While maybe not as popular an adventure as its neighbor and sibling South Sister, or as technical and rugged as its other sibling North Sister, Middle Sister is still a worthy endeavor and definitely an epic way to spend a day out in the mountains.
Rising to a height of 10,056 feet (3,065 meters), Middle Sister offers adventurers stunning views of nearby snow-capped mountains, a fun opportunity to test out your mountaineering skills on a sizeable glacier and the chance to explore the beautiful Three Sisters Wilderness, one of the best places to hike in Oregon. The most popular route up the mountain is the North Ridge Route — which starts at the Pole Creek Trailhead and then heads up the Hayden Glacier to an obvious saddle between Middle and North Sister.
The below adventure guide should cover everything you need to know about taking on this striking volcanic peak located just outside of Bend, Oregon; including, how to reach the trailhead, what gear to bring with you, and what to expect once out on the trail and mountain.
\\ How to Get to the Trailhead/Start of the Hike
Most likely, you will be starting your trip to the Pole Creek Trailhead from either Bend or Sisters — the latter of which is the closest town to the trailhead.
GOOD TO KNOW: in Sisters, you can find a few cute restaurants and cafes, a couple of hardware and gear stores, two gas stations, and a small grocery store.
FROM BEND AND SISTERS
It will take you between 1 hour and nearly 1.5 hours to drive to the Pole Creek Trailhead from downtown Bend (depending on traffic). Head up Highway 20 towards the town of Sisters (and through it) before turning onto the scenic Highway 242/McKenzie Highway.
Take a left onto Forest Road 15 (there will be a sign for Pole Creek TH) and follow the well-graded forest road for just over 10 miles. While the road is bumpy and washboard-y, it is still very nice (did it in a Subaru with no trouble). Along the way, you will see numerous spots to camp at — which, because it is national forest — is allowed and free.
Park at the sizeable trailhead where there should be plenty of spots, as well as a bathroom (pit-toilet) and an information and pay station. Note there is NO water available at the trailhead.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are feeling gumptious, you can also bike to the trailhead along Forest Road 15. From downtown Sisters, Oregon — roughly 30 minutes from Bend — the trailhead is just over 13 miles away. The forest road is very nice and wide, well-marked and not super busy. While at the trailhead there isn’t a bike rack, there are plenty of places to safely lock up your bike.
\\ The Best Time to Mountaineer Middle Sister
While you can summit Middle Sister (and the other two Sisters) any time of the year, the best time is going to be in late spring if mountaineering and early and middle of spring if skiing.
During the late spring (May and June), there will likely still be a decent amount of snow on the mountain and if you start early enough in the morning it shouldn’t be too slushy. Obviously, snow conditions change year over year, but for the most part, you can expect solid snow conditions and only a bit of post-holing near the top during this time of year.
During the summer (especially July and August) the route will likely be quite a bit more rocky and scree-y — especially near the top. If planning to summit then, definitely come prepared with helmets and ALWAYS keep an eye out for falling rocks. While the trail will be a lot less snowy during the summer, you will still need to cross a glacier — meaning you will always want proper equipment, especially since crevasses will be bigger/more open then.
\\ What to Bring With You to Mountaineer Middle Sister
You will definitely want to bring proper mountaineering gear with you on this adventure; including, ice axes, crampons, and helmets. We did also bring a rope but didn’t feel like it was totally necessary (but do what feels right/safest for you!).
Also, because a majority of the hike will be done on snow, make sure to bring proper clothing for both snow and sun protection (the reflection off the snow can be inteeeeense). Sunglasses or goggles, a sun hat, and sunscreen, not to mention long sleeves and pants, are likely a must.
