In central Oregon, near the town of Sisters, natural resources and avid equestrians have created rich riding opportunities. Just outside of Sisters lies the 1.6-million-acre Deschutes National Forest (fs.usda.gov/main/deschutes/home).
Sisters—an 1880s Western-themed town—lies in the heart of what’s known as Sisters Country, a slice of trail-riding heaven nestled on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, 20 miles northwest of Bend. This region stretches from Sisters to the Pacific Crest Trail. Sisters is named for a trio of volcanic peaks to the west; pioneers knew them as Faith (North Sister), Hope (Middle Sister), and Charity (South Sister).
This area offers a guest ranch with an amazing stable, U.S. Forest Service equestrian camps with corrals, and miles of riding trails over varied terrain. The quaint town of Sisters bubbles with art galleries, boutiques, and dining opportunities.
On a recent equestrian adventure, we explored this region with our trusty mounts, Jake, a Spotted Saddle Horse, and Cody, a Tennessee Walking Horse. (Note: To park at trailheads and for federal campgrounds in this area, you’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass; you can get one at store.usgs.gov.)
Guest Ranch Gem
We were fortunate to spend a few days at Black Butte Ranch (blackbutteranch.com), located 7 miles west of Sisters on U.S. Hwy. 20. This stay was an anniversary treat, and one we had been looking forward to. We weren’t disappointed!
The ranch is situated in the midst of jaw-dropping scenery. From our room, we could see the Cascade Mountain Range caressing a crystal-blue sky. We visited the pool and checked out Phalarope Lake, where colorful mallard ducks noisily squabbled with one another and entertained us with wiggling tail feathers.
However, for us, the crown jewel of Black Butte Ranch is undoubtedly Black Butte Stables (blackbuttestablesco.com), owned and operated by Cody Koch, a whirling dervish of human energy plastered with a big smile. We’ve met many stable owners, but none that can match the passion, and compassion, that Cody has for his horses.
When Cody turned 18, he began working here; his boss and mentor was Vicky Herring to whom he attributes much of his success and knowledge of horses. Eight years later, he purchased his current business from David Herman, the owner of the White Horse Ranch in southeast Oregon.
His initial purchase consisted of 45 horses, tack, and National Forest permits. Fast forward 13 years. Cody now has well-organized paddocks, well-maintained tack, and 100 quality Percheron/Quarter Horse crossbreeds. His horses have consistency in size, good conformation, and gentle dispositions.
When talking about his horse operation, Cody exudes enthusiasm and joyfulness, telling us, “Taking care of the animals that take care of him and his family is an honor and a privilege.”
When his beloved horses reach 13 or 14 years old, prime age for a working horse, he sells them to a good family home. He says this prevents mental burnout for the horse, but most importantly, it gives the horse an opportunity to have a loving home and family.
Every morning, Cody and his ranch manager, Katie Hinnen, round up the horses from their nighttime meadow and run them down to the paddocks. We were invited to watch this early morning spectacle. Standing alongside the fence, we watched darkness fight a losing battle with luminous light that was flowing into the immense meadow.
Flying by on an ATV, Cody disappeared into the far shadows. Suddenly, the horses emerged in an enormous multicolored herd, galloping by in a thundering mass! Rising dust and faint morning light created a golden glow around the swift-moving horses, a memory that will be forever etched in our minds.
Black Butte Stables has rides for all ages and riding abilities. We went on a 5.5-mile ride to Gobbler’s Knob with Cody’s good friend Callie Cattell, stable manager Katie Hinnen, and Cody’s precocious 11-year-old daughter, Hayley, an effervescent chip off the old block.
The ride to Gobblers Knob was Disney-like. We rode serenely through a herd of large elk meandering through old-growth ponderosa pines and aspen groves. Flowers tumbled in a riot of color in Glaze Meadow. There, we stopped to gaze at the outlines of dormant volcanoes: Broken Top, the Three Sisters, and Mount Washington.
