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Photo by Lee Juillerat Hiking off the Three Sisters Trail through a lava flow to a bench near the three cinder cones.

Three Sisters offer scents and sense of place

Streams of light shimmered, slowly but ever-so gradually changing color and tone.

For a brief time the evolving light show, like a gently turned kaleidoscope, was slightly filtered by the mesh covering the tent flap I’d intentionally left open the night before.

Not for long. Up and at ‘em and outside. And from outside, my view scanned the horizon, watching with anticipation as the hues shifted, the skyline gradually becoming more electric with hints of orange and purple overlaid with increasingly fiery red tones.

That was just the prelude to a Lava Beds sunrise.

At first the sun was a tiny sliver, a sphere of radiant light barely peeking over the distant hills. As it oh-so slowly climbed, it brightened and intensified, its white orb surrounded by patchy yellow streaks and splashes of blood red illuminating in ever-changing patterns.

Too quickly the sun perched atop the mountains and, seemingly freed from its unseen constraints, lifted above the horizon as if to greet the new day.

There’s a reason people go backpacking. Actually, there are many. For me, being part of a morning sunrise is one of the greatest enticements. Watching the sun rise is a dramatic and compelling experience.

Instead of day hiking and taking a quick peek at beautiful wild country then doubling back for the drive home, making an overnight camp provides a chance to experience a place’s evolving moods, from the play of changing light to shifting winds that transport the scents of sagebrush and evoke a sense of place.

That morning’s sunrise was from a bench near the Three Sisters, a little-visited trio of volcanic cinder cones in Lava Beds National Monument’s backcountry. Several weeks earlier, three of our backpacking group of five had made a tantalizing too-quick out-and-back hike to the Three Sisters from the Skull Cave parking area.

The side-by-side-by-side cinder cone buttes, which appear like bumps in the otherwise gentle landscape, were named by J.D. Howard, who discovered and explored many of the region’s caves and above-ground features. Fern Cave, for example, refers to the unusual vegetation near its entrance, while Schonchin Butte honors a Modoc Indian who was Howard’s friend.

But the Three Sisters, a trio of cinder cones, barely gets a mention in a 1957 letter Howard wrote about places he named. Very simply, he explained — without any evident enthusiasm — the name was chosen “because there are three of them.”

Our backpack began along the Three Sisters Trail, which begins from the A-loop at the Indian Well Campground. We followed it directly east, quickly paralleling a long, deep trench with cave entrances at both ends. It’s a well maintained, gently undulating trail, one that lazily curls through often dense, big-bellied junipers with pockets featuring more trenches, holes and small caves.

About 3-1/2 miles in, just before the trail briefly exits the Monument, we ate lunch in a grove of junipers, including a fascinating stump with an exposed section that features a dizzying natural design of curls, cuts and curves.

The trail exits the Monument for about a half-mile, turning north before veering due west back within the park boundary. Thoughtfully located rock cairns and signs mark the trail. For another mile the trail seems to work away from the Three Sisters before gradually aiming north.

No trail actually goes to the Sisters. But Bill Van Moorhem, who’s familiar with Lava Beds backcountry, led us cross-country through sometimes stumbly sagebrush then down and up lava collapses to a bench between the side-by-side Big and Middle Sisters and the Little Sister. According to Bill’s GPS, we had hiked slightly over 7 miles.

After pitching our tents, Bill, Bernadette “Bernie” Kero, Anita Matys, Liane Venske and I made a pre-dinner visit to the Big and Middle Sisters. We had all carted generous supplies of water, about four liters each, because Lava Beds’ backcountry has no water. The morning after my sunny awakening, we lollygagged, enjoying breakfast and unhurriedly breaking camp before the easy climb to Little Sister, which has a well defined crater.

The way out ambled past gravelly trenches with lava tube collapses still on the Three Sisters Trail until its abrupt end at the Lyons Trail, an old homesteading road. Before reaching the Skull Cave parking lot, the Lyons passes some unmarked caves, including an unmarked cavern with a faint trail to its entrance — a temptation for another visit.

Shortly past the parking lots for Skull Cave and another for Symbol Bridge, we followed the Missing Link Trail south along fields of cut juniper trees to the Bunchgrass Trail, which slides under Crescent Butte on its southwest track back to the Indian Well Campground, about 6 miles from our Three Sisters campsite.

During our overnight we’d enjoyed a sunset and sunrise, and gained a sense of place.

For more information, including directions to the trail, see www.nps.gov/labe/planyourvisit/hiking.htm

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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