- Trip Name: Belknap Crater via PCT
- Trip Length: 7 - 7.5 miles out-and-back
- Trip Time: 4-5 hours
- Best time to visit: Summer to early fall
- Difficulty rating: 8
- Views: 8
- Wilderness experience: 8
- Recommended activities: Day hike
- Best for: Hikers
- Restroom: Not at trailhead but nearby at Dee Wright Observatory
- Permit: Free self-issue Mount Washington Wilderness permit
- Click here to download our FREE topo trail map
- Click here to purchase the GPS file for this hike ($3)
- Click here to check out our photos from this hike
- Click here to download this Trail Guide as a PDF file
Trip Technical Data
- Trailhead: Pacific Crest Trail at McKenzie Pass
- Trailhead Elevation: 5,200 feet
- Elevation of Belknap Crater: 6,872 feet
- Elevation Gain: 1,672 feet
Driving Directions from Bend:
Travel time: 1 hour
Head west on Highway 20 into Sisters, Oregon. Once you get through downtown Sisters, in 0.3 mile, turn left onto Route 242 (closed in winter). At the first intersection turn right to stay on Route 242. Follow Route 242, and in 11 miles you will come to a roadside viewpoint, on the right, with great views of Mount Washington and Belknap Crater. Continue on Route 242 for another 3.9 miles, just past Dee Wright Observatory, to the McKenzie Pass trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail on your right.
The majority of this hike follows the Pacific Crest Trail towards Belknap Crater. The trail starts off in the protection of the woods and you soon find yourself walking across a giant lava field which flowed from Little Belknap 1,600 years ago and Belknap Crater 1,700 years ago. Although there are no trees for shade the lack of trees affords sweeping views of the Cascade Range and surrounding smaller buttes. The summit climb to the top of Belknap Crater leaves the trail and is a great bushwhack for first timers or novices looking to improve their skills.
From the trailhead you will find the PCT on the east end of the parking area marked by the wilderness permit station. Make sure you fill out your permit before hitting the trail. Once on the trail, head north into the forest along the sandy trail with views of Dugout Butte to your right (east). In just a third of a mile you will leave the forest and cross a short, 100 yard, section of lava. After crossing this section you will follow the west and north edge of an island in the sea of lava. You will follow this island for another third of a mile before entering the lava flow for most of the remainder of the hike.
Walking through this lava can be challenging as the footing is loose and it is definitely hot on a sunny day. The advantage of this open expanse is the views. Once in the vast lava field views of North and Middle Sister and The Husband will appear behind you to the south while Belknap Crater, Little Belknap, Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson are always present in front of you to the north. After 1.5 miles on the lava flaw, and 2.2 miles into the hike, you will reach the well-marked side trail to Little Belknap. This side trail is well worth the third of a mile round trip. There are spectacular views from the top of Little Belknap and some lava tubes that are worth exploring.
Once back on the PCT from your side trip to Little Belknap you will exit the lava flow in a quarter of a mile, the hike's 2.8 mile mark. At this point there is a faint, unmarked, side trail to the left (west) which leads to some of the several routes to the summit of Belknap Crater. This trail will lead you to the south and east slopes which are the steeper sections of the crater cone. I chose to continue on the PCT for another quarter mile and then head west through the trees towards the north slope, which is the least steep section to climb.
Once off the trail and in the woods make your way nearly due west towards Belknap Crater which you can see between the trees. Find the route that works best for you up through the meadows towards a small crater on the north slope. Once at this small side crater there is an obvious trail cut into the north face of Belknap Crater which will lead you to the summit ridge. This off trail section from the PCT to the summit should be a bit less than a mile. Once you reach the summit ridge head south to the true summit with amazing 360 degree views and a look into the ancient volcano.
One of my favorite parts of hiking off trail is the options. This is one of those times. From the summit of Belknap Crater there are three good options for how to continue. I was tempted by the crater rim itself and chose to head down from the summit westerly to the north rim and hike the rim counter-clockwise. There are a few difficult sections along the rim requiring scrambling and somewhat challenging route finding, so know your limits if you are considering this part of the hike.
The second option would be to head down the south slope from the summit and catch one of the well-traveled routes down to the PCT. The route around the crater rim will end up following one of the south slope routes as well. The third option would be to retrace your steps and head back down the north slope and onto the PCT following generally the same path you ascended.
Whichever option you choose to rejoin the PCT, once you are back on the trail turn right (south) towards the trailhead. Once you make it back to your car you will have completed this hike and covered 7 or 7.5 miles.
On your way back to Bend a stop at the Dee Wright Observatory is well worth the time. And you definitely earned an ice cream stop in Sisters!
Please let us know how your hike went and share some of your photos on our Facebook page!