: Nickie Bournias

How to Hike Oregon’s Central Cascades

May 12, 2021

Editor’s note: Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but businesses may ask you to wear a face cover – bring one along and be patient and kind if asked to wear it. It’s also wildfire season – plan ahead and do your part to prevent wildfires.

Even if you haven’t experienced Oregon’s Central Cascades, you might recognize the jaw-dropping images, as if straight out of a fairy tale. Deep azure-blue skies pop against the lush green old-growth forest trails. Clear streams sparkle amidst wildflower-filled alpine meadows. And, of course, some of Oregon’s most distinctive peaks — Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and the Three Sisters — make for postcard-perfect horizons at every turn. 

The area is so popular for hiking, in fact, that some trails have seen increased use of three to five times what they used to. In order to protect these fragile ecosystems for future generations — and in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964 — there’s now a permit system in place for visits between May 28 and Sept. 24, 2021. Limiting the number of visitors will help preserve the trails’ wild beauty, reduce trail erosion, protect wildlife and make for less-crowded experiences for all. 

So where to start? If you’re inspired to visit the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington or Three Sisters wilderness areas in 2021, you’ll need to secure a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit before your trip for all overnight visits, as well as for day-use visits to 19 of the area’s 79 trails. To do so, you can make a reservation online at Recreation.gov, or call 1-877-444-6777. 

(Those 60 trails that do not require Central Cascades Wilderness Permits do require a wilderness self-issue permit, which are free and available at the trailheads.) 

If you’re ready to try for a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit, here are some insider tips for success.

A runner goes down a dirt trail with Three Fingered Jack behind.
The Canyon Creek Meadows Loop is popular 7.5-mile loop that requires permit this summer. (Photo by Tyler Roemer)

Plan in Advance

While permits opened for early-season booking in April, most if not all advance permits are already sold out. But don’t fear — there are still plenty of permits that you can secure a week before your desired trip date. So get those calendars out and pin a reminder for one week before you want to hike the trail. A new permit is required for each outing. 

Get Ready to Book

For the smoothest process, tackle the logistics before your permit-booking day. Create an account on Recreation.gov in advance. Know where to find the hike you want to book. Log in right at 7 a.m., when reservations open, for the best chance to claim a golden ticket. 

Coordinate With Your Pod

Check in with your pod, because you’ll have to select your group size or have each person in your party book their own permit, so make sure they’re up to speed on the plan. Make sure you know whether you’re only needing a day permit or an overnight permit — those are found in a separate area of the website.  

Two hikers walk uphill on a rocky terrain.
The South Sister Climber Trail is one of the most popular Central Cascades hikes. (Photo by Nickie Bournias)

Find a Backup Trail (or Two)

Some of the most popular Central Cascades trails — like Green Lakes Trail, South Sister Climber Trail and Todd Lake — are on the permit list, so competition will be hot. Know that you may not be able to secure a permit this year. 

However, take heart: 60 of the 79 trails in the Central Cascades do not require the advance-purchase Central Cascades Wilderness Permit, and are just as spectacular and possibly less crowded. (Note that some may be closed due to wildfire impacts.) Some of those include: 

  • Mt. Washington Wilderness: Near Sisters, Patjens Lakes Trail is a 6.9-mile loop (open late June to early November) that takes trekkers to five lakes, with grand views of snowcapped peaks along the way. 
  • Mt. Jefferson Wilderness: Near Detroit, Big Meadows Loop Trail offers 3.5 miles of dramatic old-growth forests, views of Three Fingered Jack and the rushing sound of the North Santiam River, which parallels for a portion. Part of the trail is an old Forest Service road and the other is single-track, popular with horseback riders and cyclists. 
Snowmelt surrounds a high-altitude alpine lake.
Broken Top is a glacially eroded complex stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc. (Photo by Nickie Bournias)

Carry Your Permit

If you’ve successfully snagged a permit, congratulations! Make sure to have the QR code (emailed to you upon purchase) handy on your smartphone, ready to present it to any forest officer or other law-enforcement officer if it’s requested during your trip. 

Be Prepared

Do your homework and look into the trail conditions at your destination. Know that some trails are covered in snow and some roads inaccessible through late June. Check weather and road conditions before you go, and pack in layers for cool nights, crisp days and lots of sunshine (don’t forget the sunscreen). Make sure to carry a map, let a friend know your hiking plans, bring your Ten Essentials and pack out everything you pack in, including pet waste. 

Keep in mind that some of the trails in the Central Cascades are dog-friendly while others are not. Read up on leash laws before you go, and bring lots of water for Fido. 

During COVID-19, wear your face covering on the trail, keep 6 feet of distance when possible and follow trail etiquette, stepping off the trail as needed to let others pass. Read up on more tips to Take Care Out There. Also, don’t forget to smile with your eyes and say hello to others you meet in this beautiful space. 

About The

Jen Anderson
Jen Anderson writes and edits Travel Oregon's e-newsletters, annual Visitor Guide and other editorial content. She loves finding the latest places to eat, drink and play around the state with her husband and two young boys. Brewpubs, beaches and bike trails top the list.

Trip Ideas