Three Sisters Wilderness – Broken Top Loop (24 mile loop)

Trip Overview: The Broken Top Loop in the Three Sisters Wilderness is a ~24 mile backpacking loop that is known for providing great views of the Three Sisters (three peaks, each over 10,000 feet). This loop is one of the better known backpacking itineraries in Oregon and is typically hike over the course of two to three days. Starting at 6,500 feet of elevation, the Broken Top Loop climbs to a peak elevation of 8,350 feet and has roughly 4,200 feet of elevation change over the course of the 24 mile loop. Highlights include views of the Three Sisters, Broken Top, several lakes, volcanic features, and small glaciers. The majority of the photos in this report were taken in mid August 2018.

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Overall map of the Broken Top Loop in the Three Sisters Wilderness – Day 1 (red), Day 2 (light blue), Day 3 (purple)
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Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop approximate elevation profile
  • Overall map of the Broken Top Loop in the Three Sisters Wilderness (PDF)
  • Link to purchase USGS topographic map of Broken Loop area (here)

Jump to Day 1 hike – trailhead to Golden Lake
Jump to Day 2 hike – Golden Lake to Crater Creek
Jump to Day 3 hike – Crater Creek to trailhead

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Preparations:

Permits: Between Memorial Day and October 31, all hikers and backpackers are required to fill out a self-issued permit at the trailhead before heading out into the Three Sisters Wilderness. You do not need to reserve a permit beforehand, you simply fill out the permit upon arrival and enter your information (for Forest Service usage data and in case a rescue is needed). More information about permits can be found on the Forest Service website.

Important regulations on this trek include fire restrictions at Green Lakes and at Golden Lake. You are also required to camp at designated sites near Green Lakes. The sites are marked by posts and are first-come, first-serve. Beyond that, standard rules and regulations for backcountry camping in Wilderness areas apply (i.e. leave no trace).

Logistics: This trek is easily start from the Tam McArthur Rim Trailhead and there is space to park your car near the trailhead. The trailhead is only about an hour away from Bend, OR. This trek only reaches ~8,500 feet in elevation at its peak, so you likely do not need to worry about acclimating to altitude. However, there are two Forest Service campsites near the trailhead if you want to camp the night before starting your trek (Three Creek Lake Campground and Driftwood Campground). Both campsite are modest in size, so consider reserving a spot ahead of time if you plan to camp.

Hikers argue about whether the Broken Top Loop is best hiked in the clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. The itinerary described in this report is for the counter-clockwise (CCW) route. The advantage of the CCW route is that you tackle the relatively easy and more boring section of the trail on the first day. This saves the best views for the last two days of the trek. If you hike clockwise, you get the best views on the first day but also must hike up a significant amount of elevation to summit Broken Hand on day one.

For the trek, most backpackers camp at Golden Lake, Green Lakes, and/or to the south of the unnamed lake (referred to as “No Name Lake”) between Broken Top and Broken Hand. Which campsites you choose really depends on how many days you plan to camp and whether or not you hike clockwise or CCW. There are water sources near each camp. Note that several dead elk were found near No Name Lake in the summer of 2018, so plan to properly sanitize any water taken from this lake or the creeks that flow from it (the elk could be gone by by summer 2019, but I am not sure).

Supplies: For the Broken Top Loop you should prepare for a range of temperatures. During the day it is often quite warm, but at night the temperature can drop to cooler temperatures because of the moderate elevation. There is a good amount of elevation gain along the trek, so trekking poles are great choice. If you hike early in the summer, there may still be snow in several sections of the trail. As a result, you will want waterproof hiking boots and will want to bring bug repellent to fend off the many mosquitoes that hatch after the snow starts to melt. It may also be wise to pre-treat your clothes and gear with premethrin to help keep bugs away (this helps reduce the amount of DEET you need to apply to your skin).

There are no regulations regarding bears, so you do not need to bring a bear canister or hang food on this trek. That said, it may still be wise to hang your food to avoid mice or other critters.

Below is a list of the gear that I recommend for the Broken Loop hike:

Hiking clothes

Clothes for camp

Hiking gear

Camp gear

Random

Food and drink

Difficulty: Though relatively short at ~25 miles, this itinerary is fairly tough with a good amount of elevation gain. Most hikers complete the loop in 3 days and 2 nights, though it’s possible for experienced backpackers to complete the trip in 2 days.

Most of the trails on this route are established and well marked. However, the section near near the Broken Top summit and Broken Hand is unmaintained and may be hard to follow if there is still snow on the ground. During the summer, the trail is typically well established. That said, it is wise to either bring a topographic map and be familiar with route ahead of time (the unmaintained trails will not be marked on the most maps) or use the AllTrails app or a GPS to follow the route.

