McKenzie Pass Eastside Ride

This weekend I had the opportunity to get out and ride on a perfect July Saturday. Since I had not ridden up it yet this year I decided I was going to ride McKenzie Pass. If you are a cyclist and are in the Central Oregon area during the Late Spring/Early Summer, you need to ride McKenzie Pass. McKenzie Pass is located between McKenzie Bridge on Highway 126 and Sisters on Highway 20. It is also known as OR Highway 242. The Pass is just over 36 miles long one way and used to be an old wagon road back before Santiam Pass was created.

The top of the pass is at 5325 feet and the bottom is at 3200 feet in Sisters and 1700 feet in McKenzie Bridge. The best part about this road is that it is closed during the winter due to heavy snows and in the spring and early summer it is still closed to vehicles but able to be ridden by cyclists. This year we had lots of snowfall in the Cascades which has led to McKenzie Pass being closed well into the summer and giving me time to finally get out and ride it. I chose to ride just the eastside of the pass starting down in Sisters. The road closed gate is located about 8 miles out of Sisters and some choose to park up there to minimize the climbing. There is a similar gate on the Westside as well.

Curves Through the Lava

From Sisters you begin climbing right out of town. The road is mainly chip seal on the lower sections and regular pavement up higher. I would rate it a 5 on a 1-10 scale. The first 5+ miles outside of Sisters is a gentle rise which is normally into a headwind. This was the case for me as well. It became really apparent to me that I had not been riding as much as I normally do in the spring. With the Peterson Ridge Rumble in the spring most of my time was spent running. Since it was about 80 degrees out the headwind felt somewhat refreshing as it helped keep my temperature in check. When I am climbing into a headwind I sometimes need to try my best at finding at least a couple positives to dwell on. =) Over the first five miles I was passed by a couple cars and motorcycles but not too many. It seems like many people do not check to see if the road is open because a couple minutes after seeing them go up you see them coming right back. I also saw lots of cyclist coming down as I went up, this was to be expected as the day was perfect and it is such a great ride. Don’t expect solitude on a day like this.

Summit Sign

Around mile 5 ½ the climb begins in earnest and I started to feel it. There are a couple of steeper switchbacks that are a shock to the legs before it tapers off a bit up to the gate. Just over mile 7 ½ you hit the road closed gate. It is such a nice feeling to get to ride on some roads closed to vehicles. While there are still plenty of cyclists descending quite quickly, if you stay in your lane there is no issues. After skirting the gate on the downhill side I started to climb with a little more of a tempo. It took me about 8 miles to find my groove but at least I finally did.

Snow in the Lane

From the gate the rode follows the contours of the hillside as it climbs. It is 3 miles up to Windy Point and a great place to take a break and admire the view. While climbing up from the gate there are some views through the trees of the mountains and lava flow but it is nothing compared to the view at Windy Point.

The Top

On most occasions there are some fairly tame chipmunks there as well who would be more than happy to separate you from your food. I snapped a couple pictures at Windy Point and took in some nutrition before starting the final 3 ½ mile climb up to the Dee Wright Observatory. The last 3 ½ miles are not nearly as steep as the preceding ones are. There is even a couple flat to descending portions as well to break it up. The first couple miles are along the Eastern edge of the lava flows before climbing up through them to the Observatory. The switchbacks up the lava flow are where the snow really piles up and what causes the pass to stay closed for so long.

On this day the road was almost all clear of snow, apart from a small section where about a 1/3 of the road was covered, the majority of the route was wide open. I cruised up this last section fairly quickly and took a couple pictures along the way.

Out the Window

At the top of the pass is the Dee Wright Observatory which is built out of lava rocks and has view and information about the lava flows and surrounding mountains. There are paved trails through the lava and the Pacific Crest Trail goes nearby as well. The Observatory has two levels, the lower level has windows out highlighting the views of the surrounding mountains and the upper level is an open roof. There are magnificent views of The Middle and North Sisters, Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, and even Mt. Hood among many other smaller peaks.

Middle and South Sisters

I was fortunate to have the place to myself when I arrived. I wandered around for a bit and took a couple pictures. The weather was just about perfect, not too hot or cold. While up at the Observatory a couple groups came up from each side of the pass and I knew it was time for me to head back down. The nice thing about climbing into a headwind is that you get to descend with a tailwind. On the way up I had kept an eye on the other lane checking for obstacles.

The road was really clear so I was able to bomb down the descent. I was pushing it a bit all the way to the car enjoying the speed and adrenaline from the descent.

All in all it was a 28 mile round trip from the Middle School parking lot in Sisters. There was about 2,100 feet of elevation gain and it took me 1 ½ hours up and 35 minutes back down.

On Top of the Observatory

I would highly recommend this ride for anyone on the East or West side of the mountains. The ride is a bit hairy when open to cars so aim for the late spring or early summer when the roads are closed. While there is definitely some work to get to the top, the views and descent make it all worthwhile. Another option for those up for a real challenge is to go over and back. You can either stop at the hot springs on the Westside or get a milk shake at the Sno-Cap in Sisters on the Eastside. As always, your mileage may vary.

McKenzie Pass Ride Route and elevation Data

Gear Used

  • Pearl Izumi Elite Jersey – This was the first time I have worn this jersey and I really liked it. Had a good fit and with the mesh panels it kept me cool. The fabric is also really lightweight and soft to the touch.
  • Pearl Izumi Elite Bib Shorts – Got these originally as commuting bib shorts. I quickly have realized they are better than that. They are comfortable and fit me well.

About the Author

I am an avid runner, cyclist, swimmer, hiker, climber, skier and many other activities that would make this list too long. I started Your Mileage May Vary Reviews in Early 2011 to combine two of my passions: sports and gear.

2 Responses to “McKenzie Pass Eastside Ride”

  1. Betsy Hunter

    JJ –

    This ride sounds great. What about coming from the west – is it more strenuous a grade? I’m thinking of riding up the west side and down into Sisters.


    • Hello Betsy,

      Thanks for visiting the site. The McKenzie Pass Ride is great from both sides. The west side is a bit steeper, especially through the switchbacks of the “dead horse grade”. You can imagine how they got the name for this section. A really good website for mapping out a bike ride is I use this site a lot as it can give you the grade over sections. Map my Ride is good for this as well. The climb is also a bit more difficult because you have to start from a lower elevation on the west side. It is still definitely worth it, especially when it is still closed to cars. Let me know if you have any other questions about it.


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