SoCal Hiker blog is the Hiking Guide for Southern California. The blog is Jeff's personal resource of favorite local hikes and backpack trips, complete with advice, tips, trip reports, checklists and “how-to.”
South Sister is the third tallest mountain in Oregon. At 10,363′ it’s the highest of the Three Sisters, and also the youngest, geologically-speaking. The cauldron holds the highest lake in Oregon–when it’s not frozen and buried in snow. It’s home to eight glaciers, including Prouty Glacier, the largest in Oregon. And it’s a great non-technical ascent that caps the Central Oregon Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge.
Summit: 10,363′ Distance: 12 miles Time: 6-9 hours Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation gain: 4,820 ft Dogs: Yes, on leash When to go: Late July to early October Download GPX
This hike is a strenuous, all-day affair. The top section includes a scramble up a rough-shod slope of scree. Large sections of snow are not uncommon even in late July, so trekking poles and traction may be advisable.
Getting to the Trailhead
The South Sister Climber’s Trail begins at Devil’s Lake. A $5 Northwest Forest Pass is required, but if you have a National Parks annual pass and a hang tag, that will suffice. The parking lot fills up early, and overflow parking is available along the roadside. The trailhead is about 30 miles west of Bend on Cascade Lakes Highway. You’ll pass the Mount Bachelor Ski Resort, then Sparks Lake, finally turning left into the Devil’s Lake Campground turnoff.
Follow the trail, exercising caution when crossing back over Cascade Lakes Highway. When you reach the information board, you’ll need to stop to fill out a free, self-issue wilderness permit. The original goes in the box; keep the copy with you on your hike.
The trail begins gently, but steepens as it switchbacks up the canyon to the plateau.
Just over two miles up the trail, you reach a junction with the Moraine Lake Trail and the beginning of a long, rolling section of easy hiking across a plateau. This is where Dan and I looked ahead at South Sister looming in the the distance and thought “we’re going up there?” Indeed, we were.
The Climber’s Trail skirts the edge of the plateau, providing a great view of Moraine Lake from above. There are campsites down there, and it would make an excellent place to camp on an overnight trip up South Sister.
At about 3.5 miles, the plateau gives way to the mountain once again, and climbing begins in earnest. In mid-July, we hit numerous patches of snow, but being a popular route, all had good tread. We were able to traverse them safely without traction or gear other than our trekking poles.
At 5.7 miles, the trail reaches the western edge of the largest glacier in Oregon, the Prouty Glacier. Over 1 square kilometer in area, it was an impressive sight.
At this point, there is less than a mile to the crater rim, yet the going is slow. The “trail” spiders into a series of multiple routes, scurrying up steep volcanic scree that takes half a step back for each step forward. The trail is fully exposed. We were thankful to be hiking in the cool air of the early morning, but we could tell that it was heating up. The sun was intense.
Finally at about six miles, we reached the crater rim. The summit itself is on the far north side of the crater, but it’s an easy hike with a short section of boulder scrambling.
Paulina Peak is the highest point on Newberry Crater, one of the largest shield volcanos in North America. The 7,985 feet tall summit sits on the edge of a 21 mile-long crater rim. The geology of the area is fascinating. Well east of the Cascades, Paulina Peak offers views that extend from Mount Shasta to Mount Adams. You’ll see not one but two “crater lakes”, an obsidian lava flow and the steep, craggy crater walls. If you’re so inclined, you can soak in a natural hot spring or visit an 80-foot waterfall afterwards.
Summit: 7,985′ Distance: 4.3 miles Time: 2-3 hours Difficulty: Moderate Elevation gain: 1,393 ft Dogs: Yes, on leash When to go: Mid-June to early October Download GPX
This trail is limited to hiking or trail running. Dogs are allowed on leash, but no mountain bikes. The trail itself sees moderate traffic. There is a road that is open seasonally to the summit, so while the views from the top are awesome, it’s not the pure alpine experience you might find on some peaks.
Getting to the Trailhead
The Paulina Peak Trailhead is 23 miles south of Bend, Oregon on Highway 97, then 13 miles east on Paulina Lake Road. Turn south (right) on Forest Road 2100 500 and you’ll find the trailhead parking about 3/4 mile on the right. A $5 Northwest Forest Pass is required for entry to Newberry National Volcanic Monument, though they also take the National Park annual pass.
The trail is well-engineered, beginning with a gentle, persistent climb through shady forest. The trail to Paulina Peak is part of the longer Crater Rim Trail that’s popular with mountain bikers, though this segment is off-limits to bikes.
The trail actually follows the crater rim pretty closely as you’ll see on the topo map below, but the first half mile looks much like a typical forest trail, with a few glimpses of the lake.
