Broken Top Loop Backpacking Guide (Three Sisters Wilderness, OR)

A long weekend backpacking trip can’t get much better than Broken Top Loop: a scenic 22 mile route in the Three Sisters Wilderness area of Deschutes National Forest just outside of Bend, Oregon. This little loop is densely packed with alpine lakes, ridge-top views, volcanic crags, delicate meadows, and a tiny bit of easy “cross-country” travel thrown in just to keep things interesting.

Backpacking around Broken Top might just be my favorite of the many amazing outdoorsy things to do near Bend. I hiked this route in two days and absolutely loved it. Read on for route details, campsite locations, permit information, and more.

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Map and Elevation Profile

Here’s the AllTrails map for Broken Top Loop. It’s a helpful resource for recent trail reports, and the app can be used for offline navigation with a small monthly fee.

Hike Overview

Distance: 22 miles, plus any additional miles needed to hike in from whatever trailhead you can get a permit for.

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: The Little Three Creek Lake Trailhead on the east side of the loop is the preferred starting point, sometimes also called Tam McArthur Rim Trailhead. There are permit quotas in place though, so you may need to start at a different trailhead (Park Meadow, Broken Top Trailhead, Todd Lake) depending on where you can get a permit. 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 like AllTrails or Gaia GPS (with offline functionality enabled). A fairly obvious use trail usually forms in the summer, but don’t count on being able to follow it without a GPS app or good map and compass skills.

Short section of cross country near Tam McArthur Rim. I think we actually lost the “trail” a bit while trying to navigate by compass, but still found our way without issue.

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.

Summer thunderstorm brewing on a hot day

Notable Segments

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.

Yellow wildflowers in green meadow contrast with burned tree trunks
Wildflowers in burned area of forest

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.

Hiker on mountain ridge
Alpine lake with floating ice

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.

Permits

Between June 15 – October 15 a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit is required for overnight stays in the Three Sisters Wilderness. This system is relatively new and intended to prevent overuse as this area becomes more popular. When I hiked Broken Top Loop in 2020 permits were free and self-issued, but I hear from recent reports that the new permit system can be competitive.

Under the new system, each trailhead has a daily quota (scroll down to overnight quotas on page 3). Forty percent of spots are available for reservation starting the first Tuesday in April. The remaining spots become available 7 days before. The quota numbers are small, so plan ahead if you can!

Here’s a map showing the possible entry trailheads for Broken Top Loop. The most logical option is Tam McArthur Rim. Park Meadow is also good but adds a small additional distance. Broken Top and Todd Lake trailheads are a bit further off-route but also work.

Note that there is no permit option for Three Creek Trailhead. Tam McArthur Rim is right across the street, but according to a report on AllTrails this is only the correct permit if you’re hiking clockwise. Apparently you should get a permit for Park Meadow if hiking counterclockwise from the Three Creek parking lot.

Trailhead Parking

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 nearby. Note that camping is prohibited in the immediate vicinity of Golden Lake and No Name Lake, but you can camp nearby and walk to the lakes for water.

Camp LocationApprox. Miles from Start
Park Meadow6
Golden Lake7.5 (plus 0.5 each way out and back)
Green Lakes10
Creeks near Crater Ditch and Broken Top trail junctions14
Sunset over volcanic Mt. Bachelor in the distance
Sunset view of Mt. Bachelor from near mile 14

Sample Itineraries

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.

Some of the route is fast and smooth like this, but some is also rocky and steep.

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 includes a long stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Maps and Other Resources

The route is described in detail on Hiking Project. Their free app can be used to download and follow the GPS route even while offline. This is helpful for the off-trail section especially.

The AllTrails route page is really helpful for recent trail reports, and the map can be downloaded for offline use in the AllTrails app for a small monthly fee.

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.

This trip report has some nice pictures, maps, and descriptions which helped jog my memory as I wrote this guide. Here’s another map with some detailed notes and waypoints that might be helpful.

The scenery on Broken Top Loop is hard to beat.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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Pictures of mountains with text: Backpacking Broken Top Loop, Central Oregon
Pictures of mountains with text: Broken Top Loop, Central Oregon Backpacking

2 thoughts on “Broken Top Loop Backpacking Guide (Three Sisters Wilderness, OR)”

  1. Nice writeup. I would add that Wilderness Permits are required June 15 to October 15, not July as you stated.

    Reply

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