There are many challenging trails in the Superstition Mountains and if you’ve conquered the other popular hikes like Flatiron and Peak 5024, then Three Sisters Summit should be next on your list.
While this hike doesn’t require as much scrambling as the trails mentioned above, it does have a very steep grade for about ninety percent of the way up. The trail is very narrow, rocky, full of scree and cacti, and it’ll seem like the incline never ends.
To some (like my husband) this may sound like a terrible experience, while others may welcome the challenge and revel in the pain- such as myself. If you’re excited about this one then keep reading. This guide covers trail details, best time to hike, and tips for a safe adventure.
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Three Sisters Summit Hiking Stats
- Hiking Distance | 7.2 miles RT
- Difficulty | Difficult & Strenuous
- Elevation Gain | 2,312 feet
- Total Time | 4 – 6 hours
- Permits/Fees | $15 Arizona State Trust Land Permit.
- Trailhead | Carney Springs Trailhead
- Dogs Allowed | Yes, but only the most experienced.
While dogs are allowed to use this trail it is only recommended for the most experienced desert hiking and scrambling dogs. There are a few tough scrambles for dogs and the trail is littered with hidden cacti. This one is pretty strenuous for the average dog so please use caution if you want to bring yours and be willing to turn back if need be.
Getting Your Permit For Three Sisters
Not all Superstition Mountain hikes are located on Arizona State Trust Land, however this particular hike is. That means a Recreational Permit for all activities- even hiking and camping- is required. Below are the permit types available to choose from:
- Individual ($15 for 12 months)
- Family Permit ($20 for 12 months. This covers 2 parents and any children under the age of 18)
- Small Group Permit ($15 for 5 days, 20 people or less)
Permits can be purchased online or in person at one of the locations listed on their website. You can learn more and purchase your permit here.
Getting To The Trailhead
Three Sisters Summit embarks from the Carney Springs Trailhead which is where the popular Wave Cave trail also begins. The two hikes share a small parking lot so expect it to be packed especially on weekend mornings.
Getting to the trailhead is easy but a little bit of a drive. The Superstition Mountains are located roughly 40-60 minutes from Phoenix and have several different trailheads scattered about the base. This particular trailhead is tucked in the South end of the mountains off a well maintained dirt road.
To get to Carney Springs Trailhead from Phoenix you will take the US 60 East until it turns into a two lane road. A few more miles and you’ll turn left onto E Peralta Road which takes you through a quiet neighborhood, past an elementary school, and eventually will dead end into a dirt road. Once you drive this dirt road you are entering Arizona State Trust Land and need a permit.
You’ll travel down the dirt road for a several miles while keeping left at any forks in the road. Eventually you’ll see a small dirt parking lot (you can’t miss it) on the left side. This is where you’ll park to begin your hike to Three Sisters!
This dirt road is kept in good enough shape for just about any car. Be cautious after it rains though- the washes will flood parts of the road making them impassible. There will be muddy parts too so keep this in mind if you want to keep those wheels clean.
Best Time To Hike
Due to the strenuous nature of this hike I recommend only conquering this one during the months of November- April. These are the best months for hiking in and around the Phoenix valley because of the prime-time hiking temperatures.
Hiking outside of these months will pose many challenges due to the extreme heat, sun exposure, and lack of access to shade and water. Since Three Sisters Summit requires a lot of physical effort and has almost no shade along the trail, the chances are you will overheat and fatigue quickly if hiking during 80+ degrees. Remember, the sun in the desert is much more powerful that other areas across the US- do not underestimate it!
Best Time Of Day
So I won’t lie to you- when I hiked up to Three Sisters Summit in January I began just before 2 pm. I chose to do this so I could miss the morning crowds at the trailhead fully well knowing I’d be finishing in the dark. But the hike did take a bit longer than I had initially thought. Luckily I was already prepared with layers and night-time gear, but I didn’t think I’d hike as far and as long as I did in complete darkness without a moon!
I share this with you because while you can opt to hike Three Sisters first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon to time it for sunset, it will most likely take you longer than you expect. And if you don’t like hiking in the dark especially down a very narrow and steep, hard to follow, scree trail, then I insist you begin first thing in the morning.
The sunset was nothing special because you aren’t spoiled with a direct view of the sun setting in the sky. The sun actually sets on the other side of the mountains, and when hiking back down we weren’t in the right area to truly witness the setting sun color the sky and mountain peaks around us.
