Running Around Broken Top

Man, what a hiatus. This summer has been a rough one. I’ve been inside, doing the hard work of becoming a doctor by undergoing the rights of passage called Surgery and Internal Medicine. It’s a necessary sacrifice, but it hasn’t been easy to watch summer slide by without me.

Now, finally, I’m on to lighter stuff. Two-day weekends. In to the hospital after sunrise and out before dark. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. And now that it’s quickly becoming fall, it’s time for some long runs.

I’ve been mulling over the Broken Top loop for a while now. It’s a great distance (~27 mi) in the great high country above Bend, OR. It’s part desert, part alpine, and part Ponderosa forest. The smells are amazing. This weekend, Taylor was going to go backpacking with a friend, so I headed out along to get this thing done.

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In the first quarter mile, a mountain lion track. That’ll put some energy in your step.

Running Around Broken Top

The most direct way to begin the loop is at the Three Creek Meadow trailhead on the Northeast side of the mountain, about a 30 minute drive from Sisters, OR. I opted to go clockwise, as that put the uncertain navigation up front, and I knew from scrambling around near Broken Top with Taylor a few weeks ago that the second half of the loop would be prettier this way.

Overview map of the Broken Top loop. (PDF) (Zoomable Map).

The first four miles left me feeling funny. You run in entirely the wrong direction, on a trail that is essentially sand, through a forest decimated by pine beetles. I wouldn’t want to end on this part. It’s clearly seldom-used, the trail is at times faint, and to make matters better, there were mountain lion tracks around.

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My, what nice sand! Best to be done with this early.

Still, I put my head down and plugged along at a moderate pace, pausing to climb over a number of downed trees (insert rant about National Forest Service here). Before long, the trail improves under the cover of pines and leads to the Metolius-Windigo trail. This section is frequented by mountain bikers, who were very polite, and is in amazing condition. Beautiful, well marked, and climbing into the high country.

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Metolius-Windigo Trail. A project for another day.

After the longest climb of the run, which is a bit over 1000 feet of gradual rise, I emerged into the alpine, where a brief bit of road leads across flats that I recognized from backcountry skiing to the “Broken Top Trailhead”, where everyone with 4WD seems to park to avoid having to hike to Broken Top to see it.

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Sunny days, smooth roads, and early fall colors.

Back onto singletrack, there are a few poorly marked intersections with trails that aren’t on the forest service map, but reasonable choices kept me going in the right direction (remember, running around the mountain, not up it). Here, impeccable fine gravel trail winds below Broken Top’s South bowl. It’s just about the best trail running that you could ever hope for.

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Fast, smooth trail below Broken Top’s South bowl.

Continuing West towards Green Lakes, the trail was gorgeous, with fall-red foliage, blue skies, and sparks lake below. This was my peak, emotionally and energetically. My legs had that effortless cruise-control feeling that comes so infrequently and so marvelously.

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Headed west, with the marshy flats of Sparks Lake below.

Turning Northward into the Green Lakes area, the sun decided to take a hiatus, and foggy clouds circled over South Sister. Green Lakes is a beautiful place in spite of having been nearly camped to death. There are many spur trails that could make for annoying navigation if you didn’t know your way. Just stay right, hugging the first small lake that you come to and then hold the East side of Green Lake proper.

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South Sister with a swirling cloud cap.

The climb out of Green lakes was much shorter and easier than I’d expected. This loop has only around 3000′ of climbing, which isn’t much. I kept expecting to reach a “real” climb somewhere on the loop, but never did. Turning round to Broken Top’s North side, the weather remained foreboding, and the dark northern side of the peak fit the mood.

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Token moody running selfie.

Over the pass from Green Lakes, the trail takes a sharp drop through some loose rock and switchbacks, making for a bit of a rough descent. Once it turns East and back towards the car, is holds a contour and I was able to stretch my legs out again. The sun even decided to make another appearance.

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Can’t quite call it sunny, but I’ll take what I can get.

The last 3-5 miles roll through the beautiful Pole Creek Burn area. I knew that I was getting close to the car again because I had to navigate through groups of hikers with enormous backpacks. Those weren’t going to make it more than a few miles from the car.

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Pole creek burn. No camping. No off-trail travel. Plenty of dust.

In the last couple of miles, my wheels started to fall off a bit. Not having been out for many long runs this season, my connective tissue was feeling the bern. After crossing a creek and chatting with a couple of horse packers, I put my head down and ground out the last few miles to the trailhead only to discover that it pops out a little ways down the road from where I started, so I finished by jogging solemnly up a washboarded gravel road. Had I looked at my map, I would have known, but I didn’t.

Overall, this is a marvelous run, and I don’t know why it doesn’t get the acclaim of the Mt Hood or Mt St Helens loops. If you’re thinking of running one of those two, consider cutting your teeth on this Broken Top loop, which is gentler, but still offers a reasonable challenge. The more that I run near Bend, the more I understand why so many trail runners move here. There’s both quality and quantity, and the weather tends to be great.

Hopefully my legs will bounce right back and there will be more to come. I doubt that it’ll happen this season, but this loop really makes me want to run the loop around the three sisters. That would really round out my volcano collection.


-27.3 mi, 3050′ of gain, peak 7170′, elapsed time 4:51:10, moving time 4:36:02
(Strava Track/GPS )
-Clockwise loop, fairly straightforward navigation.
-Season: Late June -> Early October, limited only by snow.
-Water: Plenty of clean sources, didn’t filter. Used 1 x 20 oz bottle and never ran out.
-Calories: 1 Lara bar, 3 x shot blocks, 1 small piece of cheese.


Icebreaker Tech Lite merino tee, Patagonia Strider Pro shorts, Icebreaker multisport mini socks, Arcteryx Squamish hoodie.
Salomon S-Lab Wings shoes. Should have brought my trail gaiters.
Ultimate direction SJ Ultra vest with 1 UD Bottle.

Category: Adventures, Travel, & WritingRoutesRunning


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