SISTERS, Ore. — Baked goods and a cold beer taste so much better at 5,300 feet.
The recently plowed McKenzie Pass Highway is car-free until at least June 16, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation, giving cyclists seven weeks — maybe more — to enjoy the historic route between Sisters and McKenzie Bridge pretty much all to themselves.
“It’s a chance to get out there real high in the Cascades without cars,” says Jim Bucarelli of Eurosports, a bike and ski shop in Sisters. “Not that it’s even that bad with cars.”
True, but riding bikes without cars is a whole different kind of Nirvana. So on a recent Saturday I made my way up the pass to see how far the snowplows had gone.
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Starting in downtown Sisters — I began at Eurosports to chat with Bucarelli about road conditions — the route up to the summit and the Dee Wright Observatory is approximately 16 miles. (Note, fill up on water in town before you ride. While the Cold Springs Campground about 5 miles outside of Sisters has water, it may or may not be turned on at this time of year.)
The first 9-mile segment of the trip takes riders west of town on state Highway 242, past Sisters middle and high schools through the Deschutes National Forest.
Starting at an elevation of about 3,000 feet in Sisters, cyclists gradually climb approximately 900 feet over 9 miles before reaching the east snow gate, which is where the car-free goodness begins.
Almost immediately after the gate, snow starts to appear along the roadside. At first scattered in patches, the snow eventually becomes a constant companion, one that at times towers over riders on both sides of the road. To save money, ODOT first plows a path down the center of the highway over the McKenzie Pass, then lets the road clear naturally as the snow melts before plowing it again later in the spring. This makes for the canyonlike white walls that define the ride.
While the ride to the snow gate is one long, gradual climb, the final 6-mile stretch before the summit has more curves and elevates more dramatically. Riders go from about 3,900 feet at the snow gate to 5,300 feet at the observatory. The last part of the ride is more fun with the snow, the flow of the road, and the hint of lava rock that appears more frequently. But it is a climb.
On my trip Saturday I pretty much had the road to myself. I saw one Strava all-star making good time between the snow gate and Sisters, a couple of friendly folks on their bikes near the gate, and one cheery guy and gal on a recumbent bike making their way up as I was on my way down. Oh, and one super-fit woman I crossed paths with who had skis — SKIS! — on the back of her bike.
My aspirations were not so high. Pedaling at a leisurely pace, I made the summit about two hours after leaving Eurosport. I intended to snack at the top of Dee Wright Observatory at the top of the pass, but while the roads are plowed all the way to the west snow gate near McKenzie Bridge, the stairway to the top of the observatory is still packed with snow. With a light dusting coming down, I plopped in the middle of the road and unpacked an old-fashioned doughnut from Sisters Bakery and a can of Kolsch from Bend’s Worthy Brewing.
Life was good atop the mountain.
Views in any direction on the summit are typically outstanding, with the Three Sisters to the south and Mount Washington to the north. Snow clouds limited visibility a bit on that Saturday, but in some ways they made Dee Wright, a black castle in an island of snow, stand out even more.
With snow falling and the afternoon fading, I finished my treats and made my way back down the same way I had come. Without pushing it, I rolled back into Sisters in about 35 minutes. The ride down is as full-throttle as you want it to be, but beware of small twigs and sticks all over the road. Not much of a nuisance on the way up, the little branches can become death traps when you are traveling at 30 miles an hour.
A final tip here: dress warm. The temperature in Sisters reached the high 40s that day, but at the summit it was closer to 30. I was glad I brought ski gloves to wear near the top.