Hiking near McKenzie Pass

Little Belknap trail has rough terrain, but is worth the effort

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Jul 30, 2014 at 12:11AM

Hiking boots have never really been a necessity for me. I have found that a solid pair of running shoes can usually get me through an all-day hike with ease.

Then I laced up my running shoes to trek the Pacific Crest Trail to Little Belknap Crater near McKenzie Pass. The sharp, loose rock of the massive lava flow made for challenging terrain and did quite a number on my feet. I should really learn to follow the advice of the guide books, especially when they say, “Wear good boots.”

The hike just might have been worth the suffering, though.

Last week, I made the drive to McKenzie Pass, less than an hour from Bend. I always seem to forget just how close this volcanic wonderland is. The peaks along Cascade Lakes Highway are a bit closer, but McKenzie Pass is worth the 40-mile drive every time.

Just a half-mile west of Dee Wright Observatory along state Highway 242 is the PCT trailhead to Little Belknap Crater. The hike — 5 miles out and back — is one of myriad routes in the area near McKenzie Pass, including Black Crater, the Matthieu Lakes Loop and Scott Mountain.

After parking at the trailhead, I chatted with some other hikers, who were headed to Santiam Pass along the PCT on the mostly overcast day. My plan was just to summit Little Belknap and then head back, which seemed easy enough.

The trail started out as dirt and sand, winding through an alpine forest for maybe a half-mile or so. But then came the lava rock, and it was endless. Little Belknap, a 6,305-foot-high rock-covered bulge in the landscape, was visible ahead of me for most of the hike, as the view uphill was just a sea of rock. Behind me, glacier-covered North and Middle Sisters loomed in all their brilliance.

To the west, the larger Belknap Crater, its north face swathed in snow, provided a constant backdrop to the trip.

As I negotiated the loose rock, there were brief reprieves of smaller gravellike sections, but they were few and far between.

Other hikers I encountered were having the same issues.

“Not good for the feet,” one man murmured as he trudged past me while I was trying in vain to find a spot to sit among the sharp rocks.

After 2½ miles, I finally arrived at the junction to the quarter-mile-long trail that leads to the summit of Little Belknap Crater. I passed several massive lava caves, which are actually open lava tubes. Peering down into one of them, I noticed a drop-off of some 30 feet to the snow in the dark cave below.

The trail to the summit grew steep, and I used my hands to climb the red lava rock to the top. The panoramic view from the summit was nothing short of awe-inspiring, even on a mostly cloudy day. Lava rock fields stretched for miles and blanketed the bottom slopes of North and Middle Sister. To the north, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson towered over the horizon. Smoke from several area wildfires lingered near Green Ridge and below Jefferson.

The wind picked up speed atop Little Belknap, but I found some shelter on a small wood bench surrounded by a wall of rocks that blocked the wind. From that perch, I ate my sack lunch and gazed at the otherworldly landscape of endless rocks and craggy peaks.

After a while, I negotiated the climb down and got back on the PCT, headed back toward the trailhead. I soon grew weary of the loose rock as my feet began to ache, but I figured out a way to keep myself going.

If PCT through-hikers can make it 2,650 miles on the trail from Canada to Mexico, I thought to myself, then I can survive this one challenging 2½-mile section. That seemed to give me the mental fortitude I needed to push on.

When the trail finally switched from rock to dirt, an abrupt change with no transition, I was extremely relieved. Finally free to take normal steps — rather than teetering along the loose rock — I cruised through the trees and back to my car.

The hike required only about three hours, but it took a toll on my running shoes and my feet. Still, the surreal surroundings of McKenzie Pass always make for a memorable day — even without hiking boots.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com