When I first moved to central Oregon several years ago, my brother asked me if I wanted to “go on a hike”. I said “sure” and where we ended up became one of my favorite places in the whole world. I had no idea what I was getting into and it was easily the toughest hike I had ever done until that point in my life. But over the next few years I have now done this route about a dozen times and can’t get enough of it. The “hike” was the summit climb up South Sister mountain from Devil’s lake.
The start of the trail is at around 5,000 feet of elevation and quickly climbs to a high plateau with the first of many epic views. After a mile or two of rolling to flat terrain, you start the fun/steep stuff with a continuous climb all the way to the summit at an elevation of 10,358 ft. The final scramble up the red volcanic cinder is the stuff of dreams. I felt like I was on mars with it’s thin air, cold temps and a barren red wasteland. The reward and feeling of accomplishment once you reach the summit is so worth all the struggle!
I had been doing a bit of hiking and running before attempting this hike but I was nowhere close enough to being in shape to fully enjoy the entirety of the experience. The climb to the summit was great but it was on the way down that things started to fall apart. After the first mile of descent my quads and IT bands gradually began to get more and more sore until every step of downhill was shooting pain. And it makes sense. I had done basically zero downhill training. A bit of rolling hill running and hiking was not enough. I needed specificity in my training.
Can you do this hike with very little fitness? Yes. But I don’t recommend it. You’ll enjoy your time on the mountain so much more if you just put in a bit of conditioning leading up to the big day. I’d recommend about two months out that you begin hiking anything you can find with a strong amount of vertical climb and descent. Start shorter in distance and gradually build your mileage until you are doing enough to feel confident and strong. The big key is making sure that you simulate the terrain as much as possible and wear a backpack similar to what you will wear as well. This hike can take people anywhere from 4 to 9 hours. So, be prepared to carry a lot of water and snacks to keep you going all day. The more you practice wearing the same type/loaded pack, the better your experience will be.
If you are looking for a much easier and quicker hike in the same area, check out our Tumalo Mountain report. Awesome views!