Why McKenzie Pass Should be on Your Travel List
September 16, 2019
We first heard of McKenzie Pass from our camp host at Little Crater Campground near Paulina Lake. (Shout out to this amazing camp host!) He said that McKenzie Pass would be well worth the day trip and suggested a couple stops along the pass to get out and stretch our legs. Once we got back to cell service, we did a little research and quickly agreed that McKenzie Pass needed to be added to our must-sees while visiting the Bend, Oregon area.
McKenzie Pass is just outside of Sisters, which is roughly 30 minutes driving from Bend. The pass takes you through different types of environments, a historical landmark, and leads you several trailheads. The seasonally closed road typically reopens in June after the snow. Lucky for us, we were there in September and missed the snowy season, allowing for a beautiful day of exploring.
We started our day with heading out on OR-242, McKenzie Pass towards Dee Wright Observatory. Before getting to the observatory, we passed miles upon miles of lava. The lava is from an eruption roughly 2,000 years ago, so it’s one of the youngest lava beds in the United States. We had no idea how impressive and vast the bed would be. We were also surprised by the surrounding smoke in the area due to a forest fire started by lightning in the storm a couple of days prior.
Although we had seen pictures of Dee Wright Observatory, we still didn’t expect how ornate it would look when we drove around the bend in the road and saw it ourselves. It looks like an ancient castle built from lava resting in the sky. It’s nothing I ever expected to see out in the middle of an old lava field surrounded by towering summits. Especially since it was built in 1935. After climbing the lava stairs, we entered a grand room with multiple purposely placed windows. Each window perfectly outlined the summit at which we were looking out to. As we continued to the roof of the observatory, we could see the path of our favorite trail; the Pacific Crest Trail.
As we continued along the pass, the number of cars on the road diminished and we often felt like we had the pass to ourselves. I’m sure it’s quite busy when it first opens after the snow season, but for us, it was a quiet day on the pass. Although not on our list of recommended stops, we had to stop when we came across Scott Lake.
Although we didn’t spend a great deal of time at Scott Lake, it quickly got added to our ‘must visit again’ list. The lake’s surrounded by some small primitive camping spots that are only $5 a night! These beautiful campsites are rumored of being one of the prettiest spots to watch a sunrise and sunset. We also spotted a huge bright mushroom along the side of the road. We had never seen this type of mushroom and later learned it’s named Amanita Muscaria. Don’t worry, we didn’t touch or mess with it since we didn’t know if it was poisonous or not!
Now the piece de resistance is Proxy Falls. The camp host recommended several falls and hikes, but he said if you only have time for one, don’t miss Proxy Falls. So, we made sure not to miss it. And in our opinion, this is why you must visit McKenzie Pass. The trail leading to the falls starts just off the side of the main road, with a few cars parked on the side. The trail is intended to hike counter-clockwise. It’s an easy loop less than 2 miles long. A part of the beginning of the trail leads you through some ancient lava with Mother Nature showing her power with trees and bushes growing through the lava. These trees and bushes hinted of fall with their changing of the leaves; perfectly matching the crisp in the air. The trail then leads into a section of tall pines and pockets of shade that may never be warmed by the sun. It was not until we turned a corner that we were gifted with a sneak peek of the beauty we were hiking towards.
That glimpse had us rushing towards the falls with the sounds of crashing water getting louder and louder. We turned right at a junction to go to Lower Proxy Falls. The trail meanders down as we hiked over and under fallen trees, taking us to the river. In order to get to the base of the falls, we safely crossed the small river in shallow areas. But of course, I still got my toes wet, it never fails. But I’m more than fine with it considering the reward; standing at the base of the falls feeling humbled and in awe of such beauty.
Tim and I both stood there, staring up at the water cascading down. The water splits from the top, creating several small falls; each as stunning as the other. The bright green moss growing beneath the water looked even brighter next to the dark black rock. We laughed as the water misted our faces, feeling almost like it was raining. We really took it in and enjoyed the area for at least 30 minutes. And the best part, we were the only ones there. It felt like we found our own private falls.
After hiking back to the car, we talked about how our day had been far more visually stimulating than we had expected. The dense tree-filled land only got thicker and the green became more vibrant as we drove back towards Bend. We wanted to stay longer, explore more trails, and see more falls, which means we’ll simply have to return. I don't see that being a problem though, since I think we’ll both be pulling each other back to the beautiful McKenzie Pass and the falls that made time stand still.