Scenic McKenzie Highway – Road Trip to Sisters, Oregon

Oregon seeps under your skin, mossy and green. Like a salve for your soul. It is my from. If you’ve been playing along or you know me, this is no surprise. If you haven’t and you landed here today with this post – then first, let me say velkommen! Welcome! But you probably figured it out too. Right? The Oregon connection? It’s kind of obvious, hunh? Oregon Girl and all. Yep, ok. Back to Oregon. But what do you know about Oregon? I know some of you know a lot. But for those who don’t – here’s a tiny overview. Short and sweet and green.

One of the 50 United States, Oregon sits sandwiched on the West Coast (the best coast) between her more populous neighbors – Washington and California – both who can boast hosting a top 20 U.S. city, or two, within their borders. Both those states have their merits – a plenty. Believe me. As my husband and I both attended college in Washington, we have strong heart strings that pull us there. And he and his family call California their from, growing up in So Cal, all of them. But when I am outside of the States, I find that fewer people know much about Oregon, the West Coast’s middle sister.

As an expat currently living in Denmark, invariably the first question I get asked is: where are you from? And more often than not, people can quickly pick up my accent as soon as I answer and recognize that I am American. When I go on to say that I’m from Oregon – quizzical looks can follow. Ok – let me explain. Do you know where California is? Lights of recognition. Yes! Yes, I do! Of course. Everyone does. Go north. I say. That’s Oregon. And while California has many amazing things to share and offer both the resident and tourist alike, I like Oregon better. Sorry Cali. It’s me, not you. Don’t worry – I’ll still visit. (We did – post forthcoming!)

So when I am asked why – what’s so great about Oregon – I’m happy to share. I’ll do the same for Denmark. It’s awesome here too. (And you should visit Denmark in Fall or Summer or anytime really.) But when the mountains call you in Oregon, you can reach them. Feel the pull of the ocean? You can reach that too. Need the warmth of the desert, no problem. Rivers and lakes and hills and valleys. Rodeos and runners and artists and fisherman. Growers and goers and doers and makers. Some of the best food and culture this side of the Mississippi. Craft brew and crabbing and pinot and pickles. Yes, we can pickle that. Thank you Portlandia. Skiing and hiking and boating and floating. Good food and good people. So much to explore and do and taste and see.

Wanna pick some ripe Oregon berries and listen to live tunes on the farm? Read here.

Wanna pluck big crab straight from the sea and eat them for dinner? Read here.

Today, maybe – we’ll catch a fish or two. Or witness a few who really want to. But ride with me. I’ve got Oregon to share. We’re traveling east this time. To the charming as heck tiny Central Oregon outpost known as Sisters. Oregon. Only 2000 or so people live here year round, but myriads more pass through to soak up the scenery and play in the surrounds. I want you to see why.

Our road trip begins in Eugene, Oregon where we’ve been recently visiting my parents and where my formative years were spent forming. We’re heading east today on Highway 126 towards Springfield and then we’ll take the historic, closed in winter, beautiful, winding and gorgeous Old McKenzie Pass (Highway 242) beyond. Here we go.

No need to tarry or linger any longer, we’ll leave Eugene and quickly sneak through Springfield, leaving behind strip malls and Dari Marts. Hit little Cedar Flat on the two laned Highway 126 and then cross the McKenzie River at Deerhorn Road. Here again, lush and verdant Oregon reveals itself. Farms and teeny towns string along the winding road that flows and follows the river. Ride with me.

img_9409The McKenzie River here is cold and clear. And scenic and perfect for fishing or floating. Fly fishing is king. You will see enthusiasts in waders or floats casting in arcs their caddis flies hoping for strikes. McKenzie Feed & Tackle in Walterville can help with supplies and support. Want to linger longer and throw in your line? There are lots of fishing lodges and cabins or cottages for rent, if that floats your fly.

