As my bike weaved freely to and fro across the roadway, I glanced across the vast lava field atop the Old McKenzie Highway and chuckled with a snort of snot rocketing out of my nose as the majestic view of the Three Sisters literally shocked me, feeling so close as if I could reach out and touch them.
For about three months each summer, Oregon’s Scenic Highway 242 treats countless car drivers to these tremendous views. For about eight months each winter the view remains dormant.
But for a few weeks in the spring and again in the fall, the panorama sits idly as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the hearty souls who thrive on challenges.
The highway is closed each winter from mile marker 66 on the west side to mile marker 84 on the east.
For a short period each spring after the first snowplow has carved a single lane through the towering 10-20 feet of snow, or each fall before the snowpack makes the roadway unridable, it’s open to the public, free of cars. Hike or bike to an unforgettable sight.
You pretty much have your choice. You can camp at Alder Springs Campground on the west side, just before the snow gate. Or you can camp at Cold Springs, just four miles outside of Sisters, on the east side.
For my first ascent one spring, I rose at sunrise from Alder Springs at 3,600 feet and pedaled toward the McKenzie Pass at 5,325.
It took a few miles before I could even catch a glimpse of that rising sun, casting a golden tint on the tips of towering Douglas Fir and Cedars atop the hills, as I zig-zagged up the switchbacks on a seemingly never-ending climb.
By the time the grade leveled off a bit allowing my engines to cool, a blast of crisp morning air gave my sweat-soaked body a serious chill as snow lined the roadway near the Obsidian Trailhead.
I reapplied my layers for warmth, and continued past spring runoff rivers sparkling along side the road at the Scott Lake Trailhead.
At one point, I turned a corner and felt a rush of warm air blowing in from the high desert, prompting yet another change of layers.
As I made it past the 5,000-foot level, about 7-8 miles into the ride, the morning sun cast inspiring light on the Sisters as their peaks poked out here and there through the tree line.
The sound of trickling water pulled me off the empty road for the soothing view of a stream dancing down rocks into a pool at the base of the lava, its shoreline sprinkled with stubborn snowdrifts.
Across the road, another pool offered a mirror of its far shoreline — a snapshot that will remain in my head forever. At that point, any hopes of trying to complete the motherlode ride — all the way to Sisters — disappeared like the ripples in the middle of the pool.
Stopping and savoring these exquisite moments became my primary goal.
That’s just about the time that the Three Sisters exploded into view.
I frolicked around Dee Observatory like a chipmunk overdosing on M&Ms. I had, it seemed, the entire route to myself on this weekday morning.
Feeling an obligation to venture down the east side a pinch, I headed down six miles to the snow gate. There I saw two trucks drive up and turn around in the matter of a minute or two, and I realized I had no desire to share a road with them down into Sisters. Not today.
I turned around and chugged back up to the top, stopping at a scintillating viewpoint of Mount Washington about three miles before the summit. Nice as it was, the Three Sisters seemed to pull me back to McKenzie Pass like spiritual magnets.
Once again, what moved me in the end wasn’t so much the natural beauty this place has to offer as much as it was the spirit in which the people here find ways to take advantage of it.
In the spring the Oregon DOT website announces when the road opens for hikers and bikers, and the target date for opening to traffic.
In the fall, I’ve ridden up from Cold Springs. You spend the first miles sharing the road with a few cars, but nothing like the summer tourist traffic. If it’s the weekend, there are so many cyclists on the road cars surrender their pace. Once at the gate, again, it’s all you.
Whether it’s open to the summit all depends on the snow.
There are countless options of how to bike “Old McKenzie Highway.” They range from starting at the McKenzie Ranger Station or near the start of 242, and going all the way to Sisters.
If you have two cars and can shuttle, I suppose that could work. Still, I’m told that’s about 40 miles, since, for some odd reason, 242 has no mileage signs telling you at any point how far Sisters is.
I really wouldn’t enjoy riding my bike on those narrow roads, sharing them with traffic — much less traffic with drivers whose primary mission is sightseeing.
For me, the 18-mile stretch between snow gates offer a wonderful adventure. The elevation gain from the west gate is 3,600 feet to the McKenzie Pass at 5,325. Cold Springs is at 3,400.
One of these days I’ll share Chris Horner’s favorite training ride. Dude tackles all that from Bend and returns home. That’s outta my league.
Time to ride.