PCT: McKenzie Pass to Santiam Pass

Miles 1983.8-2000.9 of the northbound PCT: Crossing plains of hardened lava plus a patchwork of forest near the base of Mount Washington, and surpassing Mile 2000 of the walk from Mexico to Canada.

Hiking Moderate

Distance
27 km
Ascent
594 m
Descent
741 m
Duration
6-7 hrs
Low Point
1.4 km
High Point
1.9 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: McKenzie Pass to Santiam Pass Map

Description

Here at the start of Oregon Section F, the northbound PCT covers a long and dry segment between paved roads, on rugged terrain surrounding Mount Washington. From McKenzie Pass, the trail strikes out across a vast lava field, toward the sky-scraping figure of the mountain. Skirting the base of this extinct volcano, the trail then weaves through spacious forest and regenerating burn zones the rest of the way to Highway 20.

From McKenzie Pass northbound, hikers must prepare for a long, rugged, and exposed stretch with no water. Just before the start of this section is Lava Camp Lake, reached by short detour near the end of Section E. The next possible source is Big Lake in 12.5 miles, and another detour from the PCT. The next on-trail water is a pond about 4 miles farther than that.

With the weight of water in tow, hikers must first traverse formidable lava fields around Belknap Crater. The jagged, broken basalt can be tough on the feet. The black rocks redouble the heat on a sunny day, and wind can rip across the shelterless plain. There are pockets of pine trees here and there, but it’s largely a desolate moonscape for miles.

The boundary of the lava field is reached near the foot of Mount Washington (NB mile 1989). From there, it slants upward through a burn scar on south-facing slope. Intact forest finally offers some shade in a few more miles, and the PCT makes a steady, downward contour to eventually leave the mountain behind.

After entering another large burn area, the trail meets the junction for Big Lake (NB mile 1995.1). The Big Lake Youth Camp is normally a welcoming stop for PCTers, but it remained closed due to COVID through the 2021 season. Updates may be found online or by calling the camp office.

Past the camp, the PCT continues through the burn then crosses a dirt road, entering a pleasant, fire-thinned forest that pops with color. Proceeding amid a network of jeep roads and ski trails in this area, the trail eventually meets a large, unnamed pond with decent campsites (NB mile 1999). Just beyond there, the PCT hits Mile 2000––a huge milestone for thru-hikers––but likely marked only modestly with stones beside the trail.

Next comes Highway 20 at Santiam Pass, and a PCT trailhead with outhouses just across the road. This is a moderate-traffic road in a remote area. There’s a ski hill nearby that may have some limited summer services. Otherwise, PCTers might ride into Sisters or Bend to the east, or a number of other communities to the west.

Permits: This segment is within the Mount Washington Wilderness, which requires the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit for camping, unless you already have the PCT long-distance permit. Section hikers who get the wilderness permit may also need the Northwest Forest Pass for parking at trailheads.

Sources: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/willamette/recreation/recarea/?recid=4356 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

May, June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

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

Guidebooks in this area