Not today for us, but we’ll go fishing soon, for sure. Now we pass Deerhorn and little Leaburg and people picking wild blackberries straight from the vine. Meadows flush with light colored grasses and tiny purple blooms flow right into rolling hills lined wall to wall with tall evergreens. Mighty and towering Douglas Fir trees dominate and distinguish this landscape. Fields full of hay now cut and stacked grow blond in the sun.

McKenzie River Highway

In driveways sit drift boats dreaming of river time. I flash back for a moment to afternoons on this span of the river in my Dad’s McKenzie River drift boat. He would deftly maneuver the wooden vessel made stable with a wide flat bottom ready to handle the rapids without running aground where the river ran low. (Read more about these beautiful boats’ evolution at troutster.com) I remember pulling into slow calm eddies in the river. We’d cast in our lines and sip from cans of cold Shasta pop waiting for strikes on the flies that he’d tied. Good times. Good times.

A lavender farms flashes by as we continue on the highway. Then filbert groves march with their own kind of rhythm. Lines of nut trees shored up from here to the river. Don’t know what a filbert is? Outside of Oregon, you may not. A filbert is what we here around these parts call a hazelnut, a bumper export crop for Oregon state.

Queen Anne’s lace at once delicate yet still hardy litters the side of the road, swinging hellos as we cruise right past. My brother sees this road from a vastly different perspective today. In training for his first Iron Man Triathlon in August, he has chosen to ride his bike these 100 miles up and over the mountain and through the woods. We pass him pushing hard and pull over to offer our cheers as he hits his stride on the flats. He is so fast. I think of him as we start climbing. Steady as you go. Keep pushing.

We roll on and are treated to every color of green. There aren’t names for all these shades – too many to count. Maybe the “Organic Redneck Farmers” farm stand we pass could help. I wonder what is on their menu today. Berries? Squash? Patty pan or zucchini. I can’t help but agree that organic and redneck is a great descriptor for life on this road. It’s peak growing time in this peak growing region.

At the Leaburg Dam, the river is thwarted. Water sprays and people picnic. It is flat and wide and safe here. Fishermen float and kayakers wander and children splash and play under watch of tall fir guardians. On our left now, Ike’s Pizza we pass. More memories flood back. Our regular stop after days skiing at Hoodoo Mountain, being dragged up that rope tow. A perfect break between mountain and bed. A slice of pizza or two, a pitcher of orange pop and a few quarters to plunk down in the jukebox. Crimson and Clover anyone? Ha. I smirk. We continue.

Heading back the opposite way, vans pull trailers with racks full of rafts. The end of their day. Soon we near Vida. Old pickups sit rusting from the wet Oregon winter, while signs now in summer call out invitations to come pick blueberries. No spray. They say. Next door, Christmas tree farms wait their turn for their season. Oh and Bingo! Twice monthly. Every second Saturday. So many options to stay here and play.

There are campgrounds here sitting right on the river. The road narrows and great rocky outcrops close it in. A nearby home has chopped wood stacked high and tight, ready for damper days ahead. The McKenzie River flows shallow in this channel. Fisherman take a break above Rennie’s boat launch while across the water, a drift boat anchors just above an eddy. I watch him dropping his fly right into a hole. The water shines a lush bluish teal and shimmers when the giant clouds let up.

American flags fly proudly across double wides. We are red, white AND blue here. We pass Finn Rock and remark at it’s size – mammoth and looming near the market and grill with the same name. If you need a break, stop and sit on their deck by the river.

But we move on. Towards Blue River. The road opens up here and an extra lane allows passing. Huge hills surge ahead, dark with evergreen firs. The sun pushes back puffy white clouds and the river reflects the blue blue blue. Not ironic the town’s name today. Ahead of us thunderheads are fluffy and white, but dense and threatening. Snow still shows on the peaks as we climb. I think of my brother back behind us. Now in Rainbow, with still no rain. Takoda’s here in Rainbow used to have the best veggie burger ever, but I will admit, I haven’t tried it in awhile. We keep going on through the sprawling Willamette National Forest. Past Paradise. Campground that is. For some it must be. Paradise that is.

