Central Oregon’s Best Wildflower Hike – Canyon Creek Meadows to Three Finger Jack

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When it comes to hiking in Central Oregon, there may be no better option, at least during peak wildflower season, than the hike up the Canyon Creek Meadows trail to Three Finger Jack. This hike checks almost every box: wildflowers, stunning mountain vistas, a lake for a post-hike dip, and a long bumpy dirt road to the trailhead.

Ok, maybe that last one isn’t a plus in everyone’s book!

In the right weather (read: not blazingly hot or sleeting), this 6 to 9-mile-long trail is relatively easy and offers up some of the best views in Oregon during the last 2 miles.

All About the Canyon Creek Meadows Trail

Length: 7.2 miles officially but can be shorter or longer depending on whether you climb to the final ridge
Difficulty: Moderate
Trail Type: Out-and-back with an option for a loop
Trailhead Access: Last 6 miles on a progressively bumpier dirt road but accessible for all car types.
Location: Northeast of Sisters
Permits Required: Parking Pass (Northwest Forest Pass) & Central Cascades Wildness Permit

Where to Start the Hike for Canyon Creek Meadows Trail

Located approximately 20 miles northwest of Sisters, Oregon, the Canyon Creek Meadows trail takes you into the bowl of Three Finger Jack and treats you to a stunning display of beauty.

The trailhead for Canyon Creek Meadows is called Jack Lake Trailhead on Google maps.

To get to the trailhead, turn North off Highway 20 between Sisters and Suttle Lake onto NF-12. There are signs for this turnoff that say Mt. Jefferson Wilderness trails. From there, you can follow the Google map directions up to the trailhead. After the first 5 miles, the road turns to gravel and gets progressively bumpier as you climb up towards the trailhead.

Required Permits for Hiking Canyon Creek Meadows

There are two permits required for parking and hiking at Canyon Creek Meadows.

The first is your parking pass which is required at trailheads on national forest land, mostly anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. This pass is called the Northwest Forest pass, and if you’ve spent any time in Bend, you’ll probably see these hanging from the rearview mirror in half the cars in town!

The Northwest Forest pass can be purchased as either an annual ($30) or daily pass ($5), allowing you to park at most trailheads in the area. You can pick up annual passes at most outdoor retailers in town, and many trailheads also have collection boxes where you can pay for your day pass in cash.

Central Cascades Wilderness Permits

The second pass you’ll need for this hike is a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit. The Central Cascades Wilderness permits are issued for individual trailheads and cover entry to hikes in both the Three Sisters wilderness and Mt. Jefferson wilderness areas.

The limited entry permit system was put in place in 2021 in an attempt to curb the overuse of central Oregon’s most popular wilderness areas and is required for all entry between mid-June and mid-September (the exact dates can vary year by year).

In my opinion, while the permit system has taken away the ability to take a last-minute hike, it has vastly improved the trail experience by limiting crowds on some of the uber-popular trails in the area. Those in Bend who will recall trying to find a parking spot around Devil’s Lake after 5 AM on a weekend can attest to the fact that it is a far different atmosphere up there now.

Jack Lake (Canyon Creek Meadows) day use permit website image

The permits are available through the Recreation.gov website or app. You’ll need to be online at 7 AM Pacific on the dot to obtain a permit, either 10 days or 2 days before your planned hike. Day-use permits for the area’s most popular hikes can sell out within minutes, so be prepared.

I would say this hike falls into the second tier of popularity behind the South Sister and Broken Top hikes, so while it probably won’t sell out in seconds, you still don’t want to wait too long if you’re gunning for a weekend pass.

Hiking the Canyon Creek Meadows Trail

Once you’ve arrived at the trailhead, it’s time to strap on the backpack and head up the trail. You can see Three Finger Jack off in the distance from the parking lot, which will be your destination for the day.

Hiking Canyon Creek Meadows Trail to Three Finger Jack

The trail starts by winding around Jack Lake before slowly making its way uphill. This area is through an old burn, so it can be quite exposed with only low manzanitas and the occasional burned-out trunk to shield you from the sun.

This area may not be the most scenic part of the hike, but if you time it right, you can catch some nice displays of bear grass. We were about two weeks late this year, as you can see in the photo above. Luckily, there is most bear grass further up the trail that blooms a week or two later than at this lower elevation.

As this area is usually hot in the summer, we typically try to hit the trail by 7 AM to avoid the mid-day heat on the hike out, especially since we have our kids along for the ride.

Choosing Your Loop

You’ll come to a fork in the trail approximately three-quarters of a mile in. The Canyon Creek Meadows trail is set up as an out-and-back with a loop in the middle 2/3rds. The recommended hiking direction is to hike the loop clockwise, so this means staying to your left at this junction.