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Day 1: 8 miles; +1,170 / -1,080 feet; Tam McArthur Rim Trailhead to Golden Lake

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Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 1 Map (red route)

Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 1 Map (PDF)

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Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 1 approximate elevation profile

The first day of the CCW Broken Top Loop trek starts with a relatively easy hike from the Tam McArthur Trailhead to Golden Lake. After leaving the trailhead, you head to the north end of Three Creek Lake. Here you hop on the Little Three Creek Lake Trail (#4076) and hike roughly 0.7 miles before joining up with the Park Meadow Tie Trail (#4102) that heads northwest. After ~2.5 miles on trail #4102, you reach a junction and head west along the Park Meadow Trail (#4075). In roughly ~3.3 miles you reach the junction that leads to Golden Lake, which was the campsite for night 1.

The views at the start of the trek are not spectacular as you hiked through a previous burned forest. As you get closer to Park Meadow and Golden Lake, the views get better! Golden Lake makes for a good campsite if you want to keep day relatively short. Some backpackers prefer to hike all the way to Green Lakes on the first day. You really can’t go wrong either way!

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The permit drop box and information area at the Tam McArthur Trailhead in the Three Sisters Wilderness (credit: John May)
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View looking along the shore of Three Creek Lake next to the Tam McArthur Trailhead. The Tam McArthur Rim can be seen in the distance (credit: John May)
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Looking towards the north end of Three Creek Lake where the Little Three Creek Trail begins (credit: John May)
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The Broken Top Loop CCW hike starts off through the forest. The views at the beginning are not spectacular, but do not give up! (credit: Ben Chen, pictured: Gregory Deva 60 Liter backpack)
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As you hike further into the forest, you notice more and more damage from the forest fire that previously burned this area (credit: Ben Chen)
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Charred logs from the forest fire (credit: Ben Chen)
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After a few miles, the views start to open up a bit and you get your first views of the Three Sisters mountains (note that it was a little hazy during this trek due to the 2018 fire season). You can also see the extensive fire damage (credit: Ben Chen, pictured: Cascade Mountain carbon fiber trekking poles)
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Map showing the section of the Park Meadow Trail that goes through the area of Dechutes National Forest which was burned during the 2012 Pole Creek fire (orange area was burned).
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Between the 3-4 mile mark you cross the boundary between the Dechutes National Forest and the Three Sisters Wilderness (credit: Ben Chen)
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At about the 6.5 mile mark you reach Park Meadow which has a nice view of the expansive meadow and mountains behind it (credit: Nathan Berrevoeta)
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Different view of Park Meadow along the Park Meadow Trail (credit: Nathan Berrevoeta)
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At the ~7.5 mile mark you reach the turn off for Golden Lake, the campsite for night one. The lake is roughly 0.5 miles from the turnoff (credit: Ben Chen)
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View from the shore at Golden Lake with the mountains behind it (credit: Ben Chen)
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Panoramic view of Golden Lake in Three Sisters Wilderness looking east from meadow (credit: Beth Freeman)
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There are some nice campsites with views of the Three Sisters if you head into the trees on the southeast side of Golden Lake (credit: Ben Chen)
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Sunset view from the night one camp at Golden Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness (credit: Ben Chen)

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Day 2: 7.6 miles; +1,400 feet / -1,100 feet; Golden Lake to Crater Creek

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Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 2 Map (light blue route)

Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 2 Map (PDF)

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Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 2 approximate elevation profile

On day 2, you hike 0.5 miles out from Golden Lake and then head west along the Green Lakes Trail (#17). You can either hike through Green Lakes and camp further along the trail or you can camp at Green Lakes and have a very easy second day. If you want to push further, you continue past Green Lakes to the Broken Top Trail (#10) and can camp near one of the creeks by Balle Butte and Broken Top Trailhead. For this itinerary we  camped near Crater Creek, which is about 4 miles past Green Lakes. This made the distance for each day’s hike about 8 miles. If you had extra time, you could spend a night at Green Lakes and tackle some of the side trails that lead up Broken Top and the South Sister mountains.