We then crossed Indian Ford Creek and to an unmarked trail that led to the back of Gobbler’s Knob. Here, we took another unmarked trail that switched-backed up to the top of Gobbler’s Knob. The view below us spread out in an avalanche of color. Absolutely gorgeous!
There are numerous Forest Service horse camps in Sisters Country, each with its own unique personality and set of trails. We selected Graham Corral Horse Camp as our main camping and riding base before exploring other camps. This camp is conveniently located about 7 miles from Sisters. Some sites here are available on a first come, first serve basis; others may be reserved in advance at recreation.gov.
To reach Graham Corral, drive northwest of Sisters on U.S. Hwy. 20 for 4.4 miles, and turn left on Forest Rd. 1012. Continue 0.9 mile and turn right on Forest Rd. 300. Then drive 1.2 miles and turn right on Forest Rd. 340; in about a half a mile, you’ll arrive at camp.
Graham Corral is quite stunning! The camp is snuggled in a grove of old-growth ponderosa pines that provide shade while towering above camp. Some of these giants must be several hundred years old.
There are 11 campsites, four of which have four horse corrals, plus four large central corrals. There are fire rings, picnic tables, and usually water. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the water system when we were here, and the water was shut off.
Before you leave home, call the Deschutes National Forest–Sisters Ranger District Office at (541) 549-7700, and check the water situation. If there’s no water, bring enough water for you and your horses during your stay. (Tip: You may fill your water containers at the Chevron Service Station as you reenter Sisters on the right side of the road; they have a frost-free water tap for public use.)
Riding here involves little elevation gain, and the trails are easy. The area is usually free of snow by late April, thus providing early season riding in an open ponderosa forest with meadows and occasional mountain views.
Early morning is a special time at Graham Corral. Sunlight filters in and gilds the ponderosas’ bark, creating a golden hue. We had a morning fire and drank coffee while watching our horses munch their breakfast. Then it was time to hit the trail!
The Met-Win Trail
There are several trails that leave right from camp. The first we selected was the Metolius-Windigo (Met-Win) Trail north. We left on a signed trail at the west end of camp. The Met-Win trail is marked with yellow diamonds and is generally easy riding. We traveled through a pine forest and eventually reached Glaze Meadow, where we enjoyed views of Gobbler’s Knob and Black Butte, a 6,000-foot cinder cone. After nearly 2 miles, the trail crosses Indian Ford Creek; you can ride across the stream or go over a bridge.
This point intersects the area we rode to from Black Butte Ranch. To reach Gobbler’s Knob, we went left; this time, we rode straight across the parking lot and stayed on the Met-Win trail. After a short while, we came to U.S. Hwy. 20. This can be a busy, dangerous highway to cross, so proceed with caution. After crossing the highway, the trail continues northerly along the east side of Black Butte through ponderosa pines. You can ride all the way to the Metolius River, which is about 17 miles from camp.
For a shorter ride, instead of crossing Indian Ford Creek, you can ride on to Black Butte Ranch. The trail comes in at the Black Butte General Store near the stables. Here, you can treat yourself to an ice cream bar or soda.
For an unmarked exploratory ride, we rode out on the left-hand side of Campsite 3. This begins as an old road. It follows a forest-covered ridge that turns into a trail that descends into a forest floor filled with lush, verdant ferns.
Houses came into view. Shortly afterward, we crossed a dirt road with the trail continuing on. There are ample riding opportunities here for discovery and even making a loop. However, it’s easy to get disoriented in this fairly flat country, so a GPS is a good idea. We worked left, found the Met-Win trail south, and worked our way back to camp. On the way back, we came across two sets of mule deer; they calmly watched as we rode by.
Sisters Cow Camp
Our favorite trail from Graham Corral is the Met-Win trail south to Sisters Cow Camp, an almost-7-mile ride. The trail is marked with yellow diamonds for the Met-Win trail. This trail travels through a beautiful pine forest on mostly a single-track trail with occasional stretches of old two-track road.
