Use ‘extra effort loophole’ to score permits to Matthieu Lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness
A few weeks ago, I found myself seemingly out of luck.
I’d hoped to backpack to the Matthieu Lakes, a pair of alpine pools tucked into the forest and lava rock near Mckenzie Pass in the Three Sisters Wilderness. The lakes, believe it or not, are named for “the man whose vote saved Oregon” — but we’ll get to that a bit later.
Anyway, because I wanted to go on a weekend, the permits for the main trailhead were sold out almost as soon as they became available.
This has become pretty common in the era of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit system, in which hikers and backpackers need a special permit from Recreation.gov to enter many backcountry destinations in the Sisters, Jefferson and Washington wilderness areas.
Now in its second year, the permit system is loathed by some and beloved by others, but what has become obvious is that scoring a Friday or Saturday overnight permit for a nice mountain lake is among the biggest challenges.
Yet there are some backdoor ways to reach popular mountain lakes, even on the weekend, if you’re willing to hike a bit farther than normal and take advantage of what I’ve dubbed the “extra effort loophole.”
It’s not really a loophole, and was actually planned into the permit system as a way to spread people out, but finding a good one does feel a bit like gaming the system.
Here's how it works: at each trailhead there are only so many overnight permits available each day in the three wilderness areas. It’s designed to only let so many people enter from each location, so those areas don’t get overcrowded, as was happening in the late 2010s.
My destination was the Matthieu Lakes and the main trailhead to reach it is Lava Camp Trailhead. But alas! When I went to Recreation.gov, all the permits were gone.
Rather than despair, I started looking at other nearby trailheads. After browsing the Sisters and Washington wilderness maps, I found my backdoor entry point — the McKenzie Pass Pacific Crest Trailhead. There are frequently open permits here, and it only adds about 2 miles to the trip.
From the PCT trailhead, it’s about 7 to 8 miles round-trip to both north and south lakes, instead of 5 to 6 miles round-trip from the Lava Camp trailhead. There’s maybe 700 to 900 feet of elevation gain, making it a trip of moderate difficulty.
In fact, I’d actually recommend starting at the PCT trailhead for a more interesting hike. It swings through open lava fields with striking views of Washington, Jack, Jefferson and the Sisters spread out around you. Eventually, you connect to the main route heading through mostly forest burned in the 2017 Milli Fire.
After two right turns, following signs, you drop into Matthieu Lakes area.
Sparkling lakes, brook trout and great swimming
There are two Matthieu lakes, and despite the similar name, they’re pretty different places.
North Matthieu Lake, the first one you reach, is tucked into the forest below a large lava flow and has a decidedly peaceful feel. It’s full of clear sparkling water and features seven established backcountry campsites that take you up and away from the lake. If you want to camp here, you have to use the sites, and no campfires are allowed. There are day-use areas at nice swimming spots along the lake’s shoreline.
To find the second lake, it’s a 0.7 mile uphill hike to South Matthieu, which sits in a much more exposed and windswept spot with a striking view of North Sister just beyond its blue waters. There are three campsites at this much smaller lake.
I made camp at North Matthieu, which just felt cozier, with campsites that offer more privacy and more fun things to do.
Foremost among the things to do at North Matthieu is fishing. The lake is stocked every other year and I spent a glorious morning walking around the lake and casting spinners. I caught two brook trout and just missed a third, having the best success on the southwest side of the lake, between the shoreline and a little island that's fun to swim out to.
In addition, there’s a really fun little scramble up the lava flow of rocks that rises above the lake. It’s not too tough to rock-hop your way to the top, and when you do, you’re rewarded with striking views of the lake below and volcanoes in every direction: Jefferson and Washington in one direction and a long lava flow below the Sisters in the other.
I’ve been told that before the permit system came in, the campsites at the two lakes were always packed on weekends. I didn't have any issues finding a site.
A day-trip to the two lakes also makes sense, and again, is either 6 or 8 miles round-trip with a bit of elevation gain for a moderately difficult trek.
Lakes named for 'the man whose vote saved Oregon'
The spelling of the two lakes should probably give away that they were named for a French Canadian — in this case, Francis Xavier Matthieu. He was quite a character.
Born in Quebec in 1818, he was forced to flee his native country after becoming involved in an armed rebellion against British rule in Canada from 1837 to 1838.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the event: “In 1835 Matthieu became involved with a paramilitary organization which waged an uprising against British rule. (Matthieu) was engaged making musket shot and cartridges and transporting arms to the scene of the fighting. The group's armed struggle was regarded as treasonous by the British government, who executed captured participants by hanging. Matthieu's participation was discovered and the youth was forced to flee Canada for refuge in the United States, crossing the border there by means of a forged passport.”
He joined the fur trade in the Midwest before making his way west to the Oregon County at a pivotal moment. He was part of the gathering in 1843 at what is now Champoeg State Heritage area north of Salem for a vote over the question of whether settlers would form a provisional government.
Again, our friends at Wikipedia: “Some 102 people were present — a majority of the European population of the Oregon Territory at that time. These were initially evenly divided, 51-51, over the question.
"As tension over the standoff mounted, Matthieu was one of two individuals to break ranks with backers of British rule, voting instead for formation of an independent Provisional Government of Oregon. Matthieu's vote therefore proved decisive, and he would be celebrated in his twilight years as the man 'whose vote saved Oregon for the United States."
The title is probably a bit over the top, and overemphasizes the importance of the vote.
Even so, if you head to the Matthieu Lakes, whether by the Lava Camp Trailhead or by taking the extra effort loophole via the Pacific Crest Trail, spare a thought for the man whose vote saved Oregon while you fish, swim and camp in the alpine country of the Three Sisters Wilderness.
In a nutshell: Two popular alpine lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness near Mckenzie Pass.
Difficulty: Moderate difficulty
Red tape: An overnight permit from Recreation.gov is required to camp here. Get a permit to enter from either Lava Camp Trailhead or PCT Mckenzie Pass. No campfires. Must camp at designated sites with a post.
Length: About 6 miles round-trip from Lava Camp Trailhead, 8 miles from McKenzie Pass PCT Trailhead.
Directions: Drive to McKenzie Pass on state Highway 242 and navigate to Lava Camp Trailhead (marked by signs just east of Dee Wright Observatory or PCT McKenzie Pass Trailhead, which is on the left just before Dee Wright Observatory.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Use ‘extra effort loophole’ to score permits to Matthieu Lakes