McKenzie Pass

Distance: 44 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4100 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This is one of the Oregon rides that is expertly covered in Jim Moore’s 75 Classic Rides Oregon (see the “Oregon” section in Rides by Region).

This ride is the greatest climb and descent in Oregon.  ‘Nuff said.  And in addition, you get class-A Oregon forest and an enormous lava “moonscape” you’ll never forget.

(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

(The RWGPS map shows half of the route as unpaved.  This is untrue.)

This out-and-back starts at the intersection of Highways 126 and 242, climbs Hwy 242 (The McKenzie Highway) to McKenzie Pass, and returns.  It’s a long but consistently moderate climb, not a foot of it hard, followed by a descent that’s beyond words.  If you don’t like out-and-backs it’s possible to ride the Pass from end to end one way, and I’ll discuss how later, but it’s less good that way, because the east side of the summit is dead boring compared to the west side, both climbing and descending.

Morning light

Morning light through the lower forest

I suggest you do this ride in the summer or fall, in sunshine.  The road is gated off to cars and impassable in winter.  Then it’s open to bikes only for a few weeks in the spring.  Some riders love that, but typically the road is a wet black ribbon between tall banks of snow at that time and I would think the views would be about as exciting as a bureaucratic hallway, which is a terrible thing to have to look at as you freeze to death.  For me, much of the delight of the ride comes from sunlight through leaves.  Summer is hot, however—it can be 90 degrees at the summit—so I suggest you start early in the day.  About 8 am seems ideal.  Once I started at 7 AM and the light was disappointing, the sun too low to illuminate anything.  Even though this road is a magnet for tourists and motorcyclists, I’ve always had it to myself until around 11 AM.  Last time I started at 8 am (in August) and saw 2 cars in the first hour.

The first five miles of the ride are very easy climbing through the typical spectacular Oregon rain forest—ferns, canopies, sun backlighting mossy maples.  You’ll see lots of signs that you’re very welcome: “Share the road,” “Scenic Bikeway,” “Bikes may use full lane,” and (new to me) “Bikes stay to right of centerline”!  You’re not in Kansas, or California, any more.

Five or so miles in, the pitch steepens a bit, to around 5-7%, and stays right there for 9 miles. It’s never hard, but there’s a lot of it, so pace yourself.  Though the pitch is monotonous, the road contour never fails to reward, constantly re-inventing itself as it meanders back and forth.  Nine miles into the ride you pass a big turn-out/parking lot for the Proxy Falls trail head.  The first of 2 falls is about 1/2 mile down the trail, just a bit too far for walking in cycling shoes, and it’s beautiful, so you might bring some sandals and do the hike on the way up or down.  The forest is unbroken—you’ll see only one break in the trees, an unlikely little “meadow,” and there’s an info board explaining how it got there—interesting (disease control).

As you rise, the landscape begins to dry out and the forest changes—wet undergrowth (ferns) is replaced by drier plant life (fireweed).     Eventually the maples disappear entirely.  When the trees drop below you and you start getting vistas, you know the end of the big climb is near.

Two of the Three Sisters behind the lava bed

At 14.2 miles (it’s sometimes helpful to know exact distances on a long climb) you reach a plateau.  The next/last 8 miles are mostly untaxing rollers working their way gradually upward to the summit.  You’ll gain about 700 ft in those last 8 miles, most of it in one distressingly long pitch that catches you off-guard.  At first you ride through a burn, then a few miles of ordinary conifer forest.  Then you enter the lava flow, the reason most of the cars are up here.  The word “moonscape” comes to everyone’s mind.  The area around the summit is an ocean of ancient, black lava, sprinkled with gnarly trees bravely growing in it, or having tried to grow in it and failed.   Their dead trunks and broken limbs are irresistibly reminiscent of skeletons and bones.

Ridiculously fun descending

Ridiculously fun descending

At 22 miles, the turn-around point, you reach the Pass (there’s a summit sign to have your photo taken under) and the inimitable Dee Wright Observatory.  It’s for observing the lava, not the stars, an old queer building made entirely out of the local lava rock.  From its top you can see the Sisters mountains, Mt. Hood, Mt. Hamilton, and a dozen other points of interest, all identified for you by a large brass compass.

The ride back begins with one little pitch.  That’s the last significant climbing you do in the return 22 miles.  The descent is simply astonishing (after you re-ride the 8 miles of plateau), a perfect 14 miles of serpentining, banked curves on a pitch that ranges from mellow to exhilarating, all on a glassy road surface with good sight lines, plenty of room for oncoming cars (and there will be a few by mid-day), with all the dangerous curves clearly marked by speed limit signs (when it says “20” you know you need to slow to 25, and so on).  No two corners are alike.  Every 1/4 mile is a new experience.  And another plus: no car will pass you, because you can ride this road faster than they can drive it.

