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Jun-14-2017 22:50printcomments

Old McKenzie Pass Highway Opens for Summer Season

Drivers urged to use caution on OR Hwy 242, it's a fun but very narrow road.

Dee Wright Observatory
Bonnie King at the favorite Hwy 242 destination, the Dee Wright Observatory.

(BEND, Ore.) - The Old McKenzie Pass Highway (OR 242) will officially open to all traffic on Monday, June 19, 2017 at 8 a.m. The highway has been closed due to winter snows.

Motorists driving on this curvy road need to be aware of bicyclists and pedestrians on the roadway and take proper precautions. Vehicles longer than 35 feet are prohibited from using the highway.

The first route over the McKenzie Pass, known as Craig's McKenzie Salt Springs/Deschutes Wagon Road, was completed in 1872. This toll road connected the Willamette Valley with Camp Polk, near what is now Sisters. The charge was $2 for a wagon drawn by two horses, $2.50 for a wagon with four horses, $1 for a man on a horse and 10 cents each for loose cattle and horses.

The Old McKenzie Pass Highway became a seasonal scenic highway in 1962 with the completion of the Clear Lake-Belknap Springs section of OR 126.

Even during its tenure as the main route between the southern Willamette Valley and Central Oregon, the narrow, twisting roadway and high elevation (5,325 feet) made the highway too difficult to maintain and keep clear during the winter months.

ODOT closes the highway each fall and reopens it in early summer after the snow melts.

Nowadays, drivers wait with anticipation for the road to open each year. The lava beds are a spectacle each Oregonian has a yearning to see, and the drive is an adventure in itself. During the summer, about 300 vehicles a day travel the highway.‚Äč

Well known for being a favorite of motorcyclists, with it's excellent twists and turns, the highway offers unforgettable forest scenery amid 65-square-miles of fascinating fields of lava. Drivers beware however, those corners and switchbacks make it very difficult to see pedestrians and bicycles.

Photographers love it as well. The natural qualities of the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway are of national significance, very worth taking your time to enjoy. OR 242 travels between the Mt. Washington Wilderness and Three Sisters Wilderness, and there are many historic, recreational, and scenic features and sites along the route.

You will be amazed at the outstanding examples of both ancient and recent volcanoes, cinder cones, lava flows, and deep, glaciated canyons.

Forests contain rare old-growth fir and Ponderosa pine, and a great variety of fish and wildlife, including several endangered species, such as bald eagles, northern spotted owls, Chinook salmon and bull trout.

A favorite Hwy242 destination is the Dee Wright Observatory, built atop the lava flows, up high at 5,187 feet. The mountain observatory offers panoramic views of Mount Washington and Three Sisters, and on especially clear days, even Mt. Hood which is 78.5 miles to the north.

On the roof of the observatory is a bronze "peak finder" with the names and elevations of the surrounding buttes and mountain peaks. It's an amazing thing to behold.

The observatory was designed by William N. Parke, and constructed by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), Camp F-23 of Company 927, during the Great Depression. The circular tower was named as a memorial to Dee Wright, an employee of the Forest Service, a long-time packer, and Conservation Corps foreman. It was completed in 1935.

Though summer is just around the corner, you might want to remember a jacket for this journey. You'll definitely see snow out there in the fields of lava, and feel the cold wind that still blows far into July.

Sources: U.S. Forest Service, ODOT, Oregon.gov, bestbikingroads.co.uk

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