I've long wanted to tackle one of the Cascade mountains that loom over the Central Oregon landscape.
But with two elementary school-age children and no technical climbing skills, I thought the volcanic peaks were out of my league.
Then I learned about a trail that leads to the summit of 10,358-foot South Sister, part of a trio of mountains that also includes North Sister and Middle Sister.
The secret to South Sister Climbers Trail No. 36 is that reasonably fit people can follow it up for 2 miles to a plateau that offers stunning views of South Sister's summit, plus jagged Broken Top mountain, rounded Mount Bachelor and a high alpine lake — without having to make the full 6.5 mile climb to the top.
Fortunately, my family hiked into the harshly beautiful landscape on a lovely September day, shortly before the Pole Creek fire filled Central Oregon with smoke for weeks. Winter weather has since set in, but consider putting the Climbers Trail on your hiking list in late spring/early summer, once the snow melts again.
To get to the trailhead, travel about 25 miles west of Bend toward Mount Bachelor on the Cascade Lakes Highway. Go 6.5 miles past the Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort turnoff and look for the Devil's Lake campground and trailhead sign, which will appear after a grassy marshland and lake. Turn left into the campground, where there is a parking area.
We walked to the end of the campground loop and started on the South Sister summit trail, which begins near some outhouse-style restrooms.
After crossing on logs over an icy cold, crystal-clear stream and then darting across the Cascade Lakes Highway, we started a long, tiring 1.5 mile trudge up forested slopes.
Both my kids have been hiking since they were old enough to be booted out of backpack carriers, but they still needed plenty of rest breaks and water. Admittedly, so did I and my husband.
We only saw one other family with a kid on the trail.
Most hikers were fit, outdoorsy types, including one man weighed down by a heavy pack and gallon jugs of water who planned to camp out overnight and then tackle the summit the next day — despite below-freezing overnight temperatures.
The majority of hikers we talked to had started early that morning in order to make the summit and were on their way back down as we were hiking up in the afternoon.
After defeating the 1.5 mile uphill climb through the forest, we reached a plateau with gently rolling hills that stretched for a few miles.
This relatively flat interlude provides a welcome respite for people planning to continue on and make the long, grueling ascent to South Sister's top.
For those not summiting the mountain, the plateau is a destination in itself, with a barren, other-worldy appearance marked with a few windswept trees.
South Sister looms ahead, Broken Top juts up to the east and Mount Bachelor is away to the south. Moraine Lake nestles in a depression that drops away from the plateau's edge.
Getting a look at the trail rising up South Sister's flank in the distance, I was truly glad that I was not headed to the summit.
Maybe someday when my children are in their young teens, my family will attempt that challenge.
But for now, we've added the halfway point of this South Sister trail to our list of favorite spectacular — and doable — hikes in Oregon.
Parking at the Devil's Lake campground requires a Northwest Forest Pass, which costs $5 per day or $30 annually.
Hikers must also fill out a free permit at a bulletin board along the trail to enter the wilderness area that surrounds South Sister.
Bicycles are not allowed on the trail. Dogs are allowed but must remain leashed.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.