: Nickie Bournias

How to Hike Oregon’s Central Cascades

May 12, 2021 (Updated January 18, 2023)

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 there is a permit system in place for visits between June 15 and Oct. 15 each year. Limiting the number of visitors, in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964, 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 of the Willamette or Deschutes national forests this summer, you’ll need to secure a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit before your trip for all backpacking trips between June 10-Oct. 15, as well as for day-use visits to 19 of the area’s 79 trailheads. To do so, you can make a reservation online at Recreation.gov, or call 1-877-444-6777. 

The rest of the overnight permits open on a seven-day rolling basis as the season progresses; day-use permits for the 19 trailheads are available on a rolling 10-day and 2 day-before basis. Free, self-issued permits (on-site at the trailhead) are still required at the remaining 60 trailheads for day trips.   

Fire or other events may impact your plans, so keep an eye on the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit website. In addition, check for any updates on the Willamette or Deschutes national forest page. If you’re ready to explore, here are some top 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

About 40% of each day’s overnight permits will be released in early April (check website for exact date) at 7 a.m. Pacific. The remaining overnight permits become available seven days before a trip start date. For example, for a trip starting on a Saturday, that permit could be reserved starting on the Saturday prior.

Day-use permits will be released in two rolling windows: 10 days and then two days before the trip date. For example, for the first day of permit season, June 15, the first batch of permits will be released at 7 a.m. June 5 and the rest will be released 7 a.m. June 13.

Get Ready to Book

For the smoothest process, tackle the logistics before your permit-booking day. Create an account on Recreation.gov in advance (not required for day-use permits but recommended). 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. There are three options for booking: at Recreation.gov online, via the Recreation.gov app or by calling their call center at 1-877-444-6777. Permits are not available at Forest Service offices.

Other information you’ll need: Name of permit holder and alternate permit holder, entry date, entry trailhead, group size (maximum of 12), and for overnight permits your length of trip and number of stock (maximum of 12). In case your trail is not available for your dates, it’s smart to have some alternate trailheads ready, too.

Coordinate With Your Hiking Group

Touch base with the group of people you hope to hike with. 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 what type of permit you’ll need: Find overnight permits here and day-use permits here.

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. 
  • Three Sisters Wilderness: Near McKenzie Bridge, the 2.1-mile South Fork McKenzie Trail is a scenic family-friendly excursion; make sure to support local businesses that have been impacted by the wildfires in recent years. Here are some ways to show love to the McKenzie River communities.
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. If you need to cancel your trip, make sure to cancel your permit too, so someone else can enjoy your spot. 

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. 

Be familiar with trail etiquette, stepping off the trail as needed to let others pass. Read up on more tips for how to Take Care Out There. Also, don’t forget to respect all users and be kind to others you meet in this beautiful space. 

About The

Jen Anderson
Jen Anderson is a longtime journalist and travel writer/editor who is now Travel Oregon’s Content & Community Manager, helping to align content for visitors via social media, print and web. She’s called Oregon home for 25 years and loves finding the latest places to eat, drink and play around the state with her husband and two boys. Brewpubs, beaches and bike trails top the list.

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