Below is an outline of what we brought for two people to summit:
WHAT WE BROUGHT
| One large pre-made sandwich
| 2 bags of gummy candy
| 1 bag of beef jerky sticks
| 1 packet of pickles
| 1 packet of energy gummies
| 4 granola bars
| 2 packaged waffles
| 1 full bladder (2.5 liters/85oz)
| 2 large water bottles (40oz each)
| My handy LARQ water bottle for purification
| A thermos of hot water for mate
| 2 sets of crampons
| 2 ice axes
| 2 pairs of mountaineering boots
| 2 climbing helmets
| 1 rope (not totally necessary)
| 2 harnesses
| My Canon camera
| Hiking first aid kit
| 1 pair of Sunski sunglasses and 1 pair of ski goggles
| 2 sun hats and 2 stocking caps
| 2 sun shirts
| 1 pair of tights
| 2 puffy jackets
| 4 pairs of wool socks
| 2 sets of gloves
| 2 buffs for sun and wind protection
| 1 bottle of water-repellent sunscreen
| 1 Chapstick with sunscreen
| 1 paper map of the Three Sisters Wilderness
| 1 standard compass
| 2 fully charged phones (with maps downloaded)
HIKING MIDDLE SISTER IN OREGON | THE ADVENTURE BREAKDOWN
TOTAL DISTANCE: between 17 and 18 miles depending on which way you hike up/down the glacier
ELEVATION PROFILE: 5,282 feet of elevation gain; from 5,318 feet to 10,015 feet at the summit
TIME NEEDED: 10–15 hours; also common to do it as an overnight trip
TRAIL CONDITIONS: established trail until you reach the climber’s route; from there, you don’t have much of a trail but you just need to head towards Hayden Glacier (a map is necessary), steep snow — especially on the glacier, lots of loose scree on the final push
GEAR NEEDED: see our full list above
START | Begin your adventure at the Pole Creek Trailhead. There is a large information sign with self-issue permits as well as extra information on the area. Take the only trail from the trailhead out towards the large snowy mountains — which will clearly be visible to the west.
1 | The first couple of miles of the hike is on an obvious singletrack trail that cuts through a now-burned pine forest. You will have great views of the Sisters (all 3 of them) during the whole first couple of miles. But, because of the fire and now charred forest, there is also almost NO sun protection, so make sure to bring the proper gear and plenty of water with you (it can be hooooot).
2 | At around mile 1.4 you will come to your first trail junction. Keep heading straight on the Camp Lake Trail/Green Lakes Trail. The other trail — Green Lakes Trail — goes off to the right and eventually leads to numerous other forest trails and mountain lakes. You will then pass a stream at around mile 2. If necessary, fill up and purify drinking water here.
3 | After mile ~3, the trail will start to be covered with some fallen trees (as of early summer 2023) that will either require you to climb over them or to go around. In this section, it can be somewhat tough to stick to the trail so make sure to have a handy offline map with you (we like Gaia GPS and Alltrails).
4 | Around mile 4, the snow starts to appear — sometimes in just small clumps and other times in foot-deep drifts. Once you get closer to Hayden Glacier the snow will likely be a bit more present (though obviously this depends on the time of year you are hiking). This is also when the established trail starts to peter out and you need to start following one of the climber trails (marked on most maps). If you can’t find an established trail, just continue heading towards Middle Sister, which will still likely be visible.
5 | Once you reach the deeper snow field, simply start making your way up towards the obvious saddle between Middle and North Sister. It should be clear to see in front of you, though there will be a couple of small hills/rises before.
6 | Once you reach the edge of Hayden Glacier (near mile 6.6) you will want to put on your helmet, crampons, and your harness and rope (if using) and grab your ice axe. From here, stick to the RIGHT side where there will be an obvious ridgeline that may or may not be snow-covered (it wasn’t when we did this trail in mid-June). The ridgeline is a good spot to take a break and eat a snack and grab some water.
7 | Continue up the glacier on the right side as if you are heading straight for Prouty Point, the outcropping near the clear saddle. Do note that the glacier DOES have a few crevasses. The size will obviously depend on the time of year you are mountaineering, but be aware and vigilant while out on the glacier.