We choose the slow route and take the Old McKenzie Highway cutoff. Highway 242 is not open year round and we lie to our kids. Of course this is the most direct route. By the crow’s flight. Wink. Wink. Winding and twisted, it is a most beautiful pass. If you have time, it proffers vistas not to missed. We pass vintage vans showing stickered support for the Grateful Dead and Bernie Sanders. So Oregon. Motorcycles out cruising zoom past the other way. Sunlight filters through the giant trees at 2000 feet like a Renoir. Yakima racks full of kayaks and bicycles or canoes adorn the vehicles here headed out on adventures.

We rise to 3000 feet above sea level. We lose radio signals. Cell coverage dropped several miles back. Cars line the road here at Mile 64. Displaying forest passes and heading for day hikes in to Proxy Falls. Swallow tail butterflies float over the road and we have time to notice as the switchbacks are slow enough to soak it all in. Ferns reach out flat from the undergrowth, trying to catch bits of the filtered sunlight through the evergreen canopy. Tiny timber tigers scamper over the rocks. Here we hit 4000 feet. Lilies and purple wildflowers break up the green.

Trees for days - view from Old McKenzie Highway
Historic Highway 242, Old McKenzie Pass, Oregon

Suddenly the forest breaks free and huge lava beds clunk up the landscape. We stop and stretch. Belknap Crater stands out over the charbroiled vista. Isn’t is amazing how the lava stopped right at the side of the road? My kids groan. As I groaned, repeating my Dad’s quote for the 10,000th time. Every time Dad? Yes, every time. Every time Mom? Has to be done.

There is evidence here of old forest fires. Grey needleless trees spire up through the black rocks. We stop once again atop of the pass. We’ve hit 5000 feet now. This is the Dee Wright Observatory, a momument made out of the lava rocks offers views of each nearby peak. In a circle, walk around. Belknap Crater. Little Belknap. Mount Washington. Mount Jefferson. Mount Hood. Black Butte. North Sister. Middle Sister. South Sister. Little Brother. Mountains. How I’ve missed them.

But that’s where we’re headed. To Sisters. All week the Three Sisters mountains will frame our backdrop. We meander down the pass, now at home in the Deschutes National Forest. A different river influences this land. Firs fade out and giant pine trees take over. Ponderosa Pines stand spindly and red barked over scrubby sage bushes. It feels different on this side of the mountain. And it is. High and dry and warm and wonderful. Welcome to Central Oregon. Welcome to Sisters. We’ll be here all week.

Want to stay back along the beautiful McKenzie River? Take a look at these spots:

Eagle Rock Lodge – Vida, Oregon
Beautiful Bed & Breakfast right on the river. My mother was married here, I can highly recommend.

Caddisfly Resort – McKenzie Bridge, Oregon
Modern cottages all with views of the river. Can help organize fishing, boating, hiking.

Belknap Hot Springs Lodge & Gardens – McKenzie Bridge, Oregon
Enjoy the natural hot springs and stay in beautiful setting. Day passes for hot springs available.

Paradise Campground – Blue River, Oregon
River’s edge campsites in old growth Douglass Fir forest. Paradise.

Want to come to central Oregon with me? Don’t worry – that’s next. Until then, cheers from Denmark! And If you were hoping for more Danish inspiration – click on the menu at the top and enjoy! Erin

Oregon Road Trip
Travel along the Old McKenzie Highway to Dee Wright Observatory and Sisters, Oregon via oregongirlaroundtheworld.com

One thought on “Scenic McKenzie Highway – Road Trip to Sisters, Oregon

  1. Oregon looks like the most magical place. I respect your affinity to this land Erin as I feel the same way about my home town in Australia – Melbourne. I have never been to Oregon but look forward to experiencing those soaring mountains and deep green forests for myself one day. What a magical wilderness

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