This trail makes for easy traveling, going up and down small ridges. At about 4.5 miles, the trail drops into an interesting grotto of rock outcroppings and ponderosa pines; a very scenic location. Shortly after this, the trail crosses Oregon Rte. 242.
Sisters Cow Camp is a great place to tie up and have lunch at one of the picnic tables before heading back. In past trips, we stayed at Sisters Cow Camp; we found it to be a quiet, pleasant camp, although quite dusty. There are trails emanating from both sides of camp. This camp is a historic site, and has log corrals and one old building. There are five camps with fire pits, tables, and two large corrals. There would normally be water here, but it was also turned off.
Sisters Cow Camp is where the historic Santiam Cascade Endurance Ride is held every year. The ride had just ended when we arrived. One of the riders was Gabriella Blakely of Terrebonne, Oregon. The month before, she had completed the grueling Western States Trail Ride (known as the Tevis Cup). Also present was Alexandra Fetterman, who had just returned from Mongolia where she competed in the Mongol Derby, the longest and toughest horse race in the world. Needless to say, our horses were totally content to remain trail horses.
More Horse Camps
Other Forest Service horse camps in the area include Sheep Springs Horse Camp, Whispering Pine, and Three Creek Meadow Horse Camp. Here’s a little bit about each one.
Sheep Springs Horse Camp lies west of Sisters right off U.S. Hwy 20 on Jack Lake Rd. Follow this for about 7 miles, turn left onto Forest Rd. 1260, then right onto Forest Rd. 200. The camp has about 11 sites with four log corrals. From this camp, you can ride the Met-Win Trail both north and south. For a 10-mile round trip ride to the Bear Valley Trailhead, travel north on the Met-Win trail, following the yellow diamonds. Some of the trail goes through forests and meadows, and some through old burn areas. The Met-Win trail going south travels through old-growth ponderosa forests and lush vegetation characteristic of the Metolius basin.
To reach Whispering Pine Horse Camp, take Oregon Rte. 242 west from Sisters for 6 miles. Turn left on Forest Rd. 1018, go 4 miles, turn left on Forest Rd. 1520, and follow this road to the campground. There are a number of sites here and several log corrals. However, there are no trails from camp. It can be a camping, staging area for other trailheads, or ride on forest service roads. One of our favorite rides in the area was staged from this camp. We trailered about 2.5 miles south from camp, turned right on Forest Rd. 1026, and followed it to Scott Pass trailhead. This trailhead is not good for living-quarters trailers; we used a three-horse bumper-pull trailer.
From this trailhead, we rode about 3 miles up to Scott Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail. This is where the fun begins. We turned south and followed the Pacific Crest Trail for a day of delightful high-mountain scenery. The trail winds between lava flows, through meadows, and up to timberline, offering incredible views of North Sister, Mount Washington, and Mount Jefferson. The only problem with this trail is deciding when to turn around!
To reach Three Creek Meadow Horse Camp from Sisters, take Elm St. south; this becomes Three Creeks Rd. Follow this road 15 miles to the campground. The first camp you’ll reach is for people only; the second campground is for equestrians.
The campground loop on the right is easier for large trailers than the left loop. A note of caution: The last mile or so to camp might be quite rough depending on maintenance. Drive to camp first to check things out before taking in a living-quarters trailer.
This campground has log corrals, picnic tables, and stock water, but no potable water. Situated at 6,350 feet above sea level, this is a cooler camp on hot summer days than lower-elevation camps. Also, this area may still have snow earlier in the season.
One ride here was to Park Meadow, which offers verdant meadows and restful views of surrounding mountains. You can go on to Golden Lake, which is a 15.5-mile round trip ride from the campground.
Another ride from this camp is to Tam McArthur Rim. This is a 16.5-mile round-trip ride with 1,350-foot elevation gain. From the rim, you can take in stunning views of the surrounding area.
What a way to end a stay in Sisters: horseback-riding country!