mountain was so snowy. The South Sister is the third tallest peak in Oregon, at 10,358 feet, and is one of the few big mountains you can summit without any technical climbing gear.
So here’s the thing about doing things on summer weekends: it’s crowded. We tried to book a campsite a few weeks ago, but there was nothing available in the area. We thought we’d risk it and hope to find a campsite at one of the walk-in spots.
No luck. What we didn’t know was that there was a huge relay race happening on the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway the next day, which meant things were even more crowded than normal. After visiting four campgrounds, we gave up and opted to sleep in our car in the Devil’s Lake parking lot, which is where the South Sister trail begins.
Nothing says ‘happy anniversary’ like sleeping in your car and climbing a mountain, right?
The good news is, we enjoyed the best camping weather we’ve had since moving to Oregon two years ago. It was the first time the temperature didn’t drop below freezing. Even though I checked the weather forecast, I couldn’t believe it was going to be as warm as they predicted (I blame it on the freakishly cold weather during our last trip to Devil’s Lake), so I packed clothes for every possible condition: winter jacket, wool pullover, rain jacket, long-sleeved shirt, short-sleeved shirt, tank-top, sweat pants, capris, and shorts. I didn’t need anything more than my shorts, tank-top, and light jacket. You never know.
So, I’d read a bit about the South Sister hike, and I knew it would be difficult, but my goodness. It was so hard. Like, legs still aching two days later, hard. Take a break every five minutes, hard.
The hike started out in the forest, and the climbing got going right away. As in, we were sweating instantly. And getting attacked by bugs. Pack your bug spray, folks.
After a bit of forest hiking, the trail took us to a glorious open area with stunning views of lots of surrounding Cascades, and a relaxing, relatively flat stroll.
Unfortunately, the flat section didn’t last forever, and we started our climb through a rather steep, scraggly section. There were lots of beautiful wildflowers in bloom in this area, and we made sure to take plenty of breaks to admire them (and catch our breath).
After what seemed like a lot of steep climbing up some pretty shifty rocks, we reached a ledge that we thought was the top of the mountain. Imagine our surprise when we climbed over the ledge and saw how much further we had to go. It’s hard to tell from these photos, but there are lots of tiny specks of people working their way up the crazy steep path to the summit.
After hours of slowly climbing up a path of loose rock that basically went straight up the mountainside (I’ve literally never hiked so slowly in my life), we FINALLY got to this view:
A gentle hike around this glacier was all that stood between us and the South Sister summit! It was a bit hazy at the top, so we couldn’t see too far into the distance, but the views were still pretty spectacular.
It took us 4 hours and 20 minutes to reach the summit (after moving very slowly up the mountainside and taking lots of breaks). A runner passed us at one point on the trail, and we heard someone say she ran the 6 miles UP THE MOUNTAIN in an hour and 45 minutes. Absolutely insane.
We enjoyed a much-needed respite for our tired legs at the summit before beginning the very LONG journey back down. We thought the hike up was difficult, but going down had its own set of challenges. First of all, going straight down a mountain sends your toes straight into the front of your shoes, which basically makes you feel like your toes are going to fall off. Secondly, the crumbly rock path tends to shift under your feet, leading to not one, not two, not three, but FOUR total wipeouts on the way down the mountain. I have the bruises to prove it.
At last, we made it back to the flat section, which led to much rejoicing. Unfortunately, we still had several long miles to go.
In the end, it took us about 8 hours and 40 minutes to hike the 12.5 miles. It was exhausting. We declared it the most difficult hike we’ve ever done. We were so tired afterward that I could hardly keep my eyes open during our dinner at Deschutes Brewery in Bend. The peanut butter pie may have perked me up a bit, but I was definitely ready for a 9 o’clock bedtime when we got home.
A few words of advice for anyone interested in hiking the South Sister:
-Bring lots of water. I’ve read you should take a gallon per person.
-Sunscreen, sunglasses, and bug spray are your friends. Most of the hike is in open areas, so there’s no way to avoid the sun.
-Food. Lots of food. We packed more than enough snacks, but you’ll need your energy.
-Hiking poles would have been an excellent decision, especially when going downhill.
-Take lots of breaks.
-Plan to be off the summit by early afternoon to avoid any summer thunderstorms. About an hour after we finished our hike, a huge hailstorm passed through the area.
Here’s to crossing an item off our Oregon to-do list!