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July 15, 2010 / Greg Vaughn

McKenzie Pass Highway

Lava field at McKenzie Pass

Lava field at McKenzie Pass

The Old McKenzie Pass Highway, OR 242, has opened for the summer after snow plows were finally able to clear both lanes of the road. This part of the McKenzie Pass – Santiam Pass National Scenic Byway is an incredibly scenic route across Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Traveling west to east, the highway passes through lush old-growth forest characterized by massive Douglas-fir and western red-cedar trees, makes a series of hairpin turns to climb to the central Cascades, and crosses lava fields from relatively recent volcanic eruptions to reach the summit of McKenzie Pass at 5,325 feet elevation. Atop the summit is Dee Wright Observatory, a unique monument built entirely of basalt lava block, with 360-degree views encompassing the Three Sisters to the south and Mount Jefferson to the north. The storied Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway in the stark lava just west of the summit.

Dee Wright Observatory and Sisters mountains

Dee Wright Observatory and the Sisters at dawn.

Continuing east from the lava fields surrounding Dee Wright, the traveler descends into the dryer eastern Cascades forests – lodgepole pine at the higher elevations giving way to giant Ponderosa pine with their beautiful scaly bark until the highway reaches the town of Sisters and the border with the high desert and the edge of the Great Basin.

Short detours off the McKenzie Pass Highway lead to a couple of places that I think are among Oregon’s finest views for landscape and scenic photography. Proxy Falls, 9 miles up OR 242 from the junction with OR 126, is an incredibly beautiful waterfall. Actually, there are two waterfalls, Upper and Lower Proxy Falls, and the lower falls is split into two distinct waterfalls. The falls are reached by a relatively easy 1.2-mile loop trail into the Three Sisters Wilderness.

Lower Proxy Falls waterfall

Lower Proxy Falls

The second grand location is at Scott Lake, just west of the McKenzie Pass summit. Look for the signed gravel road on OR 242 and drive about a mile to it’s end for the walk-in lakefront campsites with stunning views of the Three Sisters. Early to mid summer you’ll have to battle the mosquitoes, but taking in this scene at sunset is totally worth it.

Scott Lake and the Three Sisters

Scott Lake and the Three Sisters at sunset.

Note that large RVs and trailers are prohibited on OR 242 due to a section of very narrow road with numerous tight hairpin turns, and that the road is closed due to snow from November to late June or early July.

More complete description of these locations are included in my book Photographing Oregon.

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