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.  You’ll ride through three distinct ecosystems, each rewarding in its own way: perfect Oregon rainforest, big-leaf maple 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.)

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 and challenging but never daunting climb, 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.  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.  On a summer Tuesday, starting at 8:30, I saw perhaps 6 vehicles on the climb.  And the morning mist was lovely.

The first five miles of the ride are very easy climbing through the typical spectacular Oregon rain forest—ferns, canopies, sun backlighting conifer limbs.  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 any more.

Near the summit: the Sisters behind the lava fields

Near the summit: the Sisters behind the lava fields

Five+ miles in, the pitch steepens a bit, to around 5-6%, and stays there for 8 miles. It’s never hard, but there’s a lot of it, so pace yourself.  As you climb, you rise out of the ferny forest and ride into the big leaf maple forest—different but just as gorgeous.  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.  Climb further and the understory clears out and the terrain gets a little rocky.   All the while the road is serpentining deliciously back and forth, offering you a constantly changing point of view.  Nine miles into the ride you pass a big turn-out/parking lot for the Proxy Falls trailhead.  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 lava beds

At around 14 miles you top out at an obvious plateau, and the bulk of the climbing is over.  The last 7 miles are mostly untaxing rollers.  For a while you ride through a landscape of half-dead conifers.  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 brave gnarly trees 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 21 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 return ride to your car is simply astonishing (after you re-ride the 7 miles of plateau), a perfect 14 miles of slaloming, 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).  And another plus: no car will pass you, because you can ride this road much 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.  You just have to see it to believe it. 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 page, Tunitas Creek Rd., is the longest and most traffic-free.   McKenzie, Robinson Canyon, and Ebbetts are all prettier than Tunitas Creek.  McKenzie is the prettiest and the sweetest.  Robinson is the shortest.   Ebbetts is the fastest.  Do them all and tell me which you prefer.

Standard stuff east of the summit

Standard stuff east of the summit

If you are determined to through-ride the pass (which almost everyone does), you can obviously 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 very 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.  The downside is, East to west is almost always into a headwind.  But whichever way you do the through-ride, you’re going to spend half your ride doing ordinary stuff, because the road between Sisters and the summit, in either direction, just isn’t in the same ballpark as the west side.  It’s OK—that’s all.   So 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 80% of the gravel is in the uphill lane, where you won’t notice it, but you want to keep an eye out for the 20% that’s in your path on the ride down.  It’s easy to see if the sun is shining.

Adding Miles: At your starting point, Hwy 126 is also pretty, but it’s big, straight, and unvarying in pitch, and very busy with a big shoulder for bikes.  People ride 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.

The Aufderheide ride is a short drive down Hwy 126.


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