Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hiking the Northwest's Greatest Hits: Green Lakes Trail

Although I'd never been before, I'd heard that the Green Lakes Trail about 25 miles from Bend in central Oregon is one of the most heavily used trails in the region.  With plentiful waterfalls along a rushing mountain stream, alpine lakes, and stunning volcanoes bracketing it all, what's not to love about this hike?

Perhaps a crowded trail?

All I can say anymore about hiking popular trails in Northwest is this:  

Don't go on a weekend and do go early. Or go really early on a weekend.

Of course if you're staying with friends who are the textbook definition of earlybird, that's not hard to do. (Hello 3:30 or 4 a.m.!)
We wait for Memorial Day weekend to pass, then get to the trailhead shortly after 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning. And no, we're not the first ones here.

Mt. Bachelor from the Green Lakes trailhead.
A guy from Pennsylvania comes tromping back to his car, tripod in hand, just as we're gearing up. (Any good photographer knows it's all about the light.)

After bundling up in layers with fleece, we hit the trail in the freezing cold. Quite literally, it's about 31 degrees Fahrenheit. Crossing the first log bridge, which is coated with a slick layer of frost, requires treading carefully over Fall Creek.

Upward on the mellow grade we hike along gorgeous Fall Creek, stopping to take lots of pictures and oooh and aaah over the many extravagant waterfalls and riffles.

About a mile or two along, we start crossing lingering patches of snow.

And we've got the trail all to ourselves! Or so we thought, until three fit young guys suddenly appear running up the trail behind us in shorts and trail runners. 

We're all momentarily lost in the snow until someone notices another log bridge across the creek. In a huff of sweat and muscle, the guys are off, leaving us in solitude again. 

Soon the trail becomes more snow-covered and steep, and we catch a glimpse of South Sister above the forest we're ascending through.

A few times we lose our way when footsteps in the snow seem to dead-end as the trail switchbacks above the creek. (This is just adding to our total mileage and burning more calories, so it's not a bad thing.)
After stumbling a few times on the slick snow, we finally emerge out of the forest to this brilliant view of Broken Top.

 Which makes us feel like this:

We're not done yet though. From here it's a short (1/4 mile?) scramble across snowfields to a pass just below South Sister, where we catch up with the three trail runners. 

Party at the South Sister gap.
After taking group pictures for each other, we decide to not drop down to the lakes, which, the guys tell us, are still snow-covered. After all, it's not summer yet and way earlier than normal to even get this high up the trail.

I admit we're charmed by these three young men on a West Coast road trip during a break from medical school on the East Coast. We joke that they'll be so taken with the beauty out here that they'll be among the legions who are moving to the Northwest. Not a stretch, really.

 Lots of photos later, we turn and head back down, getting slightly lost along the way again. (Thanks to those log bridges for being good trail markers!).

By this time it's obviously well above freezing (see Marilyn's tank top above). Within the last mile or so before we get back to the car, we finally start seeing other hikers heading up the trail.

What a fantastic way to start the post-holiday week. I just wish I could start every weekday with such a spectacular hike.

Have you hiked this trail or nearby trails? What was your experience?

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Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
We hiked a little over 8 miles with an elevation gain of about 1,100 feet over 4 miles. Wilderness permits are required for both day-use and overnight travel in the Three Sisters Wilderness from Memorial Day Weekend until Oct. 31. Permits are available at the trailhead. Here's a link to a topo map of the area (not so easy to read unless you enlarge.) Green Lakes Trailhead is 27 miles west of Bend on Century Drive, off Highway 46 at Fall Creek. A Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking or pay $5 at the parking area.

Normally May is way early in the season for this and many other alpine hikes in the Northwest due to snow at higher elevations. But this mild past winter might be the new normal. Note that we lost the trail due to snow cover, which will probably be melting for another month or so.

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