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Hiking Belknap Crater in the Mountain Washington Wilderness

Hiking Belknap Crater in the Mount Washington Wilderness

Hiking Belknap Crater in the Mount Washington Wilderness
Hiking this out-and-back route up Belknap Crater you’ll traverse an other-worldly lava field on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Take the short spur trail up Little Belknap for a glimpse of the views to come and a peek at lava tubes. Finally, climb trail up Belknap Crater itself, ascending soft, loamy cinder and battling the frequent mountain-top winds.

Trail Details
Summit: 6,778′
Distance: 7.6 miles
Time: 3-4 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 1,831 ft
Dogs: Yes (booties recommended)
When to go: July-October
Belknap Crater is best hiked on a cooler day. The trail is very exposed, and the lava flow section would be even less pleasant or even dangerous on a hot day.

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike begins at the Pacific Crest Trail McKenzie Pass Trailhead, which is not actually at the pass. The trailhead parking is on the north side of McKenzie Highway 242 and 0.5 miles west of the Dee Wright Observatory. The road is closed seasonally (November through June). The trail is 15.5 miles west of Sisters on Highway 242, and roughly a one hour drive from Bend. The trailhead parking area is dirt and can accommodate 10-12 vehicles if parked politely. There is no toilet at the trailhead, but there is a pit toilet at the parking area for the Dee Wright Observatory.

Get turn-by-turn driving directions via Google Maps.

Hiking Belknap Crater

The trail begins in a patch of forest that might be considered deceiving, as most of this hike is over exposed lava fields and cinder talus.

The trail crosses a lava flow between two wooded hills, winding around the north side of the second hill before splitting off and heading north across the lava field.


Looking back (south) toward the Three Sisters.

At about the two mile mark, you reach a junction with the spur trail that heads due east to Little Belknap. This is a short side trip that adds about a mile to your total distance. Once you reach Little Belknap, there is a short scramble to the top. It’s worth the trip.

From Little Belknap, retrace your steps to the PCT and turn right (heading north). As you leave the lava field, the trail forks. To the right, the PCT continues north. To the left (there is no trail sign) the trail heads toward and up Belknap Crater.

One thing I’ll say about hiking across a lava field…it gives you a great appreciation for dirt. The initial approach to the base of Belknap Crater is a welcome, dirt respite.

Once you reach the crater, the terrain turns to a mixture of cinder and dirt that at times feels like climbing a sand dune. The trail switchbacks gracefully up and around the north side of the crater, then climbs to the bare summit.

When we hiked this in October, it was a beautiful, cool day — perfect conditions for hiking Belknap Crater except for the fierce winds at the summit. They were strong enough that we didn’t dawdle at the top. We soaked in the epic Cascade views and headed back down. Fortunately, as soon as we were in the shadow of the crater, the winds subsided and the remainder of the hike back to the trailhead was perfect.

Hiking back, we retraced our steps. Heading south, we had great views of North and Middle Sister, and Black Crater (another favorite hike in the area). We could make out the Dee Wright Observatory — worth a stop if you have time.

Belknap Crater Trail Map & Elevation Profile

Download file: belknap-crater.gpx

Additional Belknap Crater Resources

  • Advance permits are required from June 15th to October 15th. Day-use permits are released in two rolling windows: 10 days and then two days before the trip date. Online permit request form.
  • Sun protection, layers and plenty of water are all a must on this hike.
  • Dogs are allowed, but I would only consider bringing mine with booties. The lava rock is coarse, highly abrasive, and can be very hot in the sunlight.

Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge SeriesThe Central Oregon Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge

Belknap Crater is part of the Central Oregon Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, a self-paced hiking challenge that takes you up six iconic mountains, each a bit higher and harder. It’s a challenge in itself, or a great way to train for bigger adventures. And your registration help support some great outdoor-related non-profits.

Learn more and sign-up here.

Originally hiked with Joan on October 15, 2022.

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