Panoramic View of Sand Canyon

Pinnacles of Wheeler and Sand Canyons

Some of the more geologically and visually interesting canyons in Central Oregon are found on the southeast slopes of the Crater Lake caldera. In these lightly-visited canyons are found hundreds of stark stone pinnacles, which have eroded out of the volcanic ash of remnant Mount Mazama.
Pinnacles on Slope
The pinnacles in Wheeler Canyon are easily accessible by car at a viewpoint in Crater Lake National Park, while the rock towers in lower Sand Canyon require a challenging, cross-country bushwhack of 2.7 miles roundtrip.

The pinnacles in these canyons are not quite what they seem. At first glance, one would think they are solid, pointy columns that have been erosion-proofed by some resistant caprock on top. In fact, they are hollow and have been made erosion-proof from the inside out. These pinnacles are all fumaroles — pipes or conduits through which hot gases trapped in the ash flows rose to the surface. The hot gases cemented the loose pumice through which they rose, forming a very hard, resistant rock around a hollow conduit. These resistant rock columns remain today as pinnacles, while the loose pumice and ash around them have been eroded away.

Wheeler Creek Pinnacles
Wheeler Creek Pinnacles
Located entirely within Crater Lake National Park, Wheeler Creek is a tributary of Sand Creek and has some of the most dramatic and easily-accessible pinnacles in the area. Here the canyon reaches a depth of more than 200 feet and its walls are sculptured into clusters of slender pillars. Most notable are the tri-colored deposits in which these fumaroles formed — with white and buff pumice at the base, contrasting vividly with the smokey-gray deposits above, and a thin bed of reddish ash along the canyon rim.

To reach the Wheeler Canyon viewpoint from the Park Headquarters, drive 8.3 miles east on the Rim Road to the Pinnacles Road turnoff on the right. Then drive 5.7 miles southeast, past the Lost Creek Campground at 3.2 miles, to the pinnacles viewpoint at road’s end. From the parking area, there’s an easy, 0.8 mile roundtrip trail south along the canyon rim, suitable for young children and wheelchairs. Be aware the East Rim and Pinnacles Roads are not plowed in winter and are generally not open until July. If in doubt, check with the Park at (541) 594-3000.

Download (PDF, 642 KB): Travel Map to Wheeler Creek Pinnacles

Sand Creek Pinnacles
At the opposite end of the accessibility spectrum are the pinnacles of lower Sand Creek canyon. Located on Forest Service land about 3 miles below the Wheeler Creek confluence, these pinnacles can only be reached by a
Pinnacles in Sand Canyon
rigorous, cross-country bushwhack, and only by those with good route-finding and GPS skills. While not nearly as dramatic as the pinnacles at Wheeler Creek, the Sand Creek formations can be a rewarding 2.7-mile cross-country loop hike for the hearty and rugged.

The hike begins on Forest Road 2306 where storm-thrown trees completely block the road (GPS Point 1), about 7 driving miles from Highway 97 (see PDF map download below). Road 2306 is a good gravel track, passable by any car — but it’s a bit overgrown in the last half-mile with snowberry and manzanita bushes that will scratch up your car, so be advised. For the first 0.8 miles, the hike is southwest on Road 2306, over and around the tangles of downed trees across the road.

At GPS Point 2, the route leaves the road and goes cross-country 150 yards south through an open ponderosa forest to the rim of Sand Creek canyon (at GPS Point 3). Immediately, the pinnacles come into view below the rim, stretching out upstream along the north side of the canyon. These fumaroles are all a uniform light-gray color, reflecting the pumice in which they were formed. There’s no trail on the rim, but it’s fairly easy cross-country hiking along the level canyon edge, under large shady ponderosas.

Wide View of Sand Canyon Pinnacles

After a quarter-mile, long canyon views open to the northwest, all the way to the Crater Lake caldera at the head of the canyon. Besides the pinnacles, the canyon itself here is impressive, with sheer rock cliffs plunging 200’ to the stream below. Look for tall, dark green hemlock trees rising from the canyon bottom. About a half-mile along the rim, one comes to some of the more picturesque pillars in the lower canyon and to GPS Point 4. From here, Road 2306 is just 50 yards east through the trees. Follow this road southeast back to GPS Point 2, over more downed trees, and then further back along the road to your car at GPS 1.

Download (PDF, 658 KB): Photos of Sand Creek Pinnacles Hike
Download (PDF, 662 KB): Map for Sand Creek Pinnacles Hike
Download (GPX, 1 KB): GPS Points for Sand Creek Pinnacles Hike

DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, but the authors do not guarantee that it is either current or correct. The reader assumes full responsibility for any use of this information, and is encouraged to exercise all due caution while recreating.

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