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June 19th, 2019
An Oregon Road Trip that will Take Your Breath Away
For many people, the fall season means a return to long, traffic-ridden commutes after summer vacation. However, a visit to Redmond in autumn could mean a joy ride on the historical McKenzie Highway, or Highway 242. This road trip has it all — a whimsical western town, fantastic fall foliage, weird moonscape views, majestic mountains, picturesque waterfalls, an enchanting secret garden, and wild rivers. Use this descriptive itinerary as a guide for a scenic journey into the past.
From downtown Redmond, head west on Highway 126 to the quaint municipality of Sisters, named for the trio of peaks nearby. Enjoy a town which fuses artisan tastes while paying homage to its cowboy roots. Since the 1970s, the town has embraced its western theme as a nod to the town’s one big event in June, the Sisters Rodeo, which kept the town alive for the rest of the year. Since then, old-fashioned saloons and western facades have been constructed making it an attraction in its own right for visitors. Now, the town hosts many popular events in addition to the Sisters Rodeo, including the Sisters Folk Festival and the world’s biggest outdoor quilt show.
A morning in Sisters would not be complete without a stop at one of its renowned coffee shops or bakeries. Driving along the main avenue through town, the aroma of fresh baked goods will probably lure you to park near Sisters Bakery where you can get retro donuts, fresh-baked bread, melt-in-your-mouth croissants, superb scones and other scrumptious goodies.
Then, off to one of the most picturesque scenic highways in Oregon. The Santiam Pass Byway bridges the big pines of the “dry side” or eastside and the verdant evergreens on the “wet side” or westside of the Cascade mountain range. The history of the McKenzie Highway is truly western. Following an 1860s wagon route, it was constructed with private funds and then wagon drivers were charged a toll to pay for it. After relocation and reshaping, it became an official Oregon State Highway in 1925. As a main route to Eugene, the highway was problematic — its high elevation and narrow, twisting turns made it dangerous to drive in inclement weather.
As a scenic route, however, those same breathtaking precipices deliver awe-inspiring views around every corner, especially in the fall when the vine and big leaf maples light the forests ablaze with color. The area has also burned with a different sort of flame — fires have long been a natural phenomenon that sweep through the area in the summers. After settlers moved in and fire suppression became the norm, the fires have increased in intensity and destruction. In 2017, the Milli Fire burned over 24,000 acres as a result of a lightning strike. Still, this scenic highway retains its beauty and its standing as one of Oregon’s most stunning drives.
Once you emerge from the forest, you’ll pass by a voluminous lava flow just 2,000 years old and all the lushness disappears. After snaking through basalt rock walls, you’ll reach the summit and realize you’ve been transported to a stark and barren earthscape. Or should I say moonscape? The 65 square miles of black lava rock resembled the strange and unearthly surface of the moon so closely that in 1964, NASA conducted drills with astronauts to prepare for their trip.
An observatory, built of the lava rock that surrounds it, was constructed in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and named in memory of Dee Wright, the crew’s foreman who passed away the year before. From the top of the observatory, a bronze mountain finder helps you identify the surrounding buttes and mountain peaks. On a clear day, you can view Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, the South, North, and Middle Sister, and even see Mt. Hood, 78.5 miles to the north. From inside the observatory, openings frame individual mountains.
The 25-mile, 4,000-foot descent to Highway 126 snakes down exhilarating switchbacks to the dense, verdant forests of tamarack, spruce, larch, noble, grand, silver, Pacific and Douglas firs. Eventually, the highway rushes out over the McKenzie River. As you descend from the pass, don’t miss Proxy Falls, one of Oregon’s most photogenic waterfalls. In fact, you’ve probably seen this splendid cascade on someone’s wall calendar. One stream splits into two shimmering veils, dropping a dizzying 226 feet over the steep basalt face and over brilliant moss-covered rocks. Fall is a fortunate time to go because of the dazzling display of colors and fewer people visiting. If you go in the morning or afternoon, the sun’s rays shine through the tall trees and light up the mists rising from the falls. The trail is an easy loop totaling about 1.5 miles, showcasing two distinct views of the upper and lower sections of Proxy Falls. At the bottom, it is possible to scramble close to the water and feel its spray. You can also ponder the mystery of the pool which gathers the streams of water without an outlet. The water gathered at the foot of the falls seems to disappear.
Highway 242 is closed during the winter, but still provides recreation for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers. Each year, the Oregon Nordic Club puts on their annual John Craig McKenzie Pass ski where the highway is groomed just for skiers and motorsports are banned. The ski commemorates John Craig, who skied the mail for years between the Willamette Valley to Eastern Oregon until he perished in a blizzard in 1877 on McKenzie Pass. One of the best-kept secrets about the McKenzie Highway is that, before the Oregon Department of Transportation opens the highway to automobile traffic again in the spring, it allows bikers to ride this difficult and thrilling ride without having to share the road.
When you reach the junction of Hwy 126 and head back toward Sisters, stop at Belknap Hot Springs which is tucked along the banks of the McKenzie River. Stroll through a fairytale land of hidden gardens, forest paths, and golden meadows. Walk along the McKenzie River. Relax in the soothing hot springs. Belknap was once a destination to stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable and political personages such as Herbert Hoover. Now, this idyllic getaway enchants more everyday visitors from all over.
Lunch at Suttle Lake Lodge. Hipster Portlanders channeled Wes Anderson to revamp this cool, nostalgic destination hotel. Perched over Suttle Lake, the restaurant focuses on the basics — items like chips and trout dip, salmon croquettes and a salmon sandwich are served with a careful attention to detail. Original cocktails are offered at the lodge bar and a beer garden is at the back of the lodge.
After another 20 minutes on the highway, you’ll be ready to enjoy ice cream at one of the many eateries in Sisters. Wrap up your road trip with a stay at the historic 7th Street Redmond Hotel. Reflect on your trip — you’ve visited the wild west, the fresh and leafy forests of the Cascade mountains, the moon, glittering waterfalls, enchanted gardens and steaming hot springs — all in a single day. If you’re looking through a rainy windshield at a highway lined with cars each day, escape to Redmond for a fun road trip on the McKenzie Highway. As you enjoy the views of strange and wonderful landscapes, you will create exciting and beautiful memories that will last.