At about 1.1 miles in, the view opens up and you see Paulina Peak towering above as well as the steep-sloped caldera of the Newberry Crater.
Here the forest becomes more sparse, dotted with old snags of Whitebark Pine that are over 500 years old. The trail returns to the rim of the crater briefly.
At about the two mile mark, watch closely for the true trail, which veers away from the rim. There is a false trail that hugs a steep section along the rim that should be avoided to prevent erosion. A fall here could be fatal.
At the summit, you are rewarded with tremendous view over the crater, the Cascades to the west and a good portion of Central Oregon. You can even catch a good view of the Big Obsidian Flow.
There’s also a parking lot and a restroom. Oh well.
Tumalo Mountain is a shield volcano that lies just northeast of Mount Bachelor. This trail begins at the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park, and climbs steadily up the west flank of the cinder cone. Tumalo gives you great views of not only Mount Bachelor, but also Broken Top and South Sister.
Summit: 7,779′ Distance: 4.2 miles Time: 2-3 hours Difficulty: Moderate Elevation gain: 1,312 ft Dogs: Yes, on leash When to go: Mid-July to mid-October Download GPX
Tumalo Mountain is also very accessible, only 22 miles west of Bend on the Cascade Lakes Highway, making it a quick-and-easy peak for Bendites to keep in the rotation.
Getting to the Trailhead
This part is easy; head to the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park lot. If you’re heading west on Cascade Lakes Highway (trust me, you are), it will be on your right about 1/4 mile past the Mount Bachelor Sunrise Lodge entrance. You can get complete turn-by-turn driving directions to the Dutchman Sno-Park via Google Maps here.
Hiking to the Summit of Tumalo Mountain
The trail begins at the north end of the parking lot near the restroom. It immediately crosses a mountain bike trail and proceeds to wind up and around Tumalo Mountain.
Initially the trail views are obscured by the forest, but turn around once in a while to capture a glimpse of Mount Bachelor to the west.
As you climb, the forest thins and wildflowers like lupine abound.
The dirt trail winds among the gnarled ghosts of whitebark pines, giving way to reddish cinder.
The “summit” is relatively flat, sloping upward to the highpoint on the far north end. Follow the rock-lined path that loops around the top of Tumalo Mountain and avoid trampling the fragile crust and the ecosystem it supports.
From the top of Tumalo Mountain, you have a great view of Mount Bachelor to the west.
To the north, South Sister, Middle Sister and Broken Top give you plenty to soak in.
You will also find a large cairn near the high-point.
Black Butte is an extinct stratovolcano that sits east of the Cascades, rising 3,076′ above the surrounding plain. This symmetrical cone-shaped butte is home to an active fire lookout tower, as well as a historic cupola that you can easily imagine must have been the coolest summer digs ever, with spectacular views of Mt Washington, The Sisters and beyond.
Summit: 6,436′ Distance: 4.4 miles Time: 2-3 hours Difficulty: Moderate Elevation gain: 1,443 ft Dogs: Yes, on leash When to go: Mid-June to early October Download GPX
This guide describes the hike from the Upper Black Butte Trailhead, which begins at the end of several miles of bumpy gravel road. The trail climbs 1,443′ feet to the top of the butte, covering a total of 4.4 miles on an out-and-back route.
Getting to the Trailhead
There are two options for hiking Black Butte. The Upper Trailhead starts roughly half-way up the butte. It requires several miles of driving on a bumpy gravel road that narrows to one lane in sections, and results in the shorter hike described here. The road does not require high clearance or 4WD in dry conditions. The trailhead has plenty of parking and pit toilets. There is no water available. The Lower Trailhead begins just off Highway 20, and doubles the length and vertical gain. The route you choose is up to you.
The trail is well-engineered, beginning with a gentle, persistent climb through shady forest.
Many of the trees are covered in moss, giving the forest a moody feeling that’s a perfect start for our morning hike.
About a mile up the trail, the forest clears and the wildflowers abound. This area on the south side of the butte is shady if you hit it early enough, but fully exposed as the sun rises higher in the sky.
Mount Bierstadt is considered one of the most accessible 14ers in Colorado, nearby Denver and well maintained, but that doesn’t mean it’s a stroll in the park. You’ll climb over 2,700′ over the course of just over three miles, including a boulder scramble up the final stretch to the peak.
Summit: 14,060′ Distance: 7 miles Time: 4-4.5 hours Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation gain: 2,776 ft Dogs: Yes, on leash When to go: Mid-June to early October Download GPX
The trail from Guanella Pass is very popular, especially on summer weekends. Consider planning your hike on a weekday or starting before dawn to beat the crowds.