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View from the shore of Golden Lake in the morning (credit: Ben Chen)
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As you start the hike along the Green Lakes Trail, the views quickly open up and you are treated to views of the South Sister (credit: Ben Chen)
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Hiking along the Green Lake Trail with the South Sister in the background. The first 0.5 miles of the Green Lakes Trail is flat, but then you slowly climb for the next mile (credit: Ben Chen)
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After most of the climb, you get your first glimpse of Green Lakes (credit: Ben Chen, pictured: prAna Halle womens hiking pants)
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Satellite image showing how the Green Lakes Trail meanders through the three lake Green Lakes complex.
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View of the first of the Green Lakes down to the left of the Green Lakes Trail. There are a few campsites near this lake, but the majority of the sites are to the south of the larger lake (credit: Ben Chen)
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Between the 2 mile and ~2.7 mile mark, the Green Lakes Trail descends down to the shore of the first Green Lake. The trail then skirts along the shore of the lake. This is the view looking north with the South Sister on the left (credit: Matthew Noyes)
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View heading south along the Green Lakes Trail along the shore of the first Green Lake (credit: Matthew Noyes)
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View of the shore of the first of the Green Lakes. The water was quite clear and had its characteristic green tint (credit: Ben Chen)
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The Green Lakes trail then skirts along the east side of the largest of the Green Lakes. View of the South Sister from across the larger of the Green Lakes (credit: Ben Chen)
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Hiking on the Green Lakes Trail along the shore of the largest Green Lake (credit: Ben Chen)
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This section of the hike has great views of the South Sister (credit: Ben Chen)
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Along the south shore of the large Green Lake, there are some nice spots to take a break and relax by the water (credit: Ben Chen)
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The trail then continues south and soon passes a third lake in the Green Lakes complex. At this point you come across a junction and begin hiking on the Broken Top Trail (credit: Steve Robinson)
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If you turn around and look to the north you get a view of the lake with Broken Top in the background (credit: Steve Robinson)
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After passing Green Lakes, you hike around 3.5 miles on the Broken Top Trail before setting up camp. Along this section of the trail you get views of Broken Top to the left (credit: Ben Chen)
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Near the 5 mile mark on the Broken Top Trail you get a nice view of the Cayuse Crater in the background. The trail eventually skirts around to the southwest side of the crater (credit: Ben Chen)
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Satellite view of the Broken Top Trail showing Broken Top and the Cayuse Crater.
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To the south you get a view of Mount Bachelor. Unfortunately it was hazy from the wildfires in summer 2018 (credit: Ben Chen)
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Example view of Mount Bachelor on a clear day. Note this photo was taken from higher elevation, closer to the summit of Broken Top (Credit: Steve Robinson)
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Looking to the north you start to get some great views of the south side of Broken Top (credit: Ben Chen)
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Shortly after the 7 mile mark on the Broken Top Trail you reach another boundary between the Three Sisters Wilderness and Dechutes National Forest (credit: Ben Chen)
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In this section of the trail you cross Crater and Little Crater Creek. There are some areas that make nice campsites in this section. We chose to camp near Crater Creek and had views of the Ball Butte and of Broken Top (credit: Ben Chen)
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View of the creek with Broken Top to the left and the ball butte to the right (credit: Steve Robinson)
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Sunset from our night two campsite. You can see part of Broken Top on the right side of the image (credit: Ben Chen)

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Day 3: 7.9 miles; +1,800 feet / -2,500 feet; Crater Creek to Tam McArthur Trailhead

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Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 3 Map (purple route)

Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 3 Map (PDF)

Three-sisters-wilderness-broken-top-loop-elevation-Day-3
Three Sisters Wilderness Broken Top Loop Day 3 approximate elevation profile

The hike on the third day is the most strenuous, but the views make up for it. The hike starts by continuing on the Broken Top Trail (#10) for another ~0.5 miles. At this point you reach a Y-junction where the trail splits in two directions. Following the trail south leads to the Broken Top Trailhead (don’t go this way) while taking a left and heading north leads to the No Name Lake and Broken Hand. You want to follow the trail north as it travels up in elevation. This section of the trail is technically not maintained and is not on the Forest Service maps, but the trail is pretty well established. Along the route, you will see the Ball Butte to your right and to your left is a small ridge line. It is just under 2 miles from the Y-junction to the No Name Lake.

After the No Name Lake, the trail is unmaintained so you will need to pay attention to the route. The trail follows the Broken Hand ridge east towards the Tam McArthur Rim. Along the ridge you get great views of the Three Sisters. It is about a 3 mile hike from No Name Lake down to the Tam McArthur Rim. From there, you take the Tam McArthur Rim Trail (#4078) the remaining ~2.5 miles back to the trailhead.

