By Zach Urness The (Salem) Statesman Journal

Black Crater hike

In general: Steep hike through burned forest to spectacular views above McKenzie Pass

Open: Summer to fall (as long as McKenzie Pass Highway is open)

Distance: 8 miles

Climb: 2,500 feet

Difficulty: Strenuous

Directions: Drive up McKenzie Pass Highway, state Highway 242, from either Sisters or from U.S. Highway 126 near McKenzie Bridge to around milepost 80 and turn at signs into a trailhead parking lot for Black Crater. It’s about 11 miles from Sisters and 29 miles from McKenzie Bridge.

Coordinates: 44.28528, -121.76642

One of Oregon’s most beautiful mountain hikes was on death’s doorstep last fall.

Black Crater Trail, which takes hikers to rarefied heights above McKenzie Pass, was torched badly by the Milli Fire in 2017.

The damage was so intense officials considered closing the trail for good, which would have been a major loss because the route features spectacular panoramas of the Central Cascades.

But then something wonderful happened.

A new district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service — in partnership with the Sisters Trail Alliance and Sawyers with Attitude — made reopening the trail a priority. They logged out dead trees, removed hazard trees, repaired tread and cleaned out a massive landslide from the parking area during the summer of 2018.

Remarkably, the trail reopened in late August.

“I’ve seen a lot of trails go away after wildfires, and we didn’t want that to happen here,” said Ian Reid, Sisters district ranger for the Deschutes National Forest.

“It was a really cool moment because we had volunteers coming out of the woodwork to help. We’re really blessed in Central Oregon to have so many people that want to give back.”

On a trip to McKenzie Pass this fall, I hiked the reopened trail up the cinder cone into the Three Sisters Wilderness. The hike is a challenge at 8 miles round-trip and 2,500 feet of climb to a summit at 7,257 feet — almost as tall as Mount Washington and Three Fingered Jack.

While the first 2.8 miles of the trail were severely burned, there are already signs of regrowth — wildflowers and grasses — amid a sea of blackened snags. Even better, the burn opened up the hike’s sights, allowing views of Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood even in the first few miles.

Right around the 3-mile mark, as the trail crosses a saddle, the route enters forest apparently burned at low severity. There are plenty of green trees as you near the top, and eventually, you reach forest that wasn’t burned at all.

The Milli Fire, which reached 24,079 acres and threatened Sisters, was fueled by high winds but burned erratically. It seems to have wrapped itself around this giant cone, leaving a few large islands of green amid the black.

The top of Black Crater is the real highlight.

The trail cuts out across a layer of pumice stone on a tabletop with views in every direction.

On one side the string of Cascade peaks — Wash, Jack, Jeff, Hood — while on the other, the sky fills with the bulk of North and Middle Sister. To the east, the long sweep of the High Desert rolls across the horizon.

The most interesting part, though, might be the sea of lava — a big black tongue out into the forest — spewed out by Belknap, Little Belknap and Yapoah craters that are 2,700 to 3,000 years old.

This high viewpoint is a natural place for a fire lookout, but it’s hard to believe where the Forest Service ultimately placed the cabin.

From the pumice on the top of Black Crater, follow the trail to a block of stone jetting out above steep cliffs and a glacier-carved valley below.

If you’re OK with heights, climb up the stone to the true summit, and you’ll find bolts drilled into the rock from the lookout that apparently stood on this narrow precipice.

It’s difficult to imagine living atop this tiny, wind-swept peak, surrounded by steep cliffs. But the view, of course, is unmatched.

And just in case you forgot about the Milli Fire — fear not. Just behind the summit, you can spot a line of black where the fire rose and stopped, starved of fuel by the pumice desert.

Black Crater is a fascinating place, home to evidence of a recent wildfire, a less recent fire lookout tower, and some of the best views in Oregon.