Getting to the Trailhead
The trail begins at Guanella Pass, about an hour from Denver and 11.5 miles south of Georgetown. There is a no-fee parking lot as well as off-street parking. There are pit toilets at the trailhead parking, but people were waiting 30-40 minutes in line to use them. And most of the trail is completely exposed with no privy privacy. You’ve been warned.
The trail starts with a gentle warm-up, as you pass Deadman’s Lake and descend to Scott Gomer Creek. Keep your eyes peeled for moose and other wildlife.
There is no way to cross the creek without getting wet. We hiked about 30 yards upstream to a more shallow section, and the ice-cold water still came up to our knees. Most people will take their hiking shoes off for the crossing.
From here, the trail climbs steadily. About two miles in you traverse a rocky bench where you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a mountain goat.
Above the bench, the trail makes a bee-line to the saddle to the southwest side of Mount Bierstadt. It’s straight-forward hiking.
From the saddle, the final 1/4 mile to the summit requires following rock cairns up the steep talus- and boulder-strewn slope. There is no well-defined path through this ever changing landscape of rock, but when in doubt, head up.
The summit rewards you with spectacular views of Mount Evans and the sawtooth ridge that connects it to Bierstadt, as well as Grays Peak and Torrey Peak to the west. There is room at the top to break for lunch, an summit benchmark and a register to sign.
To return, retrace your steps. Take care to properly orient yourself as you descend to the saddle.
At 14,270′, Grays Peak is one of only two fourteeners that actually sits on the Continental Divide. The ninth-highest mountain in Colorado has a well-defined trail to the summit and its proximity to the slightly lower Torreys Peak (14,267′) make this a popular mountain destination, especially on summer weekends, so start your hike early. We started at 3am.
Summit: 14,270′ Distance: 8.6 miles Time: 5-7 hours Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation gain: 2,939 ft Dogs: Yes When to go: Late-June to early October Download GPX
The trail climbs up a large, glacier-carved cirque with Grays and Torreys presiding at the head. It’s also a great place to hobnob with the mountain goats.
Getting to the Trailhead
The trailhead to Grays Peak and Torrys Peak is about an hour from Denver, and just over 10 miles from Georgetown off Interstate 70. Take exit 221 from I-70 west and follow Stevens Gulch Road. The road is a rough, gravel road that travels three miles to the trailhead. While there were plenty of sedans at the trailhead, I recommend a high clearance vehicle and, in wet conditions, 4WD.
Early starts are always advisable, especially on popular 14ers like Grays Peak. You’ll get parking and you will summit before noon to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. We hit the trail at 3am, hiking by headlamp.
It was a clear sky, and the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye (but sadly, not my iPhone). The trail up the valley is clearly marked and easy to follow, even by headlamp. You will likely see other flickering headlamps bobbing up and down the trail in the distance.
The first three miles of the trail head straight up the valley with only a few switchbacks. When you reach the end of the cirque, the grade gets steeper but well-engineered switchbacks keep the climb steady and manageable. We hit patches of snow and ice in early July, easily manageable without traction devices.
The real payoff for the Alpine start? The sunrise views.
At 3.5 miles you reach the junction with the trail from the saddle. This is used for the return from Torrys Peak. Bear left at this junction, and continue following the switchbacks and occasional cairns to the summit.
The summit of Grays Peak is surrounded by a small stone wind shelter. The views? Epic.
The return route is simple. Just retrace your steps. Keep an eye out for mountain goats on the way. Can you find the mountain goat we saw on our return in the photo below?
Horseshoe Mountain scrapes the clouds at 13,898′ – just shy of being a 14er. Even so, the glacier carved cirque remains one of Colorado’s 100 tallest mountains, and the views are coveted by peak baggers. Just west of Fairplay, Horseshoe Mountain straddles Park and Lake County and is dotted with abandoned mines. Epic views, fascinating geology, and a rich mining history make this uncrowded hike a gem.
Summit: 13,898′ Distance: 6.4 miles Time: 4-4.5 hours Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation gain: 2,254 ft Dogs: Yes When to go: Mid-June to early October Download GPX
The abandoned mines provide another twist to this trek. Old jeep trails criss-cross the area, so you’ll put your map reading and navigation skills to the test as you make your way to the saddle.
Getting to the Trailhead
The adventure begins with an 11 mile drive on a bumpy gravel road called Fourmile Road (CO-9). Sedans should be fine, but you’ll need to allow additional time. When you pass the crumbling remains of the ghost town of Leavick, you are almost there. You can park on the side of the road, or take a left and follow the dirt road up another 0.5 mile, at which point you are at timberline. Get driving directions here.
