The Obsidian Trail is Available Only by Paid Permit
We had heard about the Obsidian Trail for years, and how hard it is to reserve a time to hike it. Located in the Willamette National Forest off Hwy 242 (McKenzie Pass), access to the Obsidian Trail is limited - first due to Hwy 242's annual closure from October through the middle of June - and second due to demand for the hard to get passes which limit use to 30 day hikers and 40 overnight visitors. We reserved our time 2 months in advance, hoping the weather and wildfires would cooperate with our hike. The Green Ridge Fire and the Lions Gate Fire were both burning On September 5, 2020 when we took our hike, but neither had yet exploded into the heavy wildfires that burned much of McKenzie Canyon and caused the choking smoke that is still impacting Oregon.
We arrived very early at the trailhead, just past sunrise, and were surprised how few cars were parked in the parking lot. But this does make sense. When you have to reserve your time so far in advance, scheduled recreational hikes may have to give way to changes in financial or personal circumstances thus bringing use of the trail to even fewer people. During our Obsidian Trail hike, we past two parties who had spent the night in the area and were hiking out plus were past by a party packing in with horses. Other than these people, we saw no one else on the Obsidian Trail except for a party hiking in at the end of the day as well as a second group of people packing with horses. However, the Obsidian Trail loop, if taken, does utilize the Pacific Crest Trail where we saw a number of day users and backpackers.
The Obsidian Trail is named for the obsidian stones and pebbles which are very evident in certain areas of the hike - and which will glitter beautifully when the sun hits them. The hike gains 2139 feet in elevation and provides for stunning views of North and Middle Sister, including vistas of Collier Glacier. Obsidian Falls and wonderful lodgepole and hemlock forests are also treats to see along the way. Lava fields, mountain meadows, small alpine lakes and, when the loop is followed, views of Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Jefferson are also visible. We also saw the smoke from the Green Ridge Fire, but it did not impact our enjoyment of the area during the day. The full loop was just under 12 miles, but we did take a side trip up the flank of Middle Sister, hoping to find the trail which we have heard exists to the summit, but failed to locate it.