Mink Lake was once described to me as a personal Crater Lake. With heavy winter snow still blanketing the higher elevation trails throughout Oregon by the first week of June a low elevation loop dotted with countless lakes drew my attention. Culminating at Mink Lake’s profoundly blue water this 37 mile exploit seemed a superb way to kick off the Summer backpacking season.
The logistics were simple; free parking, free self issue back country permits at the trailhead, and a well defined trail barely cresting 6000 ft. The only hindrance was an utter lack of information illustrating suitable places to camp along the way. There is something to be said for embracing the unknown and figuring it out on the fly but when backpacking solo for 5 days I prefer to be well armed with an overabundance of information.
Picking a starting point was easy. Two options exist. I could start and end at the drive-in campgrounds of Irish and Taylor Lakes or park at the Winopee Lake trailhead on the East bank of Cultus Lake near a large, amenity rich campground popular with boaters. Minimal research revealed that the road to Irish Lake is rough at best and disastrous at worst. Rarely maintained it requires a high clearance vehicle and four wheel drive. The solitary video posted online depicting the road highlights deep ruts and large rocks protruding a foot or higher scattered along the tattered dirt road. It didn’t seem worth the difficult drive to shave 5.8 miles off the hike’s round-trip distance.
With that decided the next question was whether to hike clockwise or counter clockwise. My initial instinct said clockwise as it would save the more scenic spots for later in the journey and mean a very level stretch of trail on the last day when my feet always protest the loudest. However, it would also mean bigger mile days at the start when my pack is fully loaded and at it’s heaviest. A look at the weather forecast changed my mind. Day one threatened cold rain. Day two promised snow. A clockwise course would put me at the highest elevation in the worst weather. So that was out. I knew if I could suffer through a few damp, cold, and dreary days at lower elevations hiking counterclockwise would put me at Mink Lake, the trail’s main attraction, just as the sun emerged. Days 3, 4, and 5 were forecasted to be relentlessly sunny with temps in the mid to high 80s. It would be weather more suited for trudging through the thigh deep snow that sits stubbornly refusing to melt away at 5300 ft and higher near Stormy Lake.
Still the question remained of how far to go each day to find the very best camping locations Three Sisters Wilderness has to offer on this route. For that I’ve created the above video. My hope is that it helps you plan your own adventure. You can’t really go wrong camping anywhere in Three Sisters but I definitely came across places I longed to spend more time enjoying. When I do this loop again in September (after the hoards of bloodsucking mosquitoes dwindle) my preferred stops will be:
Mink Lake- the biggest, baddest, and best beauty on the trail.
For the best campsite hike past the shelter on the Northeast shore and take the first offshoot left. It leads to an amazing campsite surrounded by the pristine blue water on 3 sides.
Snowshoe Lake- deep, dark, and mysterious. Go for a dip or simply sit on the rock cliff to watch bald eagles and osprey fish from the lake.
For the best campsite fork right off the main trail, hike around the East shore, across the creek, to a campsite with a fire ring and the best view.
Brahma Lake- best group site with a fire ring, great swimming hole, and the most trout.
Kershaw Lake- best cliff jumping and can also accommodate a large group. It has the added benefit of being in-between the two most accessible and therefore crowded lakes. Escape the Cultus Lake and Irish Lake crowds here.
Honorable mention goes to Cliff Lake. It doesn’t have the most level campsites or the best views but it does have a sturdy shelter should the weather require. The shelter at Mink Lake is dilapidated and will not provide much protection.
Watch the video to see footage of all these stops and their wonders. Hope it helps you enjoy your time there to the fullest. Happy trails!