10 best outdoor adventures in Central Oregon’s Sisters


Views from Whychus Creek Scenic Overlook in Sisters.

From its classic old-fashioned western look, to its abundance of outdoor adventures, Sisters is a town truly waiting to be explored.

Often referred to as the “gateway to the Cascades” and located about two hours from Salem, you can enjoy just about any outdoor activity, from hiking to biking to horseback riding and more.

Statesman Journal outdoors reporter Zach Urness and outdoors intern Makenzie Elliott settled on a list of the top 10 destinations in and around Sisters. Included are a variety of activities, from horseback riding to hiking to biking — both on mountains and on paved roads.

More from Makenzie Elliot:Peterson Ridge Trail offers mountain biking for all levels, views of Cascades in Sisters

And while peak recreation season is winding down, the idea of this list — and the duo’s recent Explore Oregon Sisters podcast — is to give people ideas for planning a trip next year (or maybe even sneaking in one final adventure this year).

Three Creek Lake

Zach Gilbert paddles across Three Creek Lake.

Three Creek Lake is about 16 miles south of Sisters. It has everything great for a car camping destination or day trip from Sisters. The lake itself is spectacular, with clear blue water and the cliffs of Tam McArthur Rim rising overhead. It has a big sandy beach on both sides of the lake and shallow lake entry, great for kids. It’s a sweet place to stand up paddleboard or kayak — there’s even a shop on site that rents boats. The lake is also a fun spot for fishing — it has brook and rainbow trout. If you tire of the lake, there’s a short and sweet hike to Little Three Creek Lake, which is even more beautiful but smaller and less crowded. Try your luck at Three Creek Campground or Driftwood Campground if you’re looking to camp. Both are old-school U.S. Forest Service sites with close access to the lake. The lake is at a pretty high elevation, so August or early September feels like the right time to visit.

– Zach Urness

Horseback riding at Black Butte Stables

Makenzie Elliott rides Lenny the horse on a trail ride with Black Butte Stables.

If you really want to lean into the old-fashioned western theme in Sisters, I highly recommend saddling up for a trail ride at Black Butte Stables. Black Butte Ranch is about 10 miles from downtown Sisters. While the resort is a vacation spot within itself, the nice thing about the stables is that anyone can book a ride — you don’t have to be staying at the resort. In fact, a lot of locals go on trail rides there, so it’s a pretty popular spot for horseback riding adventures. The stables offer multiple options for trail rides, including everything from “Little Buckaroo” rides to half-day rides for more experienced visitors. The trails take you through a forest of ponderosa pines and aspen groves. You’ll also likely be able to stop at a few meadows to take in views of the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Broken Top. The stables are open year-round and are only closed when the weather is a danger to the horses. So, if you’re looking for a new way to explore the area — and are open to making a new furry friend along the way — try out a ride with Black Butte Stables.

– Makenzie Elliott

East side Jefferson Wilderness trails

Carl Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.

While the town of Sisters was named for the Three Sisters, the Mount Jefferson Wilderness has trailheads that are only about 35 minutes away. It can be the perfect destination for great backpacking trips or day hikes, as it’s only a short distance from Sisters. There are five wilderness trailheads on the east side outside Sisters. The easiest, most popular and most spectacular is Jack Lake Trailhead, which brings you right into Canyon Creek Meadows at the base of Three Fingered Jack. You need one of the limited entry Central Cascade permits to hike or camp here, but it’s stunning and easy. Another one worth highlighting is Carl Lake. You access it via the Cabot Lake Trailhead, and then it’s 5 miles to Carl Lake, which is a large and really beautiful alpine lake. It has a lot of good campsites and is the perfect spot for a quick two-day backpacking trip. It has fishing, a fun trail around the lake and it’s just a scenic spot to sit in the sun and relax. You do need an overnight permit for Carl Lake, but you don’t need a day-hike permit. It’s 10.2 miles round-trip. If you want a really deep cut, consider the Jefferson Lake Trail. It’s probably the least hiked trail in the wilderness, but is quite pretty. If you’re up for hiking 11 miles one way — and 22 round-trip — it brings you to Table Lake, which is striking.

– Zach Urness

Peterson Ridge Trail

The Peterson Ridge Overlook showcases views of the Cascades.

Peterson Ridge Trail is a mountain biking trail system located minutes from downtown Sisters. It has over 20 miles of single track, and it’s one of the most popular trails in the area. Regardless of your skill level, Peterson Ridge is a great place to ride. The trail is a stacked system, and works like a ladder. It has two legs, an east and west, and then it has connectors in between. So, basically, as you go up the ladder, the harder the trails get, but you have the option to take a connector and head back down the other side continuing your loop. There are a few options for renting mountain bikes in Sisters, and the trailhead is only a short five-minute ride away. Peterson Ridge Overlook is a popular lookout on the trail with sweeping views of the Cascades. To get there, it is only about 11 miles round-trip. Eagle Rock is another viewpoint along the trail with views of the Cascades. The path to make it up there is considered very difficult. The unique thing about this trail is it has options for everyone, so regardless of skill level you’ll be able to enjoy the trails. Overall, I’d highly recommend Peterson Ridge to anyone looking for a cycling adventure in Sisters.

– Makenzie Elliott

Road bike from Sisters to McKenzie Pass

Ride across McKenzie Pass on a bike for outstanding views.