Park your bike and walk out into this stuff

Park your bike and walk out into this stuff

Oh, and the scenery—what was a pristine new dawn on your ride up will now be a golden fire on the way down.  It’s none of my business, but I strongly believe in getting off the bike in forest like this, walking 50 feet into it, and just sitting for a few minutes, to drink it in.  Imagine what the pioneers thought when they encountered it.  Imagine carving out a homestead from it.

Is it the best descent in  Of the descents called “best” on the Best Of the Best page, Tunitas Creek Rd is the least stunning visually and most traffic-free.   McKenzie, Tunitas Creek, and Ebbetts Pass are all long.  McKenzie is the lushest.  Ebbetts is the fastest.  Do them all and tell me which you prefer.

A cathedral moment

If you are determined to through-ride the pass (which almost everyone does), you can ride it west to east or east to west.  If you go west to east, you end up in Sisters, an oddly famous upscale tourist town (think, high-end women’s fashions and rodeo instead of trinket shops) that’s worth a stroll.  But then you have to get back.  Riding there and back makes for a long day, but it’s possible, since the climb up from Sisters is mild.  If you want to go east to west, McKenzie River Mountain Resort will shuttle you from the resort (15 miles west of the west end of our ride) to Sisters, whence you can ride back to the resort, or drop your car at the start of Hwy 242.  The climb from Sisters to the summit is half as hard as the climb from the west side, so start in Sisters if your goal is to avoid climbing.  But the insurmountable downside to through-riding is that the road between Sisters and the summit, ascending or descending, just isn’t in the same ballpark as the west side.  It’s OK—that’s all.   So by through-riding you miss either the great ascent or the great descent.  Which is why I do the ride as an out-and-back.

And how does this ride compare to the Aufderheide ride just a stone’s throw down the road?  Both are fairly long, steady, moderate climbs with roughly equal workloads.  Both are drop-dead gorgeous.  Aufderheide is lusher and wetter (though the fact that I did it last in a light rain might have something to do with that).  The terrain of McKenzie is much more varied, from fern forest to moonscape.  Aufderheide is much straighter, so the ride up is more monotonous and the descent is faster and much less interesting.

It’s nit-picking at its finest, but there is a tiny serpent in the McKenzie eden: this road tends to be a mite gravelly in the corners.  Luckily most of the gravel is in the uphill lane, where you won’t notice it, but you want to keep an eye out for what’s in your path on the ride down.  The gravel is easy to see if the sun is shining.

There are bathrooms at a couple of developed turn-outs along the climb and at the Observatory.  There is no water anywhere.  You can beg water from RV’s at the turn-around.

Added Thoughts:  Others seem to find this climb harder than I do.  The defunct Lane County Bicycle Map, which I loved, had a place along this route marked with 3 chevrons (hardest pitch).  Baloney.  And Mapmyride’s elevation profile says there are some 10% pitches.  I can’t find them.  I am a frail old man, and I promise you the pitch on this climb is consistently mellow (when it isn’t downright easy).  RidewithGPS gets it right (but inexplicably says most of the climb is unpaved).

Shortening the route: How dare you.  Well, if you must, decide if you’re in for spectacular climbing and descending or flat riding through moonscape.  I’d go for the climb, but that’s me.  You can save a little time (but hardly any effort) by skipping the first 4 miles of the route, which are flatter (therefore less thrilling to descend).

Adding Miles: At your starting point, Hwy 126 is pretty, but it’s big, straight, and unvarying in pitch, and very busy with a big shoulder for bikes.  People descend it all the time, but I wouldn’t.  In fact, a standard big ride for Bend cyclists, and a stage in the Cascade Classic stage race, is to do the loop from Sisters to the Santiam Pass (Hwy 20), down 126 to the McKenzie Highway, and up McKenzie back to Sisters, but I’m not recommending it because Hwy 20 is the worst sort of big-road monotonous bleak.

Obviously you can continue on from the summit to Sisters, and obviously I don’t recommend it.

The Aufderheide ride is a few miles down Hwy 126.

6 thoughts on “McKenzie Pass

  1. Kevin

    Thanks for a great description! I loved the west-side climb. Maybe 5 cars the whole way up. But WOW! The return trip descent was surreal. Due to the moderate grade and banked curves it felt like I didn’t touch my brakes for miles at a time. Beautiful, peaceful, safe.

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      Yes, there’s a moderately large dirt turn-out obviously intended for cars. Beyond that, there are miles of shoulder parking.

  2. Margie

    Thanks so much for sharing this enticing and detailed guide! This was a phenomenally beautiful ride!

  3. Tom

    I do love doing this ride a week or two before cars are allowed on it. You’re right, the top pavement can be wet, and it can get cold, but on the weekends there generally are hundreds of other cyclists all doing the same thing. It turns into an impromptu cycle festival at the summit. I even saw a bluegrass band once that had all ridden up with their instruments so they could play a set or two. Of course, I’ve heard not everyone is an extrovert…

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      How one feels about the “cycle festival” atmosphere is a matter of taste. I used to love it; now I find it more irritating than car traffic.


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