So, all of this to say I highly suggest just starting first thing in the morning and not doing a late afternoon-sunset hike!
Tips For Hiking Three Sisters Summit
- Wear long pants. The trail is very narrow and lined with a ton of prickly vegetation.
- Begin first thing in the morning. It will take you longer than anticipated and the late afternoon sun casts shadows on the peak that make it difficult to photograph.
- Bring hiking poles if you have them. This trail is extremely steep and rocky! Having poles will help save your joints and balance.
- Utilize a GPS system because the trail is not marked and very hard to follow. The area has many intersecting trails and it is easy to get turned around. Gaia GPS is my favorite phone app to use on my hikes!
- Pack the 10 Essentials including layers and extra snacks. Keep reading for a full packing list!
- Carry a paper map of the area. This map is a great one for the Superstition Mountains and the trails within.
Preparation saves lives. Know where you are going ahead of time and always have a way to keep yourself on trail. One way to do this is with a GPS system or app like Gaia GPS.
You can download my Three Sisters hike and gain access to my library of all tracked hikes. Once downloaded, you can load it into your own trusty device for ease of mind!
The above trail map depicts Three Sisters Summit trail (orange) and the Wave Cave trail (purple). You can see how they overlap in the beginning and where the end destinations are in relation to each other. Three Sisters sits almost directly above the Wave Cave!
Three Sisters Summit: The Hike
To begin this difficult yet debatably thrilling hike you’ll embark from the Carney Springs Trailhead on a very wide and rocky old road that is no longer in service. As you close the distance between yourself and the mountains there will be a minimal wire and metal fence, typical in desert areas for keeping cattle from entering.
It may seem like the fence is blocking your way, leading you to the trail on the left side of it. You do not want to take this trail but instead weave through the fence to continue the straight path you were on.
A couple tenths of a mile past the fencing and there will be a fork in the trail, almost hardly noticeable unless you’re looking for it. If you veer to the left keeping on the ‘main’ trail you will end up at the Wave Cave. But if you veer right, onto the much more narrow and almost overgrown trail, it will lead you towards Three Sisters. Turn right and the tough journey to Three Sisters Summit begins.
From this point on the trail becomes steep and difficult to follow. Notice the theme here? You’ll have to utilize a combination of your trail navigation skills, previously made cairns, and a GPS map to stay on the official trail. Basically you’ll be hiking in a canyon that naturally leads you the only way one can go- up to the ridgeline of the Superstitions.
After some light scrambling, careful steps, and frequent breaks you’ll be teased with a false ridgeline. This was a demoralizing sight since the effort to reach it was fatiguing, and the thought of continuing the climb even further was even worse. But it is the only way to go if you want to reach Three Sisters, so you must continue to climb!
Once you reach the actual ridgeline you’ll turn left onto the Ridgeline Trail. The point to turn isn’t so obvious because the ‘ridgeline’ turns out not to be what one would imagine it to be- a narrow section on top of the mountain with sheer drop offs on each side. Instead, the drop is gradual and you gain views deep into the Superstition Mountains unveiling just how vast the mountain range is.
From here the trail weaves up, down, and around rock formations, washes, and streams. In typical desert fashion all water sources will most likely be dry unless it has recently rained. If so, you may be lucky to witness a few little waterfalls and pools of water along the way.
The Ridgeline Trail is known for being overgrown and hard to follow. There will be times when you lose the trail and have to rely on your GPS map or spot some cairns nearby. Don’t strictly rely on cairns, though, because there are several interweaving trails in the area which lead you to different places. You don’t want to follow the wrong ones.
As far as elevation gain goes you still have a lot more work to put in. Arguably the steepest part is yet to come. Just when you feel like you may want to give up due to the extremely narrow, slippery, and steep grade it will level out and end at a saddle. This saddle sits on an actual ridge and provides the first views in a very long time out towards the East.
From here it is just a hairpin turn to the left and an easy 0.4 miles to the end of the trail which sits on Three Sisters Summit. This portion of the trail (pictured below) may just be my favorite views of the entire hike. It was thrilling being able to hike with such stunning landscape literally 360 degrees around me.
Three Sisters Summit is an odd one to sit comfortably at. There are plenty of cacti to keep you on your toes and large boulder like rocks that make it difficult and nerve-wrecking to rest on or stand for photos. Thanks goodness this place doesn’t get too crowded.
