PCT McKenzie Pass to Santiam Pass is a 16.3 mile moderately trafficked point-to-point trail located near Sisters, Oregon that features a lake and is rated as moderate. The trail is primarily used for hiking and camping and is accessible from June until November.
This is a 17 miles section of the Pacific Crest Trail connecting the McKenzie pass (south) to the Santiam pass (north). The trail first goes through a 2.2 mile solid lava flow to the Little Belknap spur trail at 6300 feet. (0.4 miles round trip) before descending to the foot of Mt Washington at 5300 feet through a mix of burned forest and lava rocks. Af the foot of Mt Washington, the trails veers North-West and ascends back to 5800 feet on the Western slope. At around 7 miles, the trails enters an untouched forested area that provides welcome shade in the hot summer months. The trail then descends toward the East side of Big Lake without reaching the lake itself. The last five miles or so are mostly flat as the trail heads almost due North toward US 20 and the Santiam pass parking lot. A good quarter of the trail traverses lava fields that are strenuous to negotiate and required constant attention.
This being a point-to-point hike, I negotiated with my wife to drop me off at the South point (just West of the Dee Wright observatory) at 7:30 AM and pick me up at the other end mid-afternoon (ended up being shortly before 5PM). Of course, this is only if you want to do this as a day-hike.
I wish I had made this hike before the fires burned most of the forested area around Mt Washington. I may have given the trail 5 stars. As it stands, the trail goes through large swaths of burned forest looking like a sea of blanched tree trunks and charred limbs; some will find this scenery very off putting.
The first 2.5 miles go throw a thick and wide lava flow, climbing up to a saddle with LIttle Belknap just a short .2 miles to the East (I find taking that short side trip a definite must). The "summit" of Little Belknap is reached very quickly, uncovering sweeping views to the North, East and South. Nice spot for a quick snack and first rest stop.
The two miles, after an easy and mostly flat section of alpine meadows, descends gradually to the foot of Mt Washington to go around the Eastern tip of another solid lava flow. I find that descent to be the most taking portion of the trail; it is a jumbled mix of lava rocks, roots very uneven terrain and burned forest landscape. Constant attention to footing and ankle-busting terrain made me very happy to reach the left turn signaling the tip of the lava flow and the beginning of the uphill around the West side of Mt Washington. With the trickiness of the descent, it is easy to forget looking around and especially North; it's worth stopping a few seconds and enjoying some of the best views of Washington. The rebirth of the burned out area also offers some extremely vivid/colorful vegetation and flowers.
The ascent on the Sourthwest side of the mountain makes it all but impossible to see the volcano at all. There are, however, beautiful views back toward Belknap Crater and LIttle Belknap as well at to the West towards the South Willamette Valley. That portion of the trail is move "traditional" (no lava!) and provides much relief to ankles and knees.
A bit before the mid-point (about 7miles), the trail finally reaches a shaded area that is perfect for a lunch break and the administration of much needed TLC to sore feet. No water though during this hot Aug day. The trail continues to circle Mt Washington, with beautiful views up the mountain from a couple meadows on the West side. When walking Northbound as I did, it is worth stopping to turn around one is a while as views of the top will be at your back.
The last five miles do not present much challenge (other than the fact that the boots odometer marks already 12 miles at the onset). The trail first descends to the East of Big Lake (no easy/short access to the lake for the PCT itself) before reaching the plateau to the East of the Hoodoo Ski area where it crosses several dirt roads and other trails servicing the many lakes around. At various points in this last stretch, the trail offers views of Three Fingers Jack to the North.
Shortly after crossing NF 860 (around the 15.5 miles mark), the trail does go right by a smaller lake (rest, refresh, filter water...). Finally, the trail ascends lightly toward the Santiam Hwy (OR 126, US 20). Better watch out carefully left and right as you cross the lanes! From there, it is short .25 miles to the PCT parking lot.