Best backpacking loop trips in Oregon, Washington

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Here are some favorite loop backpacking options, with a detailed report on the best of all, Broken Top in central Oregon, lower down.

Three Sisters: The 35-mile northern circuit, from Pole Creek Spring near Sisters, with a cross-country connection between Chambers Lakes and the Pacific Crest Trail.

Steens Mountain: An unforgettable 15-mile descent, from the summit into Wildhorse Canyon then back up Little Wildhorse Canyon, in Oregon’s Harney County.

Mount St. Helens: A 30-mile circuit on the rugged and dry Loowit Trail, from Climbers Bivouac near Cougar, Wash.

Three Fingered Jack: North from Santiam Pass, on the Pacific Crest Trail, with return through Canyon Creek Meadows; a 20.5-mile loop west of Sisters.

Mount Margaret: A 28-mile backcountry circuit, north of Mount St. Helens, from Norway Pass trailhead.

Hiking guidebook author Doug Lorain lists these loops among his favorite long weekend trips.

Look for details (including the Broken Top loop) in his many backpacking books, including “One Night Wilderness: Portland,” “100 Classic Hikes in Oregon” and  “One Best Hike: Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail.”

Mount Rainier: A 33.4-mile northern portion of the Wonderland Trail in Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park includes huckleberries, a natural bridge, waterfalls, a glacier, mountain lakes, great views and wildlife. Start at Sunrise and loop via Mystic Lake, Carbon Glacier, Windy Gap, Lake James and Grand Park.

Goat Rocks: The 25.4-mile Packwood Lake-Coyote Ridge loop is in the northwest part of the Goat Rocks Wilderness Area near Packwood, Wash. Laden with scenery and less crowded than the classic Goat Lake-Snowgrass Flat loop, it includes one of the great ridge walks in the Cascades.

Mount Jefferson: The 17.7-mile Shale Lake loop out of Pamelia Lake in Oregon’s Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area requires a limited use permit, but that makes it less crowded than Jefferson Park. With a camp at Shale or Mudhole lakes, backpackers can explore off trail to Goat Peak, the Table or up Mount Jefferson’s south ridge until climbing gear is needed.

Strawberry Mountains: The Strawberry Lakes loop in the Oregon’s Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Area has gorgeous mountain lakes, hillsides covered with yellowing western larch in mid-October, a short side trip up one of Oregon’s highest mountains and a lovely waterfall. It’s a 21-mile round trip from the less-crowded trailhead on the south side of the range.

Indian Heaven: The Lemei-Blue Lake loop in Washington’s Indian Heaven Wilderness Area is only 12.3 miles, relatively easy and great for youngsters. It has lots of scenic lakes, the best fall color near Portland in early October, tons of huckleberries in late August and lovely forests.

Here’s one of my reports on hiking around Broken Top:

There’s something magical about a circle, especially when you’re making it by foot.

Backpackers love their loops. It means they don’t need to trudge the same trail twice, while laboring under the weight of a 40-pound pack.

In reality, though, true loops are difficult to find.

Most backpack trips require significant out-and-back hiking on a trail or the cumbersome process of setting up a car shuttle.

What may be Oregon’s ultimate extended weekend backpack is a three-day circuit of 9,175-foot high Broken Top, the craggy and colorful central Oregon volcano.

Fast hikers could even do it in a day, but that would defeat the purpose, just most people backpack to slow their lives down and to see the country. Snow lingers can linger long in this high country, so wait until late July (if you feel comfortable following others’ footsteps through the snow) or mid-August (for a more melted path). Of course, with the light snow this year, it could be ready now, but I don’t know.

The Broken Top loop hike begins at Three Creek Lake’s Driftwood campground, 16 miles south of Sisters. The counterclockwise circuit covers 23 miles, with overnight camps at Golden Lake and then high on Broken Top’s southeast flank. The only trail repetition is on the half-mile side trip to Golden Lake.

In a clockwise direction from Three Creek Lake, you can camp on Broken Top’s southeast flank and in one of the designated sites at the Green Lakes.

Colorful volcanic scenery, alpine lakes, wildflower meadows and whitebark pines at the treeline make this hike about as pretty as it gets in central Oregon.

The first part of the trail passes through a dull forest of lodgepole pines, but the scenery begins in earnest at the six-mile point in Park Meadow. Just above the trail is Golden Lake, where hikers who set up a camp can explore two alpine tarns tucked away on Broken Top’s north flank. That’s the Bend Glacier high up the mountain.

The scenery stays superlative from there as the trail passes the South Sister volcano and the three Green Lakes. Next come distant views of Mount Bachelor and high Cascade lakes from a dusty pumice plain.

The off-trail segment begins at the Crater Creek ditch, an old irrigation project. Set your sights upward, toward the left of two obvious notches, and you soon will be among dozens of day hikers on a sunny summer day.

They are bound for an unnamed lake on the east shoulder of Broken Top. The route is not maintained by the Deschutes National Forest, nor is it described in most hiking books, but it’s easy to follow and ends at one of the most colorful spots in the Oregon Cascades. (William L. Sullivan does write about it in his latest edition of 100 hikes in central Oregon.)

Early in summer, you may see an iceberg calf from the glacier into the lake’s pea green water.

The off-trail but obvious route continues east beneath Broken Hand, an 8,000-foot formation between Broken Top and Tam McArthur Rim. Pick up the trail again here and follow it down to Three Creek Lake and the end of backpacking perfection.

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