Hiking to the Summit of Horseshoe Mountain
This trek began with a hike up a gravel Forest Service road. After about a 0.5 miles you pass the last of the cabins and the “road” becomes a rough double-track. You could drive to that point and park on the side of the road, but you may want a high clearance or 4WD vehicle.
Continue onward and upward.
One mile in, the namesake cirque of Horseshoe Mountain comes into view. Keep following the trail as it winds upward.
As you near the base of the cirque, you’ll see the headwaters of Fourmile Creek–Leavick Tarn.
Pick your way up the myriad of trails, aiming towards the saddle north of the cirque. Along the way, you’ll see the remains of many abandoned mines. Though it may be tempting, I advise against exploring these unstable and potentially dangerous structures.
At 2.7 miles, you reach the saddle which begins at 13,110 feet. From the saddle, follow the ridge-line toward the south.
In late June, a foot path was easy to follow towards the summit, with just a few patches of snow to traverse.
The Forest Service requires you to display an Adventure Pass in your parked car at many of the trailheads used for our hikes on SoCalHiker. The rule of thumb is that if there are any improvements at the trailhead (pit toilets, picnic tables, etc.) an Adventure Pass is required.
The following interactive map will let you know if an Adventure Pass is required for the trailhead you want to use. Click a cluster to zoom in on that area. Click on a pin to get a link with driving directions to that trailhead.
If you have a you already have an America the Beautiful annual pass for the National Parks, that will work in lieu of an Adventure Pass — just make sure you pick up a free Interagency Passport hang tag from a forest service office.
If you’ve been hiking or camping in Southern California, you know about the Adventure Pass. Many trailheads and campgrounds on National Forest lands require the pass, available in both daily ($5) and annual ($30) versions.
Does the trailhead you are headed to require an Adventure Pass? We have an interactive map that shows them all, with a list below it. You can even grab driving directions.
If you need to buy an Adventure Pass, the Forest Service has a list of all locations that carry them. But if you are like me, and prefer a map over a list, you’ll love this.
Click a cluster to zoom in on that area, and click a pin to see the name, address and phone number of the location.
Interactive map courtesy of Brett Kobold. Brett is a SoCal hiker and data jockey who whipped this up when he was planning a camping trip. Read more about the creation here.
Birthday Peak is in the 12er family. At 12,730 feet, it sees less foot traffic than its taller cousins, which means you’ll have more solitude but still have epic views of the surrounding mountains in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. This hike requires some additional navigation skills and includes a fun boulder scramble to the summit. If you’re lucky, you might enjoy the company of a mountain goat or two.
Summit: 12,730′ Distance: 10.3 miles Time: 5-6 hours Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation gain: 2,827 ft Dogs: Yes When to go: Mid-June to early October Download GPX
Sitting on the Continental Divide, Birthday Peak really has spectacular views of the surrounding 14ers–and with names like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Yale, you might think you’ve made the Ivy League.
Getting to the Trailhead
This hike begins at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead, about 8.5 miles west of the rustic town of Buena Vista. Much of the road is gravel and dirt, but easily passable in a sedan during normal summer conditions. Get turn-by-turn driving directions using Google Maps. Parking is free and no permit is required.
Hiking to Birthday Peak
There is only one trail from the trailhead, and it begins with a gentle climb that parallels and occasionally crosses Cottonwood Creek, heading towards Kroenke Lake and Browns Pass.
At 2.7 miles in, an improvised log crossing of Horn Fork Creek was the sole challenge along the Kroenke Lake Trail. There was still a lot of snow melt, so the water was running strong and I was grateful to have brought my trekking poles.
At about the 4 mile mark, I reached the unnamed creek that led up towards Birthday Peak.
Rather than follow the Kroenke Trail as it continues across this tributary and continues alongside Cottonwood Creek, we tu, ned right to follow this unnamed creek up to the cirque below Birthday Peak. Some guide books describe the trail here as “intermittent”, but there was hardly a trace in late June. This off-trail section requires good map reading skills, but as long as you follow the little creek, you will do pretty well. Having the route and maps downloaded on GaiaGPS helped tremendously.
Climbing above the tree-line, the creek grew smaller and smaller, replaced by the occasional snow field.
Soon the saddle to the south of Birthday Peak was in clear view. There were some footpaths through the snow and rock that made provided a good target as I aimed for that saddle.
At the top of the saddle, straddling the Continental Divide, looking back on what I had just climbed.
From the saddle, make your way north along the ridge to Birthday Peak. The final 0.25 miles required boulder scrambling to reach the summit. It looks more intimidating than it really is. Take your time and test each rock before putting your full weight on it.
The summit of Birthday Peak itself has a grassy knoll spotted with wildflowers. The summit register is protected by a small rock cairn.