💬 INSIDER TIP: also rock falls are common in this area, especially off of North Sister and Prouty Point. You will very likely see some fallen rock and debris (and maybe even hear rocks falling) while climbing up. ALWAYS keep your helmet on and stay aware of you and your partner's surroundings.
8 | Once on the saddle, take in the view, eat some food, and catch your breath. From the saddle, it is another half mile or so and nearly 900 feet of elevation gain to the summit. We suggest dropping your pack and summitting with just water, a few snacks or victory sandwiches, your camera and an extra jacket (it is very exposed at the top and can be quite windy).
9 | The last section of the climb is quite steep and loose: go slow, watch where you are placing your feet and hands and always stay aware of falling rocks (above and below you). Likewise, keep an eye on your partner and try to stay close together so there is less time for rocks to gain momentum when falling.
10 | Reach the summit — woo! From the high point, you should be afforded great views of the nearby Cascades; including South and North Sister, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood (on a clear day), and maybe Mt. Adams on an extra clear day. And if you are very lucky you may even be able to see Mt. Rainier way off in the distance.
11 | Once you get your fill of the summit, head back exactly the same way you came up. We like to retrace our steps, especially on the glacier (less likely to run into a crevasse). If the snow is good and soft, you may also be able to glissade part way down — just make sure to watch out for rocks and take your crampons off.
It ended up taking the two of us — two fit late-20-year-olds — almost exactly 12 hours from car to car to do this adventure. While we did stop and take a few longer(ish) breaks, we also moved pretty quick, especially on the trail. If you think you will need more time than that, we recommend starting quite early in the morning or doing it as an overnighter.
EXTRA TIPS & THINGS TO KNOW FOR MOUNTAINEERING MIDDLE SISTER
Hiking on snow for multiple hours can lead to some serious solar radiance. Therefore stay on top of your sun protection — whether that means hiding your skin from the sun completely through sun-protective clothing or reapplying sunscreen regularly.
Also, the glare from the snow can be blinding, especially during the middle of the day. Wear proper eye protection as well as a hat. Also, consider packing some pain medicine if you are prone to get headaches from the sun (like Madalyne).
Besides the one creek you pass in the first couple of miles, there really isn’t too much water access on this adventure. While we did see a few small alpine lakes, most were covered in snow/frozen or were too far away to really be plausible. Therefore you will need to come prepared with plenty of water. Also, try to leave some in the car for when you get back.
If you are wanting to do this hike in two days instead of one — either because you want to take it a bit slower or if you want to do a sunrise summit push — then you will want to pack your handy backpacking gear. The best places to camp are going to be near the base of Hayden Glacier. From the trailhead, it is approximately 5 miles and 6,600 feet of elevation gain to the first good camp spot (though there are a few lower ones as well).
❔GOOD TO KNOW: there are many animals in the area, so make sure to keep all of your food and smelly stuff secure (though we don’t think bear boxes are needed).
$5 for day-use parking unless you have the Northwest Forest Pass, which costs $30 but is good for a full year.
This is kind of a confusing process, so bear with us. If you are planning to do the hike in ONE DAY then you will not need to make a reservation, but you will need to fill out a free self-issue permit at the trailhead and carry that form with you.
If you are planning to do an OVERNIGHT TRIP between June 15 — October 15 then you will need a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit, which must be reserved ahead of time at recreation.gov. The overnight permit costs $6 per group.
➳ Learn more about permits here.
While Middle Sister might not be the most popular mountain to hike of the Three Sisters — that title likely goes to South Sister — it is still 100% worth doing, especially if you are looking for a more off-the-beaten-path adventure and/or want to try your hand at mountaineering.
Hopefully, this in-depth Middle Sister Mountaineering Guide helps you plan your own epic adventure, but if you have any questions or comments, then please leave them below or reach out directly.