Permit for day hikers aims to limit crowds in beautiful Three Sisters Wilderness.
BEND, Ore. — After a day spent on the Obsidian Trail exploring the western bases of North and Middle Sister, it is easy to understand why the U.S. Forest Service limits the number of hikers and horseback riders who can enter the area each day.
The Obsidian Trailhead provides access to the Pacific Crest Trail and to loop hikes of 10.6 and 15.8 miles that feature some of the most dramatic scenery in Oregon.
Black obsidian rock glistens in the sun along sections of the trails that take hikers along alpine meadows, rugged cliffs and Cascade peaks that rise into the blue sky deep in the Three Sisters Wilderness.
I made the drive over McKenzie Pass recently to the Obsidian Trailhead not really knowing what to expect. I came away wondering why I had never ventured into the area before — though it might be due to the fact that the Obsidian Trail is designated as a Limited Entry Area, which requires a $6 permit to hike or backpack.
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Each day from May 1 until snow shuts down Highway 242 in the fall, 30 day-use and 40 overnight permits are issued for entry. It is the only trailhead in the Three Sisters Wilderness with limited entry. (A Northwest Forest Pass is also required to park at the trailhead.)
To obtain the permit, I simply logged on to recreation.gov, searched for the trailhead and followed the directions to select a day and purchase and print out my permit, which I carried with me during the hike.
Limits on crowding
If no such limits existed, it is not unreasonable to believe that the area, because of its natural beauty, could become overrun with hikers and backpackers. The Forest Service is considering limiting access to other popular trailheads in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and the limited-entry permit is one of many options.
Planning for a 10.6-mile round-trip day hike to Obsidian Falls, I started out on the cool morning along a damp path that led me through a deep forest of Douglas fir trees.
Just when it seemed the forest would never end, I arrived at a rock wall, the base of the Obsidian Cliffs. After a couple of switchbacks up the rocks, the trail led me to a high point that included a sprawling view of North and Middle Sister, their remaining snow glistening white in the late-summer sun.
From there, I followed the path through some green meadows to the junction with Glacier Way. This steep, 0.6-mile trail took me along White Branch Creek to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
I walked a mile of the PCT along some of the most incredible high-country scenery I have ever encountered. The trail led through shiny obsidian rock and skirted the creek and several small ponds. The otherworldly landscape was dominated by Middle Sister, which rose above the surrounding cliffs.
Where the PCT meets the east end of the Obsidian Trail, a perfect little waterfall splashes over a low cliff. Obsidian Falls is not the most massive or impressive waterfall, but it just seems to fit perfectly in this special corner of the Three Sisters Wilderness.
Meeting other hikers
A few other hikers gathered in the area, some walking right up to the base of the falls. I encountered about 15 to 20 other hikers during the day. Some were day hikers like myself, others were backpacking through the wilderness on trips of longer duration.
One guy I talked with was a PCT thru-hiker — walking all 2,650 miles of the mountainous trail from Mexico to Canada — who was hoping to reach British Columbia by early October. I offered him half of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He politely declined, noting that he was carrying some 20 pounds of food.
Back on the Obsidian Trail, I ruminated on the benefits of being a day hiker — I could spend a few hours walking through this amazing place, just an hour from Bend, then go home to my bed that night.
Down the cliffs and back through the forest, I arrived at the Obsidian Trailhead about 4½ hours after starting the hike.
Another option for hikers in the area is a 15.8-mile round-trip trek to Opie Dilldock Pass, which includes even more open views as it climbs above the timberline.
But after about 11 miles, I was fairly tired — and replete with memories of $6 that went a long way.
If you go
From McKenzie Bridge, Ore., drive east on Highway 126 about 2 miles to the junction of Highway 242. Travel northeast 17 miles on Highway 242 to Forest Road 250. Turn right (east) onto Forest Road 250, and turn right at the next Y junction. At the next Y junction, turn right and follow the loop to the far end to find Obsidian Hiker Trailhead.