There is zero shade to hide under which may make your rest a quick one. Most likely you’ll arrive by late morning when the sun has fully risen. Later in the afternoon a large shadow is cast over this area and makes it difficult to photograph.
Once you’ve gotten a good rest and are full of inspiration from the views, you’ll head back down the way you came. Luckily going down is usually quicker but you still have to be careful of your footing on the loose rocks. Take your time and you’ll make it back to your car without trouble.
What To Pack For Your Hike
Having the proper gear for the Superstition Mountains, let alone a hike like Three Sisters Summit, is essential for your safety and comfortability. I typically am not one to urge hikers to have the ‘name brand’ gear, but due to the nature of this hike there are a few non-negotiables. Keep reading to learn more!
Note: this list is assuming you’re going to pack your own snacks and plenty of water (3L per person).
Due to the rocky nature of this hike you’ll want a sturdy and reliable hiking shoe, not tennis shoes. Typically I hike with my Adidas Terrex in the desert, but because it was cold and I was going to be hiking in the dark I chose to wear my Salamon X Ultra 4 Mid on this one. Solid choice because they gave me great ankle support and my feet didn’t hurt from the rocks on the trail.
Merino Wool Socks:
Moisture wicking socks are essential to prevent sweaty and blistery feet. They also are very warm comfortable! I use Darn Tough Cushion Socks which are the perfect height to pair with boots and cover the heel, thus preventing blisters.
Hiking Backpack + Water Reservoir:
Any normal backpack will do, but a quality backpack like Osprey Skarab 30 with straps, support, and breathability will feel like luxury during this hike. It also holds a water reservoir which makes it easier to carry water and stay hydrated on the trail without having to stop. I love my backpack because it is the right size for all of the essentials and is very comfortable.
Because I use a GPS app on my phone as well as my phone itself to take pictures and videos, the battery can drain after a half day of hiking. I always carry a Goal Zero Battery Bank with me so I can charge my phone and other devices. It isn’t the lightest thing but holds a charge for days and can re-charge my phone several times.
Base / Insulating Top:
In the desert I religiously hike using either my sports bra or a synthetic crop top as my base layer. For my insulating top I love a good 1/2 zip long sleeve. I have different thicknesses of long sleeves that I wear depending on the weather. My favorite fleece for ultimate warmth is this Columbia 1/2 Zip Grid Fleece. If I want something a thinner I like to wear this Under Armor Tech Twist 1/2 Zip.
The Superstitions can be chilly in the morning and get really cold at night, especially during the months of November-April. Carrying a protective layer like my favorite budget friendly packable down jacket is important. I always have one in my pack just incase the weather takes a turn or I am out later than intended.
This part of the Superstitions are rugged and remote which means carrying the 10 Essentials is extremely important! Here are a few I highly suggest not skipping out on:
Final Thoughts On Three Sisters Summit
My husband may still very much so dislike me for dragging him up to Three Sisters Summit, but I thrived. I was sore for a couple days after which says a lot about the difficulty since this hike ended up hurting me more than my South Kaibab to Bright Angel hike in the Grand Canyon!
While I wouldn’t jump to complete this trail again within the same month, it wasn’t so bad that I wouldn’t do it again. In fact, it is part of the full Superstition Ridgeline Trail which is a bucket-list hike for many local adventurers. Now that I’ve conquered it once I know that I can do it again and continue on to complete the entire Superstition Ridgeline.
The views at Three Sisters Summit alone are worth the difficult climb while the chance of complete solitude at the summit is icing on the cake. Next time I’ll probably start first thing in the morning because the lack of sunset views didn’t justify ending the hike in complete darkness.
In the end, Three Sisters Summit humbled me and my physical abilities. It made me realize that I may not be in the ‘best’ hiking shape that I could be in, which now awaken something in me that is craving to do more.
More Superstition Mountains Hikes:
- Peralta Trail to Fremont Saddle: Arizona Hiking Guide
- Weavers Needle Loop Trail in the Superstition Mountains
- Ultimate Guide to Hiking Flatiron via Siphon Draw Trail
- Hike Battleship Mountain via. First Water Trailhead
- Hiking to Massacre Falls via Massacre Grounds Trail
- How to find Broadway Cave in the Superstition Mountains, AZ
I’d love to hear from you!
Have you hiked to Three Sisters before, or are you up for the challenge to conquer this one? Share in the comments below!