I’ll cover this loop more later on, but by staying to the left, you’ll have a more shaded hike, which is slightly shorter than taking the path to the right.

From this point, the trail ascents through the rest of the burned area and cuts in and out of the forest.

Keep an eye out to the north as the trail winds through the forest, and you will be treated to some nice views of Mt. Jefferson.

After a short descent through the heart of the forest, the trail will begin passing by a few small ponds (watch out for mosquitos!), and this will be the first place to start looking for wildflowers.

Wildflowers and the Best Time to Hike the Canyon Creek Meadows Trail

The wildflower displays on this hike are, in our opinion, the icing on the cake that turns it into a top-5 hike in all of Oregon. On this trail, you’ll see mindblowing numbers of lupine, scarlet gilia, fireweed, larkspur, and red columbine.

Canyon Creek Meadows wildflowers and three finger jack view

You’ll find wildflowers along the entirety of the trail, with beargrass, lupine, and fireweed beginning near the trailhead to full-on wildflower displays as you approach the base of Three Finger Jack.

The best time to hike the Canyon Creek Meadows trail will usually be in late July to early August. By this time, almost all the lingering snow on the trails will have melted out, and the wildflowers should be at their best.

This timing can vary by a week or two, year to year, depending on the snow levels. Checking out user reports for the hike on a site like Alltrails is a good way to get an idea of the trail conditions before you head up.

Hiking Through the Meadows

After passing by the ponds, you’ll begin your hike through the lower Canyon Creek meadows.

Note that the other junction for the loop you can take on the return hike is just before the sign below.

canyon creek trail meadows and trail not maintained sign

At this point, you will start to get your first good views of Three Finger Jack through the thinning forest. The trail winds through several small meadows that will be filled with wildflowers.

In this section, there are a number of small stream crossings. Some a just a single step to make it over, while others require walking over a few rocks. It is tempting to sit down and enjoy the views here, but the bugs will often be out in full force in this area, and I can promise that the views are about to get much better.

Hiking to the Base of Three Finger Jack

After leaving the final meadow, you’ll head through one more stretch of trees. The trail parallels Canyon Creek, and if you’re planning on overnighting, this area has some great camping spots dispersed amongst the trees.

After one final uphill push, you’ll come to what I would consider one of the most iconic photo spots in Central Oregon. The trail continues uphill with Three Finger Jack fully in view and the hillsides, when timed right, covered in wildflowers.

Three Finger Jack in front of canyon creek meadow trail

The trail winds through these hillsides and ends with one final push up and over the hillside. This area can get steep and sandy, but the final result is worth the effort. This area holds a few secret trails, but I’ll leave those to you to explore and find.

Once over the ridge, you’ll have a few options to choose from:

  • Backtrack a bit down to Canyon Creek and enjoy the wildflowers and cool waters
  • Hang out on the rocks near the base of the glacial moraine
  • Climb up the moraine to the glacial lake (honestly, it’s not the prettiest alpine lake you’ll ever see)
  • Continue up the rocky trail to the ridge for views of the Three Sisters

As we’ve always hiked up with small kids, the furthest we have ventured is up to the lake on the other side of the glacial moraine. If you want to hike up further, you’ll see trails worn into the dirt and rock. These trails are all on loose scree so use caution when ascending and descending.

Our personal favorite thing to do is hang out near the bottom of the clearing, enjoy the wildflowers, dip our toes in the creek, and scout the rock faces for mountain goats.

Spotting Mountain Goats on Three Finger Jack

mountain goats on three finger jack from the canyon creek meadows trail
Can you spot the goats?

On the steep slopes of Three Finger Jack, you can frequently spot families of mountain goats carefully walking along the rocks. We’ve spotted these elusive animals on each of our three trips up. Albeit from a long way off (hence the grainy cell phone photo).

We’ve seen them on the faces of Three Finger Jack and the cliff bands to the south. They tend to walk in and out of the trees, so keep an eye out as they will come in and out of view over time.

Side note: if you’ve never had the opportunity to try to point out a mountain goat on a cliff face half a mile away to a 4-year-old, you’re missing out.

The Return Hike

On returning to the trailhead, you can take the loop back. This route adds a little extra mileage, although it makes up for it with some beautiful beargrass displays and a small waterfall.

Most of this trail is through an old burn rather than the forest, so there is much more sun exposure. On a hot day, I’d recommend skipping this leg and just doing the trail as an out and back.

Overall, we love this hike and have done it every year for the past three years. That tradition is one that will continue into the future, hopefully with some overnighters added in, once our little ones are ready to start carrying their own (small) packs.

About the author
Derek Carlson
Pacific Northwest native, cross-country skier, hiker, mountain biker, wannabe fly fisherman, writer and owner of Roam the Northwest