dee wright observatory

Dee Wright Observatory

Photo: Courtesy of Zeb Andrews


Find serenity among Central Oregon’s forested peaks

Reason to Rev

Winding its way along jagged lava fields, over windswept mountain passes, and through lush forests brimming with old growth and tall, mossy waterfalls, the 82-mile McKenzie-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway links just about every kind of natural wonder Oregon has to offer, one microclimate blending into the next like the strokes of a watercolor painting. Come November, McKenzie Pass is closed to automobiles, but in October the byway’s plentiful maple trees ignite in vivid splashes of red and gold.


»Launch your loop in Sisters, where Oregon’s cowboy spirit lives on at the feet of hulking volcanoes. Mosey along the storefronts of Cascade Avenue and check out the impressive collection of locally carved juniper at Sisters Log Furniture. Really get into the Sisters swing by picking up a Stetson hat or Lucchese cowboy boots at Leavitt’s Western Wear.

»From Sisters, climb through the Deschutes National Forest up to the Dee Wright Observatory at McKenzie Pass. Built from lava rock during the Great Depression, the observatory sits in the middle of a 65-square-mile lava field at 5,187 feet, affording knockout views of Oregon’s greatest volcanic hits: Mounts Hood, Jefferson, and Washington; Three Fingered Jack; and North and Middle Sisters.

»Continue flanking the ancient lava flow on Highway 242 as you descend into the Willamette National Forest’s towering firs. Take a right on Forest Road 260 to Scott Lake, an idyllic, glassy lake fringed by wispy grasses under the glow of the Three Sisters. Camp on its shores ($5), or just rinse off the road grime with a quick, exhilarating dip.

»An increasingly dense forest engulfs Highway 242 as it snakes through a series of hairpin turns. During this stretch, you’ll pass a trailhead for the 1.5-mile loop hike to secluded Proxy Falls, and later, on Highway 126, for the dramatic Koosah Falls, cascading 82 feet over a wide basalt ledge into an expansive pool. RR

koosah falls

Koosah Falls

Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Cobb


Nested on the shores of Suttle Lake, the Boathouse Restaurant serves up three squares a day, from veggie-stuffed omelets to charbroiled burgers and fresh-caught lake trout. In Sisters, Sisters SnoCap Ice Cream (541-549-6151) is a must for old-fashioned, homemade ice cream and milkshakes.


Enjoy a peaceful lakeside slumber, access to canoes and kayaks, and a menu of muscle-melting massages at the well-appointed Lodge at Suttle Lake (from $149), or settle in at one of Camp Sherman’s rustic Metolius River Lodges (from $100), serenaded by the rush of the spring-fed river.


While summiting the surrounding mountains seems daunting, the more moderate 1.9-mile hike to the top of Black Butte delivers panoramic views as it winds its way to the top of the 3,000-foot cinder cone.