A long weekend backpacking trip doesn’t get much better than this: a two to three day loop just outside of Bend packed full of alpine lakes, ridge-top views, volcanic crags, delicate meadows, and a tiny bit of easy “cross-country” travel thrown in just to make sure you’re paying attention.
Broken Top Loop is a 22ish mile route in the Three Sisters Wilderness area of Deschutes National Forest, just west of Bend and south of Sisters in central Oregon. It offers hikers a bit of everything, including excellent views of several distinctive peaks that characterize the region.
Backpacking around Broken Top might just be my favorite of the many amazing outdoorsy things to do near Bend. In addition to hiking it over two days, I’ve read a number of other trip reports and researched logistics to put together this guide. Read on for route details, campsite locations, permit information, and more.
Map and Elevation Profile
Distance: 22 miles
Time: 2 to 3 days
Elevation gain: 3520 feet
Elevation range: ~6000 – 8300 feet
Location: Broken Top Loop is located in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, about one hour and fifteen minutes by car west of Bend via Sisters.
Trailhead: Most people start from Little Three Creek Lake Trailhead on the east side of the loop. This is sometimes also called Tam McArthur Rim Trailhead. More details on parking and permits below.
Trails: The Broken Top Loop is a route linking up sections of several different trails. In order going counterclockwise:
- Little Three Creek Lake Trail
- Park Meadow Trail
- Green Lakes Trail
- Broken Top Trail
- Unmaintained use trail between Broken Hand and Tam McArthur Rim Trail
- Tam McArthur Rim Trail
Which direction to hike? Either way works. Clockwise gets both the big climb and the unmaintained section done early. I prefer counterclockwise because it saves the best scenery for the second half.
Difficulty: This is a moderately challenging hike. The altitude and elevation change make it a solid workout but well within reach of most backpackers, especially over three days.
The only navigation challenge is a short stretch of unmaintained “cross country” travel between Broken Hand and the end of Tam McArthur Rim trail on the southeastern side of the loop. This can be navigated easily with a GPS app, and a fairly obvious use trail usually forms in the summer.
When to hike: Higher parts of the trail can hold snow well into July, so late July and August are usually best. Mosquitoes can be bad during most of the summer so be sure to pack your bug repellent. Afternoon thunderstorms sometimes pop up in the summer, but days are usually warm. Nights can be cold, near freezing.
Heading counterclockwise from Three Creek Lake you’ll hike through forest burned in 2012 and still bearing fresh scars of the fire. Amidst the burnt tree skeletons, colorful wildflowers spring to life.
A section of delicate green meadow follows. Then the Green Lakes area reveals views of South Sister, followed by views of Broken Top itself as you head south to contour around the conical Cayuse Crater.
After this the scenery keeps getting even better as you climb north toward Broken Top, coming close to the summit as the use trail skirts around No Name Lake, often crusted with floating ice. The views from Broken Hand Ridge are vast and dramatic, and feel particularly well earned at this point.
The next stretch is technically unmaintained and a GPS app would be helpful (or try it using compass and map for a bit of a challenge). By mid summer a use path is usually fairly obvious, but make sure you have a navigation backup anyway.
Once you join the Tam McArthur Rim trail it’s just a few miles downhill back to the the trailhead.
Between Memorial Day and October 31 a wilderness permit is required. Historically (and through 2020) they are free and can be self-issued at the trailhead (details here).
According to the forest service website, in 2021 a new system will be implemented to limit entry via a permit reservation system with a per-night fee. Details here.
Parking is available at Little Three Creek Trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass is required, $5 per day. This can be purchased from various local vendors, or purchased online and printed at home.
Popular Camp Locations
Camping is allowed throughout most of the route following leave no trace guidelines: camp in previously used sites, on durable surfaces, and not within 200 feet of water. At Green Lake hikers must camp in one of 28 designated sites which are first-come-first-served, and no fires are allowed.
Here are some of the most popular campsite locations on the Broken Top Loop, and their approximate mileage from Three Creek Trailhead when hiking counterclockwise. These sites generally all have water available nearby.
|Camp Location||Approx. Miles from Start|
|Golden Lake||7.5 (plus 0.5 each way out and back)|
|Creeks near Crater Ditch and Broken Top trail junctions||14|
Hikers on a 3 day itinerary usually camp at one of the first two options and the last, while hikers on a 2 day itinerary typically spend their one night at Green Lakes.
It’s possible to get the route done in 1.5 days, if you have something else to do with half a day, by pushing all the way to mile 14ish on the first day and finishing early on the second. This is actually the way I hiked it, because I needed to start driving home on that second day.
Trail runners and super speedy hikers might consider pushing through in a single long day, but this should only be attempted by experienced folks familiar with the area and terrain.
Variations and Side Trips
Enthusiastic peakbaggers will wonder if it’s possible to tag the summit of Broken Top on the way around the loop. If you’re a skilled climber who is comfortable with exposure, then yes, and here are the details.
If 22 miles sounds too short, plenty of other trails crisscross the Three Sisters Wilderness. Those with more time should consider the 50 mile Three Sisters Loop. This highly recommended route overlaps with the western edge of Broken Top Loop, circumnavigates the sisters, and takes in a long stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Maps and Other Resources
As an outdoor skills exercise though, try using a compass and paper map for that section (I recommend the National Geographic Three Sisters map) and only consulting the GPS track if needed for safety.
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re planning a hike of Broken Top Loop, you might find these helpful:
- Lightweight Backpacking Tips for Easier Miles
- Should you hike in trail running shoes?
- What Backpackers Should Know About Water Purification
- More hiking and backpacking resources here!
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