Circumnavigating Volcanoes: Trail Running the Three Fingered Jack Loop

Challenging grades, sparkling alpine lakes, and jaw-dropping views that take you around the entire Three Fingered Jack mountain massif in Central Oregon. Over half of this trail was obliterated by a wildfire 13 years ago, but the burn area just means more opportunity for mountain views.

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Overview: 22.8 miles, ~4,500 elevation gain, 1-3 days

While Three Fingered Jack is still high on my list of Central Oregon summits, I’m dedicating all of my free time in the next few weeks to preparing for my Circumnavigation of Mt. Hood via the Timberline Trail (~40 miles, 9k elevation). So this morning I traded my trekking poles in for trail runners and set out on one of the area’s most popular hiking loops.

Most people will complete the Three Fingered Jack loop during a 2-3 day backpacking trip, and I did read of some hiking the entire trail in one day. However, I didn’t see any reports about how this route would feel as a trail run, so I decided to test it out for myself.

Note: This route takes you around Jack Lake, Wasco Lake, and onto the western ridgeline of Three Fingered Jack. It does not go down into the popular Canyon Creek Meadows; read this article, this article, or this article for directions to Canyon Creek.

I chose to complete this trail counterclockwise so that I would have the sun on my side; it was 38 degrees the morning I began and having sunlight to warm me up was tantamount to my success, and enjoyment, of this run. There’s plenty more shade on the west side of the mountain than the east side, so you should have no problem cooling down in the afternoon.

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You’ll start your route out at the Santiam Pass access to the Pacific Crest Trail, right off of Highway 20, almost impossible to miss. Make sure you bring your NW Forest Pass for the parking lot, and fill out a wilderness permit at the trailhead.

Distance breakdown:

  • Santiam Pass Trailhead to Booth Lake: 4.2
  • Booth Lake to Jack Lake Trailhead: 6 miles
  • Jack Lake Trailhead to Wasco Lake: 3 miles
  • Wasco Lake to Santiam Pass Trailhead via PCT: 9.6 miles

Start out on the PCT at Santiam Pass for about .2 miles before you hit a junction and turn right to follow Summit Trail #4014. This trail will take you all the way past Square Lake, Booth Lake, Jack Lake, and up to Wasco Lake.

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Massive burn areas all along this trail means you’ll have more opportunity to admire the mountain.

The undulating Trail #4014 passes through an incredible burn area that gives you views of the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, Black Butte, and more. You’ll spend the first half of your day dashing above alpine lakes and wooded campsites before you reach the busy trailhead at Jake Lake. Here you’ll find picnic benches, a restroom, and lots of day hikers – follow the trail towards Wasco Lake to continue the loop.

[Note of warning: Once you reach Jack Lake, the trail #s disappear and are replaced by names of landmarks. If you’re looking to follow the popular Trail #4010 to cut off a couple extra miles on this loop, follow signs to Canyon Creek Meadows.]

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At the opposite end of Wasco Lake, you’ll run into a trail junction. The path ahead of you has an “unmaintained trail” sign; you’ll turn left here up a short steep path that takes you to the PCT. This intersection is marked with the faintest, oldest sign that reads P.C.N.S.T. – when I saw this, already sure I was lost, all I could do was cross my fingers and hope that this stood for “Pacific Crest North South Trail.” Guess I got lucky.

The aforementioned short steep path will take you to the top of Minto Pass where you’ll ignore Trail #3437 going straight and turn left instead. Once you hit the PCT and head south (there’s also a sign pointing the way to Santiam Pass), it’s just a straight shot to the parking lot. You have 9.6 miles of rocky ridges, soft sandy trail, and unbeatable views of Central Oregon ahead of you.

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Heading up Minto Pass towards the Three Fingered Jack massif.

Your first 2 miles on the PCT take you through a burn area that allows you to see your entire approach up to the western ridge of Three Fingered Jack. The trail gradually approaches Porcupine Peak (6,510 ft.), the highpoint of your route today, and provides you with absolutely jaw-dropping views of Canyon Creek Meadows down to your left and the northern face of Three Fingered Jack looming down at you from your front.

Once you cross over this highpoint, you can look forward to a long, undulating 7.6 miles of descent straight back to Santiam Pass. The area just to the west of the mountain is covered in rockfall and rocky moraines that will slow you down a bit while you watch your step, but the rest – first through a thick forest and later into another burn area – is gradual, scenic, and an enjoyable way to end a long day.

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With plenty of distance to cover, and enough elevation gain to give your glutes a good burn, the Three Fingered Jack loop makes for an awesome trail run. This is an even better route for endurance runners or people training for a high-altitude event, since the trail maintains an elevation between 4,816 ft. (Santiam Pass lowpoint) and 6,510 ft. (Porcupine Peak highpoint).

Packing List:

  • Northwest Forest Parking Pass
  • 2+ liters water
  • Iodine or filter to treat water, plenty of running water sources
  • Food depending on length of trip
  • Tennis shoes, hiking shoes, whichever you prefer – the trail is in superb condition
  • Sun glasses + sun protection – burn area means more exposure to sun

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