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McKenzie Pass Highway (OR242)

Oregon is home to a large network of highways and backroads, from rugged coastal headlands to deep old-growth forests, lush vineyard-lined valleys to lofty alpine passes, high-desert vistas to deep river canyons. The epic landscapes offer up motorcyclists everything from beginner to expert road diversity.

One such spectacular highway is the old McKenzie Pass Highway (OR242), which opened this week from it’s winter hibernation.

Assuming you start in Sisters, Oregon you’ll have about 8 miles of warmup of gently rising, mostly straight road as you head west past hay meadows and into the forest. Then you’ll take a 90-degree turn at McGregor’s Curve, and the elevation climb is on. The main ascent is over 5 miles, and you can settle into a rhythm as you take in the pine-scented air.  Unfortunately, you’ll also note the large wildfire destruction from the summer of 2017 that disrupted the forest and surrounding landscape.

Until the 1860s, the pass was an Indian trail that later became a wagon route (known as Craig’s McKenzie Salt Springs/Deschutes Wagon Road) for driving cattle over the Cascades.  As you emerge from the forest at Windy Point, you’ll get a nice view of Mt. Washington and can scan across a 65 square mile, 2,000-year-old black lava flow. You may want to stop to process it all and then continue on as the ascent travels serpentine asphalt between lava-rock walls just before reaching the summit.

The summit provides a unique view of the lava-rock-constructed Dee Wright Observatory (at 5,187 feet), which provides panorama views of the mountain landscape and Three Sisters Wilderness areas.

The 25-mile, 4,000-foot descent to Highway 126 is no “puff and fluff” ride as it snakes down tight corners and exhilarating switchbacks to the dense Cascadian forests over the McKenzie River. It’s a dramatic transition from the east side of the Cascades and is a billboard of the natural environment and defines the uniqueness of the region.

The highway speed limit is slow at 35mph to 45 mph in most places. The scenic views are well worth the extra time and should be on everyone’s ride list.

Additional Information:
The John Craig Story
McKenzie Pass
Previous Blog Post

OR 242 map/photo courtesy of Oregon By-ways.

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