Hwy 242 – McKenzie Pass Byway
Pros: Scenery you’ll see no other place on Earth
Cons: Hairpin turns, vehicle-length limits
It would be unlikely you would find yourself in this environment much after nightfall, for there are no hotels encouraging you to ‘stay and play’, no restaurants advertizing their dinner specials, or even a gas station with a soda machine. In fact, if you didn’t know better – you might think you’re on the moon! But of course, you do know better, you’re not on the moon – your on Hwy 242 in Oregon – otherwise known as the McKenzie Scenic Byway. Well, big deal you may be thinking – highways are everywhere. They sure are – but not like this one – I guarantee it.
The McKenzie Scenic Byway is a thirty-seven mile historic route that winds (and that’s an understatement)) between McKenzie Bridge, a small hamlet on the eastern edge of the Willamette Valley, and ends just west of Sisters, a somewhat bigger hamlet, in Central Oregon.
In a word, what makes this relatively short drive so unusual and tourist-worthy? Lava. Not a little lava, a lot of lava. That, and a backdrop of scenic mountains and extinct volcanos that are just jaw-dropping.
In each of the pictures there are dark areas covering vast tracts of land – all of it lava. But then, that’s what happens when a volcano blows and nothing stops the flow of the magma. Can you imagine the force, the sound, the fright and devastation of wildlife? Terrifying! And there certainly would have been wildlife in the area since this cataclysmic geologic event occurred in the Pleistocene-era – which came after the Jurassic Period of T-Rex’s and Brontosaurus’.
Fast-forward about 100,000 years. . .So now we have a two-lane, paved highway that meanders, curves and twists its way through densely-wooded mountains, pristine, high-alpine meadows and a lava forest, dissecting Mt. Washington Wilderness Area and Three Sisters Wilderness. Both Wilderness’ are magnets for mountain climbers and hikers.
Originally built in the 1870’s as a wagon toll road, the highway was updated and reconstruction completed in 1962. At an elevation of 5,325 ft. with an annual snow pack of fourteen feet ( yes, feet), the road is closed from November to July.
One feature that is impossible to bypass (pun intended) is the Dee Wright Observatory, named for a highly respected construction crew foreman who worked for the Forest Service for twenty-four years.
Built in 1935, the observatory, located at the summit, is an open shelter structure constructed completely of lava rock. Its main attractions are ‘lava tubes’, windows if you will, that look out onto the lava fields and frame several of the individual mountains and extinct volcanoes ( see below).
This sundial-style compass is another interesting feature at the Observatory. It points toward, and identifies each mountain peak or volcano – making your visit enjoyable and educational.
While you’re there, take a moment to remember John Templeton Craig, a postman who’s unfortunate route took him through this savage land in the dead of winter. In 1877, while attempting to deliver Christmas mail to the Willamette Valley, Craig froze to death in a cabin, during a blizzard, not far from the summit.
About the moon-like environment. . .in 1960 four astronauts trained for the first moonwalk at the Dee Wright Observatory. NASA too, must have felt this lunar-like environment too similarly advantageous to pass up.
I don’t have a ‘Bucket List’, but if I did – it would be to be at the summit, under a full moon and watch Madame Luna embrace the lava fields and snow-covered peaks under her pale-blue blanket.
There are no services of any kind from McKenzie Bridge to Sisters. Be sure you have plenty of fuel, drinks, snacks, and emergency items.
Directions: Approx. 55 mi. east of Eugene/Springfield on Hwy 126 E. Turn-off is on the right. Plentiful signs to direct you. The road is barricaded from November to June/July, depending on the weather. It is opened to bikers and hikers earlier, again, depending on the weather. No vehicle, or combination of vehicle/RV over 35′ allowed.