The landscape around McKenzie Pass is surreal. Not only is it an other-worldly expanse of black and crumbled lava flowing down from the horizon, but the forests around its edges are blistered and destroyed by the recent devastating fire. Covering an area 65 square miles around the passes summit, parts of the flow emanating from Belknap Crater are only 1500 years old.
Dee Wright Observatory sits near the summit of the pass, an observation tower built out of blocks of lava with windows providing views of the surrounding peaks. It was finished in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corp. It is incredibly humbling to look over this landscape and imagine the journey of the pioneers who crossed the flows.
Today we can experience hiking through the flow on the Pacific Crest Trail and climb up onto the summit of Little Belknap, a shield nearby the much large Belknap crater, and one of the origins of the surrounding flows and. It is just a spur off the PCT that leads up the summit, passing openings of lava tubes opening up out of the earth. To reach Little Belknap via the PCT, you can either park at trailhead on the side of the highway just west of the observatory and access the trail north of the road, or start from the observatory where there may be more parking available.
From the observatory, head west down the road to where the PCT crosses and head north across lava flow. The trail enters forest, and crosses over the edge of another island of forest before heading out across the lava flow for 1.5 miles until a spur leaves the PCT heading off to Little Belknap.
Climb up onto the summit for expansive views of the Mount Washington Wilderness and certainly one of the most unique landscapes around. Round trip from the Observatory is about 6 miles and 1100 feet of elevation gain.