PCT: Highway 138 to Summit Lake

Oakridge

Miles 1847.8-1890.7 of the northbound PCT: Beginning OR Section D in the Mount Thielsen Wilderness, and cresting the highest point of the PCT in Oregon and Washington.

Hiking Moderate

Distance
68 km
Ascent
1.8 km
Descent
1.9 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
1.7 km
High Point
2.3 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Highway 138 to Summit Lake Map

Description

The north boundary of Crater Lake National Park marks the northern end of Oregon Section C, and the beginning of Section D on the Pacific Crest Trail. This section traces a lofty reach of the Cascade Crest, alongside eminent peaks like Thielsen and Diamond. Though mostly in the forest, mountain vistas and lakeshore panoramas punctuate the miles each day. Much of the expanse is wilderness, with few road crossings or other opportunities to leave the trail. Water can be scarce by late summer, and weather can be unpredictable on the ridgelines, making these long days in the trees more difficult than they would seem.

From the Crater Lake boundary at Highway 138, the trail ascends at the foot of Mount Thielsen and enters designated wilderness. At a junction with the Mount Thielsen trail (NB mile 1853.9) is a clearing on the shoulder of the mountain. From there you’ll see the peak rising on one side and glimpse Diamond Lake through the trees on the other. The trail then proceeds along Thielsen’s west flank, crossing the lower extent of a massive scree field, with a clear view straight up to the pointed summit––often called the Lightning Rod of the Cascades.

After rounding another shoulder the trail dips to Thielsen Creek, described as “usually reliable” by the PCT Water Report. This is the best and possibly only water source for a long stretch in either direction. The next water northbound may not be for 15 miles or more, and southbound may be 26 miles to Rim Village in the national park.

On a steady ascent the trail marches northward, along the timbered slope of the Cascade Crest, with occasional rocky clearings. At an unnamed saddle between Howlock Mountain and Tipsoo Peak, a sign marks the highpoint of the Oregon/Washington PCT at 7,560 feet (NB mile 1860.8).

From there the trail tips down until reaching the Maidu and Miller Lake junction (NB mile 1865.9). If in need of water, you can find Maidu Lake just ¾ mile west along this trail. Back on the PCT it’s uphill once more, somewhat steeply, to gain another ridge and then level out among continual forest. A side trail near a cluster of campsites leads to Six Horse Spring (NB mile 1872.1), which is less than half a mile away but 300 feet downhill. The spring is known to go dry or stagnant later in the summer, so it’s important to check PCT Water or other sources for updates ahead of time.

There may be a water cache at Windigo Pass (NB mile 1878.3) where the PCT crosses a forest road. If not, the next water source is off-trail and downhill at Windigo Lakes (NB mile 1879). Climbing again from Windigo Pass, the trail experiences a nice change of scenery on Cowhorn Mountain. Talus fields and meadows grant ample views to the craggy summit nearby and to the landscape all around.

Coming down the other side of the mountain, a number of small lakes lie just off-trail, and there are several small campsites to choose from. A much better camp awaits, however, at Summit Lake. Once at the lake’s south shore (NB mile 1889.3), excellent campsites can be found near the water. There is also a small Forest Service campground farther along the trail on the north shore. This lake is known for lots of mosquitoes, but they usually subside by late August.

On the north side of Summit Lake is where the PCT meets the unpaved Emigrant Pass road (NB mile 1890.7), where there’s a small trailhead parking area. It’s not an easy place to hitch on or off the trail, but it does make a viable endpoint for a section hike if you have a vehicle shuttle.

Permits: This segment of the PCT straddles the borders of three national forests, and goes through the Mount Thielsen Wilderness Area. Though no specific permit is required for hiking or camping, wilderness regulations do apply, and hikers should sign trail registers wherever they occur. Section hikers who begin within one of these national forests may need the Northwest Forest Pass9https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r6/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=fsbdev2027010) or equivalent for parking at trailheads.

Sources: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/umpqua/recreation/recarea/?recid=63382 https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/fremont-winema/recreation/recarea/?recid=60175 https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/deschutes/recarea/?recid=79442 https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://pctwater.com/

Difficulty

Moderate

Hiking along trails with some uneven terrain and small hills. Small rocks and roots may be present.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

June, July, August, September, October

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Similar routes nearby

Guidebooks in this area