The easy hike to Dee Wright Observatory and around the Lava River trail is chance for almost anyone to experience exploring a sea of lava. And the chance to check out a castle made of lava, with little windows peering out at the neighboring volcanos, can get virtually any kid frothing at the mouth. So let your inner child explode and the next time your heading over the Cascades, take the old McKenzie Pass Highway and stop at this gem of an adventure.
To begin your stroll, park at either the small parking area near the restrooms, just west of Dee Wright Observatory, or in the larger parking area just across the street from it. If you do park across the street and want to experience the whole trail, follow the trail along the base of the structure west towards the restrooms, rather than heading straight up to the castle. There are some interruptive signs you don’t want to miss out on, damnit.
From the restrooms, begin the slow climb up towards the observatory. You quickly come to a little pullout on the left with some interruptive signs talking about the history of Dee Wright Observatory and some of the surrounding area. Right after that, you will reach a trail split. Head left and climb up to the observatory.
You can both head into Dee Wright Observatory and stand on its roof. Inside windows gaze out at the surrounding, lava covered landscape. There are also small windows set into its walls, which can be used as a peak finder. From the top of the observatory, views stretch in all directions and the Cascades appear close enough to touch.
When your happy with the views, be sure to continue around the Lava River Trail. Starting right at the base of Dee Wright Observatory, follow the paved path to the east. There are also a lot of cool signs along this trail, describing the geological history, lava formations, and talking about life struggling to get by. There is a lot of cool information in the signs and you can learn a lot.
The trail will parallel the highway for about two tenths of a mile before splitting. Head to the right and climb a switchback before encountering another split. The left split here is just a cutoff, but the trail is so short, you should head right. The cooler rock formations at that way.
Along the back end of the trail, you will enter a small slot in the lava, with shear walls rising up on both sides of you. After emerging from it, you get a nice, unobstructed view to the north and Mt Washington, in all it’s glory. When you reach another trail junction, remember to go right and not take the cutoff trail again. Or, if you want, you can walk down it and back. If you don’t want to miss a sign or anything. Complete the lollypop part of the loop and follow the trail back to Dee Wright Observatory.
To reach trailhead for Little Belknap Crater, head up McKenzie Pass (Highway 242) 15 miles west of Sisters or 26 miles east of McKenzie Bridge. The bservatory is located right at the top of the pass on the north side of the road. McKenzie Pass is usually only open between June until October due to snow.
Passes: No passes are required
Dogs: Allowed and must be on leash.
Open Season: McKenzie Pass is usually opens mid June.
Bugs: Mosquitos usually aren't too bad through the lava flows.