Up and Over McKenize Pass

The remains of ancient lava flows tipped by snow dominate the view from the summit of McKenzie Pass. Photo by Dan Shryock.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 edition of Cycle California! Magazine.

 

 By Dan Shryock

The road belonged to us. No cars or trucks would be allowed on this pavement for another two weeks. We pedaled at a leisurely pace painfully aware that there was work ahead and we needed to conserve our energy.

It was early June and Highway 242 – Oregon’s McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway – had just been cleared of several feet of snow. The state highway department prohibits motor vehicles to drive here until the third Monday in June so once we passed the snow gate, the road was ours.

We were approaching the pass from tiny Belknap Springs on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains. We had 23 miles to go before we reached the 5,325-foot summit. And while the road grade never reached 7 percent, the uphill tilt was relentless. State bikeway officials labeled this an “extreme” route so we had no reason to hurry.

We knew there would be a big payoff for our effort. It would be an exhilarating downhill run, one that would allow us to glide for miles, diving into the apex of each turn and picking up speed on straight stretches as we whisked our way back down the mountain.

Where is McKenzie Pass?

The summit, located in the center of Oregon’s Cascades range, is about 75 miles east of Eugene and 35 miles west of Bend. Rides up either slope take you through national forests but once above the tree line, rocky remnants of ancient volcanic lava flows dominate the view.

The route becomes the Santiam Pass-McKenzie Pass Scenic Byway once it opens to traffic. The presence of cars and trucks do not pose a significant danger to riders because the road’s winding nature slows everyone down. Drivers know cyclists are around most turns.

The McKenzie Pass is accessible whether you’re starting from Central Oregon or the Willamette Valley. The route is marked at 38 miles one way but how you choose to approach it affects both the amount of climbing and distance you ride.

While we decided to ride from west to east, many people prefer the opposite direction, says Alexandra Phillips, the scenic bikeways coordinator for Oregon State Parks.

“A lot of people ride from Sisters up to the top and back,” Alex says. “There are more views on the east side and it’s an easier, shorter ride.”

No matter the direction, June cyclists most years pass towering banks of plowed roadside snow once they near the top. The summit itself is a rocky rest stop. Lean the bike, catch your breath and enjoy the expansive views of the Cascade Range. Walk up a stone sidewalk to the always-open Dee Wright Observatory to improve your views.

Several factors make the McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway one of Oregon’s best rides, Alex says.

“It’s a spectacular ride made even better when you have the opportunity to ride it before it’s officially open (to vehicles) in the spring,” she says. “The snow’s right there with the huge snowbanks. And even when it’s open, it’s spectacular.

“There are times when bikes are going faster than the cars,” Alex says, “but people need to be careful if they’re not comfortable riding without a shoulder.”

Cyclists feel the relentless climb as they slowly grind their way up the McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway,  Photo by Dan Shryock.

 

Three Route Options

Riders take three approaches to this climb. The most popular is to ride from Sisters west to the summit where you can catch your breath after about 2,366 feet of climbing and return to complete 30 miles out and back.

The highway, originally established as an 1860s wagon route over the mountains, officially begins at Village Green Park in downtown Sisters and provides several miles of easy riding before the serious uphill work begins.

The less popular yet more challenging choice is to start at remote Belknap Springs on the west side and climb about 3,800 feet. That option totals about 46 miles and includes the exciting descent with seven miles of snaking turns. And while the east side of the mountain gets credit for the views, the west side delivers more forest and seemingly more serenity.

A third and far more challenging option is to the complete ride in both directions: 76 miles and 6,100 feet of climbing.

It’s possible to shuttle vehicles between both sides of the mountains but a road map shows there are few easily accessible vehicle routes over the Cascades here and most require winding, narrow roads.

The Deets

Everything you need to know about the McKenzie Pass can be found online. Here’s a site with complete route information, maps, elevation, and access to a downloadable cue sheet. bit.ly/2EM7X4j

No cycling is permitted until the snow is cleared and the limited access opening varies each year. Early reports this spring indicate cycling may begin in early June though there may be complications. An August 2017 wildfire burned to the highway’s edge on the eastern slope. Dangerous trees must be removed before the roadway is deemed safe.

Check to see when the road is ready for riding by visiting the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). oregon.gov/ODOT/Regions/Pages/McKenzie-Highway.aspx

ODOT also maintains its useful TripCheck website for current road conditions. Check for Highway 242 west of Sisters. https://www.tripcheck.com

There are several other state scenic bikeways in central Oregon. The Sisters to Smith Rock route is considered a moderate 37-mile one-way ride to Smith Rock State Park with its breathtaking cliffs – popular with rock climbers – and winding hiking trails. bit.ly/2qwRoF7

Another is the comfortable 36-mile Twin Bridges loop that starts and ends in downtown Bend. bit.ly/2vgZs1L

For all Oregon Scenic Bikeways, visit this site - bit.ly/2v9ZKau

There are many lodging, food and drink options in Sisters once you park the bike. On the west side, however, there’s only Belknap Hot Springs, Lodge and Gardens where you can find a room or cabin, park an RV or pitch a tent. There is food service during the summer.

Dee Wright Conservatory - fs.fed.us/visit/destination/dee-wright-observatory

Visitor Information – For the Bend-Sisters area, consider The Central Oregon Visitors Association (visitcentraloregon.com) or Visit Bend (visitbend.com)

On the west side, check with Travel Lane County (eugenecascadescoast.org)

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