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Broken Top in the morning light (credit: Ben Chen)
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View looking north along the trail that leads up to Broken Top (credit: Beth Freeman)
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Satellite view showing the trail up to Broken Top. Note that it follows a valley/creek between the Ball Butte (on right) and a moraine (on the left).
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The trail skirts along the west side of the Ball Butte (credit: Beth Freeman)
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View of Broken Top as the trail heads north past the Ball Butte (credit: Ben Chen)
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Hiking north with Broken Hand in the background (credit: Ben Chen, pictured: Gregory Deva 60 Liter backpack)
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View looking south with Mount Bachelor and the Ball Butte in view (credit: Ben Chen)
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The trail then approaches No Name Lake. You reach the shore and follow the trail along the east shore of the lake. From there, the trail heads up to the Broken Hand ridge and follows the ridge east towards the Tam McArthur Rim.
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The trail heads north view a clear view of Broken Hand to the northeast. After this section, the trail takes a turn to the west and heads directly to No Name Lake (credit: Ben Chen)
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Heading west on the final climb up to No Name Lake near the top of Broken Top (credit: Ben Chen)
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After the final climb, you get the first view of No Name Lake and the summit of Broken Top (credit: Ben Chen)
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View of No Name Lake and Broken Top from the southeast shore of the lake (credit: Ben Chen)
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The trail skirts along the shore of No Name Lake. Some people camp near the lake, but the area is pretty desolate and can be windy (credit: Nathan F.)
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View from the northeast shore of No Name Lake (credit: Ben Chen)
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View looking back at No Name Lake from further up the Broken Hand ridge (credit: Ben Chen)
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View looking northwest at the Three Sisters from the start of the Broken Hand Ridge (credit: Ben Chen)
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The trail then heads west up to the first summit along the Broken Hand ridge. There are two separate Broken Hand summits, each of which sits at around 8,390 feet (credit: Ben Chen)
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View looking back at No Name Lake, the Ball Butte, and Mount Bachelor from the Broken Hand Ridge (credit: Ben Chen)
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From the first Broken Hand summit you get a great view of the Three Sisters and also Black Crater (distant peak on right side) (credit: Ben Chen)
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After the first Broken Hand summit, the trail heads east along the ridge until you reach the second Broken Hand summit. The trail skirts to the side of the this summit, but you can scramble to the top for a view. This image shows the view from the second Broken Hand summit looking west, back along the ridge that you just hiked (credit: Lisa Cutter)
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View looking north from the second Broken Hand summit. You can see the Middle Sister, North Sister, and several small buttes (credit: Lisa Cutter)
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The next two miles after the 2nd Broken Hand summit are a steady descent down the ridge towards the Tam McArthur Rim (credit: Ben Chen)
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Along this descent you keep the great view of the Three Sisters (credit: Ben Chen)
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View looking back up at Broken Top from near the Tam McArthur Rim. You can see the ridge that you just descended (credit: Steve Robinson)
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View looking east from the Tam McArthur Rim Lookout area. You can see Three Creek Lake, Little Three Creek Lake, and several buttes. From this point, it is a 2.5 mile descent down the Tam McArthur Trail until your reach the trailhead (credit: Lisa Cutter)
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The first ~0.5 miles of the descent down the Tam McArthur Rim Trail are fairly boring with a dusty trail through the forest (credit: John May)
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You do, however, start to get occasional views of Three Creek Lake for the next mile or so (credit: Nathan Berrevoets)
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View of Three Creek Lake and the Tam McArthur Rim to the west of it (credit: John May)

At the end, the Tam McArthur Trail reaches the trailhead this trek began at. At that point you can rinse off in the lake and then head home!

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Here are some related trip reports:

Trinity Alps Wilderness – Four Lakes Loop (20 mile trek)

Desolation Wilderness – Twin Lakes, Island Lake, Lake Aloha (12 mile trek)

Trinity Alps Wilderness – Emerald and Sapphire Lakes (25 mile trek)

4 Replies to “Three Sisters Wilderness – Broken Top Loop (24 mile loop)”

  1. This is a great write up! Just want to point out that you can skip the boring section between Three Creek Lake and Golden Lake. When I hiked this loop I started at the Broken Top TH. From there you hike up to No Name Lake and head off trail north towards Golden Lake. The off trail stuff between No Name and Golden Lake is not bad to navigate and the terrain and views are great. Its much better than hiking through the burned forest. From Golden Lk, you can head to Green Lakes and back to Broken Top TH like you describe.

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    1. That sounds like an awesome itinerary. For those with experience navigating sections of off-trail hiking, consider doing this route to shorten the trek a bit and avoid the not-super-beautiful stretch between Three Creek Lake and Golden Lake.

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  2. Really great pictures. U guys ever make it to the obsidian section of the park? Looks cool but looks like there is a permit quota in place.

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