Friday, August 21, 2015

Highway 242 and the Belknap Craters

Highway 242 is only open for a few months of the year, so hikers in the know seize the opportunity to drive this narrow, old pass as it romps its way over the Cascades from Belknap Hot Springs to Sisters. The thin slip of pavement climbs, drops, and careens, at times giving the feeling that you are about to meet yourself coming around the hairpin corners; this is not a place to bring your big camp trailer. The road passes through thick, lush westside forest, high mountain trees, eastside pines, and vast fields of lava.

The Pacific Crest Trail crosses Highway 242 and traverses a huge lava flow here on its way from The Three Sisters to Mount Washington. While the lava looks impassible, the PCT offers moderately experienced hikers an access point for this fascinating landscape and a panorama-packed hike to Big and Little Belknap Craters. Plan on about seven miles round trip; some of the trail is cross-country at times, and lava tubes near the trail demand investigation, so the total distance may vary a bit.

The Dee Wright Observatory, a rough stone building with stunning 360-degree views, stands at the Old McKenzie Pass summit. Just west of the summit, look for a small parking area among the trees on the north side of the road. The trail heads north here, toward the lava field. Due to the rough landscape, this hike is not recommended for small children. The lava can cut dogs' paws, but they should not be left in a vehicle in this exposed, usually sunny area. It is best to leave them at home or with a non-hiker. Wear sturdy shoes and carry water, as there is none along the trail.

The trail passes through a lovely forest, then enters the lava. It is an abrupt transition, with walls of lava suddenly rising above the woodland. Note two treed "islands" in the midst of the lava field. After about two miles, look for a trail to the right; this small path leads about one-third of a mile to rugged Little Belknap Crater. There are many lava tubes in this area, some of them quite deep. Use caution when going off-trail in this unforgiving terrain.

Back on the PCT, continue about another quarter mile, leaving the lava flow and reentering the trees. Watch for a thin, probably unmarked, track on the left. This leads to the base of Belknap Crater, a large, hollow dome. The southerly trails are clearly visible along the side of the dome, but coming down again can be a bit unsettling, as the cinders slide out from underfoot and there is nothing to slow a potential fall. Continue another quarter mile on the PCT to access the easiest trail to the top, along the northeast flank, but note that early in the year this may be under snow. Either way, after enjoying the view from the summit, return the way you came.

This whole area is along the summit of the Cascades, and the views are breathtaking on all sides. The Dee Wright Observatory offers a consolation hike for those unable to make the Crater trip. The Observatory itself is worth a visit, as well; be sure to take your camera for views framed by the "window" openings.

Sunset on Scott Lake
There is camping all along this highway, which is itself a popular destination for families, bicyclists, and daytrippers. There are several developed campgrounds, including  LimberlostAlder Springs, and scenic Scott Lake. Dispersed camping is also widely available all along the way, and the area is peppered with excellent backpacking destinations. Alternatively, stay at Belknap Hot Springs on the west end, or book a hotel room in Sisters or Bend. Just don't plan to bring a large RV up aptly-named Deadhorse Grade.

The highway roughly follows the pass built by John Templeton Craig in the early 1870s. This hardy pioneer managed to create a roadway through impassible lava fields, only to freeze to death in his roadside cabin in the winter of 1877. Wildflowers bloom abundantly in the warm summer breezes along this remote pass, but winter snows are cruel and deep. Once the flakes begin to fall in October, the highway will close again until the end of June.
The southern trail up Big Balknap. Just say no.
Belknap Crater