Mckenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway: car-free awesomeness!

On my way to Lake Tahoe last year, I had the chance to bike over Mckenzie Pass, one of Oregon’s Scenic Bikeways that stretches from east of Eugene over to Sisters, OR. It was gorgeous, an amazing climb up through Ponderosa forest to a lava-encrusted summit sparse in vegetation but lush with mountain views.  I loved it.

sisters from mckenzie pass(North and Middle Sister as seen from near the summit of Mckenzie Pass)

Since then, I learned that during the spring, the Oregon Department of Transportation plows one lane of traffic over the pass and then opens it only to cyclists and pedestrians while they wait for the rest of the snow to melt and make the pass fully accessible for cars too. What this means is that for a few weeks each year, this amazingly gorgeous ride is open only to human-powered transportation–you can bike or walk all over the road, pull to the side when you want to take a picture, stop randomly, and it doesn’t matter, because nothing will be coming up behind you except for maybe more cyclists and pedestrians.

Dee Wright Observatory bikies(In a classic example of “build it and they will come,” it also means that many, many cyclists make the trek out to bike it–check out all the bikies parked at Dee Wright Observatory at the summit!)

This year, I was determined to make it down before the pass opened to cars. Last weekend was my chance–James, our friend Craig and I borrowed a car and a bike rack, loaded ourselves up, and headed down to Sisters to camp, hang out, and bike over the pass and back.

Staying in Sisters

I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned here before that Sisters is one of my favorite towns in Oregon. It’s super cute, full of local businesses, sprinkled with public art (and public restrooms, which you know my feelings about if you’ve already read this;) and full of friendly people. Plus, there’s a city campground right in town–super convenient, since you can walk from it to anything you need.

We’d planned to stay there. Sadly, we didn’t realize that both the Sisters Rodeo and the Arts and Crafts in the Park festival were happening that same weekend, and the campground was full full full. But luckily, Bob, the campground host, is super accommodating, and when I sort of defeatedly asked him about recommendations for other places to camp, he absolutely refused to let us leave. Instead, he found us a spot between two other campsites and squished us in. Awesome:)

sisters campground(we even got our own picnic table, since basically everyone around us was in an RV and had their own stuff anyway. Score!)

The Scenic Bikeway

This ride leaves right from Sisters, so the next morning after wandering into town to get coffee (for James and Craig) and breakfast (for everyone:), we got ourselves ready and took off right from the campground.

IMG_7634(this is possibly my favorite bike sign ever. I love that there are so many bikeway options from Sisters:)

Like I said, the ride is absolutely amazing. From Sisters, it’s only a few (about 7) friendly miles to the first snowgate, where the route becomes officially carfree.

east snowgate(James celebrates the impending car-free road:)

Then, it’s only a few more (10-ish) uphill miles to the Dee Wright Observatory at Mckenzie Summit for a grand total of about 2100 feet of elevation gain from Sisters. It’s actually a very civilized climb–never super steep, and plenty beautiful enough to keep your mind off climbing anyway.

There were a lot of other people out, not all of whom were regular cyclists, many of whom had super heavy-looking mountain bikes. It’s definitely a ride you can do without being super hardcore, even though the elevation profile is much more strenuous-looking than other bikeways. Actually, though the whole length of the bikeway, from Sisters to the other side, is 36 miles, many people simply biked from Sisters (or from the snowgate) up to the summit and back down again. That way they had a round trip of about 34 miles instead of the 72 that it would be otherwise (not to mention that they only climbed up to the summit once, on one side, instead of twice, up both sides).

james and 2 sisters(oh, yknow, just biking past some of the Cascade mountains–in this case, North and Middle Sister, though you can also see many others–near the summit)

We, of course, opted to ride the whole thing. Which I’m really glad we did, because the two sides of the pass feel very different. The west side is much more winding and steep, full of switchbacks that make for an amazing descent and then a very beautiful re-ascent. Plus, there’s a lovely little hike near the bottom that takes you to two waterfalls, at least one of which is called Proxy Falls (it’s the Proxy Falls trailhead, but I don’t remember if there were different names for the two waterfalls). I definitely recommend the hike. It’s only a little more than a mile, and both waterfalls are absolutely stunning: big payoff for a little effort.

The whole ride, even including time spent hiking and just hanging out at the summit, took us way less time than we thought it would, and we were back in Sisters by 4pm or so. Plenty of time for a stop at Melvin’s Fir Street Market, perhaps the cutest grocery store that ever lived. They were even nice enough to sell us individual Tofutti Cuties instead of making us buy the whole box of 8–which, in retrospect, we probably could have eaten, but I was really touched that they would be flexible in a way that no big grocery store ever would be.

Melvins Fir Street Market(Craig and James enjoying their Tofutti Cuties with Melvin’s Market’s Tumbleweed Sam:)

We even met the old head of Cycle Oregon while we were sitting there–he stopped to ask us where we were from, why we’d come out, and if we were enjoying ourselves. Clearly he was interested in the tourist dollars being spent in his city:)


As usual, I have many, many pictures over on my flickr site, both of the ride and Sisters itself (go see if you can find the amazing covered wagon that somebody has in their yard, or the “hipsters welcome” crab made of bread dough:)

The pass opens to cars this year in a few days, on June 16th. But on the 15th, there’s an organized ride, the Ride for Two Rivers, to benefit the National Forest Foundation’s restoration work on the Metolius River and Whychus Creek. Just in case you want to do the ride in style and benefit some conservation projects at the same time. And of course you can ride the pass at any time, even with cars.

Get after it!:)


  1. I try and ride the Pass every year. There are free campsites alon Cold Springs Cutoff road, and you can always bike camp in various spots after passing the closed gates!

    • Thanks for the comment! Yeah, we noticed that it looked like you could camp along the pass itself in a few spots, though it seemed like you might have to carry in all your own water. Have you tried camping past the snowgates ever?

  2. I live in Sisters and have to agree that it’s one of the best cities in Oregon. Love the write-up.

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