Bike McKenzie Pass Right Now—While It's Still Car-Free

The 38-mile scenic bikeway west of Sisters offers panoramic views of central Oregon. And for a few more weeks, it's no motors allowed.

By Rebecca Jacobson May 17, 2016

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Sweet scene from the saddle.

Image: Jason Nolin

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2016. Due to 2017's heavier snowpack, the McKenzie Highway may open to motorized traffic later than normal this year, possibly not till July—which means more time to bike it car-free!

The McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway is said to have some of the most spectacular views in central Oregon—including a 360-degree panorama of the Cascades, which you can savor from a fortress observatory built of black lava rock.

That's the rumor, at least. I can't tell you much about the scenery firsthand. All I experienced last weekend were misty, socked-in vistas, with just the slightest shadow of peaks in the distance. (Umm, is that Black Butte?)

But even in these less-than-ideal conditions, pedaling over the 5,325-foot pass is still a quintessential Oregon cycling experience—especially if you take advantage of the narrow window each year when the 38-mile stretch of road between Sisters and Belknap Springs is closed to cars but open to bikes. (Last year, it reopened to motor traffic on June 15).

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On a soggy day, the Dee Wright Observatory is great for observing ... nothing.

The pass was plowed about a month ago. Go now, and experience the hard-to-match thrill of having the whole road—so well-paved! Such a reasonable grade! So free of exhaust and grumbling engines!—to yourself as you climb (and climb, and climb) through the trees, finally topping out at barren lava fields flecked with patches of snow. It's as close to a lunar landscape as you'll find in the Northwest.

The climb is legit, but if you’ve got moderately strong quads—and a bike with low gears—it’s a must. There are a couple ways to do it: from Sisters in the east, or from the west, near Belknap Hot Springs. Whichever way you ride, bring some warm clothes, as you can expect much cooler temps at the top. Scroll down for more tips on planning your ride.

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Climbing through the lunar landscape.

Snowbanks make for better company than semi-trucks.

Image: Jason Nolin

From Sisters: fill up on coffee in town (yes, caffeine is a performance-enhancing drug), and then make your way through hay fields and ponderosa pines, climbing about 2,000 feet to Dee Wright Observatory, a Civilian Conservation Corps project constructed with lava stone.

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Doug firs for days.

From Belknap: pick up pastries at Rosie’s Scones in Mill City or (overpriced) bagels in Detroit—you’ll need the carbs for this ascent, which is twice as long as the climb from Sisters. You’ll switchback through dense stands of Doug firs—take a sec to marvel at how much vegetation differs on opposite sides of the Cascades—for 4,000 feet, but the grade remains moderate throughout. (Still, bring snacks. Always bring snacks.)

Our tip: split the ride into two days for an ideal weekend bikepacking trip. Start on the west side, where Highway 126 meets 242, and tackle the long climb on fresh legs. Spend the night in Sisters (if you’re camping, check out Cold Springs Campground) and then pedal back over the pass in the morning. And, if your muscles need it, stop in for a soak at nearby Belknap Hot Springs before returning to Portland.

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McKenzie Pass on a clear day.

Image: Jason Nolin

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