Viewed by some as the most scenic road to bike in Oregon, this ride takes you from Sisters up McKenzie Pass Highway 242. This ride is most popular in the late spring, when for at least a few weeks, one lane is plowed and it’s open to bike traffic only — check with ODOT and local bike shops on the timing because that car-less window is different every year. From Sisters, the ride climbs a few thousand feet and it’s about 16 miles to McKenzie summit at Dee Wright Observatory — although you can start further up the road near the winter snow gate and shave off a few miles. The summit is about as scenic as it gets with lava flows below the peaks of the Sisters, Washington and Jefferson. But the big question — and one you need to settle before the ride — is what to do from the summit. For a simple trip, you can just ride back down the way you came to Sisters. Another option is continuing downhill to the McKenzie Bridge side. You get to roll downhill as the forest switches from lava and ponderosa pine to the deep rainforest green of Douglas fir and hemlock on the wet west side. One quick tip: if you do this in the spring, dress warm with lots of layers. I’d even recommend ski gloves. It is very chilly at the top. And be careful on your ride because the road can get slippery.

– Zach Urness

Whychus Creek Scenic Overlook

Whychus Creek Scenic Overlook trail leads you to a lookout with views of the Cascades.

If you’re looking for something more challenging, Whychus Creek Scenic Overlook is not that. The hike is a little under a mile and basically flat the entire way, but the views along the way are well worth making a pit stop. This is a great option for those with kids or for anyone looking for a gentle, accessible way to experience the beautiful views of the Cascades. The trailhead is also only about 15 minutes from downtown Sisters, so it’s a very convenient and great way to get outdoors. The trail has a shorter or longer path to the overlook. The longer trail will take you on a beautiful lush path where you will pass a few lookout spots with benches. Eventually, you’ll stumble upon the overlook, which will greet you with amazing views of the Cascades and Whychus Creek down below. This trail is incredibly relaxing and could be a great way to unwind after a long day of adventuring. It’s a short trek, but I would say it’s worth your time checking it out, especially with how convenient it is to get there.

– Makenzie Elliott

Downtown Sisters historical walking tour

The Sisters Museum holds treasures of the town's past and is located right in downtown Sisters.

If you’re searching for a little bit of history, check out the self-guided historic landmarks walking tour through downtown Sisters. It’s a great way to dive a little deeper into the rich history of the town, while also getting outside and exploring the area — especially if this is your first time in Sisters. The tour, which was put together by the Three Sisters Historical Society and Museum and the City of Sisters, includes 18 landmarks to visit all within a 1.5 mile loop through the heart of downtown. To get started, pop into the museum, which is located at 151 Spruce St. They’ll have a walking tour brochure ready for you that includes a map and information on each landmark. The museum is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, but you can also find a version of the map online. The tour will guide you to places like the Sisters hotel (which is currently Sisters Saloon), Robert Smith’s general store, and it’ll even bring you to Sno Cap Drive In — an iconic burger joint that’s still serving up burgers and milkshakes today. Their marionberry milkshake is worth the trip.

– Makenzie Elliott

Metolius River Corridor

The Metolius River.

The stunning Metolius River is perhaps one of the biggest draws of the area. From its headwaters down through its canyons, there is no river in Oregon that quite compares to the Metolius. It’s born from springs of ice-cold water that percolate through the Cascade Mountains’ remarkable groundwater system and emerges about as clear and cold as liquid glass at the Head of the Metolius. The Metolius is probably best known as the state’s most famous fly-fishing destination — and it’s really fun for that. I have to recommend heading into the fly shop at the little Camp Sherman store to get the info you need to fish. There’s also a great and pretty long hiking trail, though I’d recommend mainly the section from Canyon Creek Campground to Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. There’s also a scenic bikeway there and great campgrounds. The campsites can go quickly, but they’ve got a ton of personality and it’s just a fun place to hang out. Some people kayak the river, but it tends to be experts since there is a lot of very dangerous wood that can easily trap people, and the water itself is about as cold as it gets.

– Zach Urness

A hike up Black Butte

The view from Black Butte.

You can’t step into Sisters without spying Black Butte overhead. A true icon in the area, Black Butte is an extinct stratovolcano east of the Cascade Range crest. It was formed nearly a million years ago from a combination of violent volcanoes and earthquakes. If you’re looking for some stellar views, take a hike to the top. To get to the trailhead, head to the upper parking lot. From there, it’s a steep 1.9 mile climb to the summit. The trail is generally considered moderately challenging, but the views along the way and at the top are worth it. You’ll see Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson as you climb, and when you reach the top you’ll see the Three Sisters, Three Fingered Jack and Broken Top. If you’re lucky to trek up there on a clear day, you might be able to see Mount Adams too. You’ll also run into a few structures at the top, including a couple fire lookouts. Like the other activities I’ve mentioned, it’s pretty close to town and only about a 30 minute drive from Sisters. The 360-degree views on this trail really make the hike something you should check out if you’re in the area.

– Makenzie Elliott

More:Backpack, fish, swim or search for waterfalls at Linton Lake in Three Sisters Wilderness

A few more adventures

There are a few more places you should try to check out. First off, a big one is Tam McArthur Rim Trail, which takes you onto those cliffs you see above Three Creek Lake. It’s got big views on every side and you can follow it all the way to Broken Top and connect with other routes in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Another spot to consider is a pretty frequently visited cave on public lands called the Skylight Cave. It’s a lava tube cave similar to the more popular Lava River Cave south of Bend, but apparently the Skylight Cave has holes in the roof that allows beams of light to come down — hence the name. If you need more hiking, the Alder Springs Trail is a great one, about 40 minutes northwest of Sisters.

– Zach Urness

Makenzie Elliott is an outdoors intern at the Salem Statesman Journal. Reach her at MElliott@Salem.gannett.com. Find her on Twitter at @makenzielliott.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.


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