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Scenic byway showcases colors of the Cascades

When my wife and I took a four-day trip to Central Oregon last week, our main goal was to see autumn colors. What we didn’t expect was the manifold forms those colors would take along the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, the 130-mile loop from Sisters into the high Cascades and back.

From Sisters, 21 miles northwest of Bend, the route goes from Ponderosa pine forest to a high point in a lava field at 5,235-foot McKenzie Pass in just 25 miles, and that’s only the start of what is a spectacular drive.

At the pass, the 3,000-year-old lava field from Yapoah Crater stretches to the horizon on both sides of the road, covering 50 square miles. To the south, the 10,085-foot North Sister and 10,047-foot Middle Sister dominate the horizon, with the slightly smaller South Sister hidden from view by its middle sibling. This time of year, thin bands of clouds create a gentle glow of diffused sunlight on the Middle Sister’s glacier field, adding to the magnificence.

To the north, is 7,794-foot Mount Washington, with 7,841-foot Three Fingered Jack to its right in the background and a barely visible Mount Jefferson soaring to 10,497 feet in the far distance.

But almost as interesting as the peaks at the pass is the architectural uniqueness of the Dee Wright Observatory, a structure made entirely of volcanic rock. Named after an honored U.S. Forest Service employee, and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, the observatory has windows with peepholes pointing to each of the high peaks. Below it is the half-mile Lava River Trail loop with displays that explain the dynamics of volcanic crevasses, gutters and pressure ridges and the struggle of trees and shrubs to reclaim the ground covered by the flow.

After reaching the observatory, the highway wends through a mixed forest of Douglas fir, white fir and spruce to reach steep Deadhorse Grade, which descends more than 1,000 feet in less than a quarter of a mile. It is aptly named. At least one horse died trying to climb it, and even in a car its twists are a challenge to navigate.

But once the road begins to level out, the forest becomes a show of orange, yellow and red vine maples in their peak autumn hues.

Just beyond the Alder Springs Campground at the base of the grade is a 1.6-mile hiking loop to Lower Proxy Falls and Upper Proxy Falls, offering more surprises. The path winds through a lava field brimming with autumn-bright finery to a high point where hikers can scramble down to the base of the lower falls for a better view. There, in a shady grove, a small stand of red cedars is a fitting foreground for the 226-foot falls. Upper Proxy Falls, dropping 129 feet, is less than a quarter-mile farther along the same high point, and although partly obscured by foliage, looks no less beautiful.

This portion of the loop, which is the most dazzling for fall color, follows Highway 242. About 10 miles beyond the Proxy Falls Trail there is a junction with Highway 126, which soon offers special attractions of its own.

Seven miles past the junction is a turnout to 64-foot Koosah Falls, which is connected to 73-foot Sahalie Falls by a 2.8-mile loop trail. Sahalie and Koosah have been variously interpreted to mean “heaven,” “sky,” “top” or “upper” in the Chinook Indian trading jargon. Both are magnificent cataracts, made more so during certain times of the day when they create their own rainbows, airy “autumn colors” we did not expect. The loop meanders around to the other side of the McKenzie River, with its different perspective on both falls.

The forest along the river is lush with Douglas fir, western hemlock, Pacific yew and red cedar along ground covered with ferns. The quiet of the woods contrasts starkly with the McKenzie River just below, which even in October is fast-flowing and noisy, with turquoise pools and green algae-covered rocks vying with the whitecaps of the rapids for attention. The path is part of the 25-mile-plus McKenzie River National Recreation Trail.

Not far down the road from the two falls is 195-foot deep Clear Lake, well named for the transparency of its waters, which on a fall day are even more impressive as they reflect the colors of fall shrubbery along the shoreline. There is a resort at the lake with a dock, boats, restaurant, cabins and campground. The lake, which boasts brook, cutthroat and rainbow trout, is a haven for anglers.

An old lava flow created the spring-fed lake, which is the headwaters of the McKenzie River. On the lake floor is a forest submerged as a result of the lava dam.

There are other things to see along the byway — vestiges of an 1860s wagon road, Fish Lake, Hoodoo Ski Bowl with Blue Lake nearby, and 4,817-foot Santiam Pass, which comes after Highway 126 joins busy Highway 20 for the return to Sisters. On this portion of the drive is glacier-carved Suttle Lake, another anglers’ favorite, along with small stands of yellow-leafed aspens and spots of bright-yellow cottonwoods just off the highway.

And if you still have time before sunset, you can take a side loop to the Camp Sherman Resort area and the headwaters of the Metolius River.

There is so much to do on the McKenzie-Santiam Scenic Byway, one trip isn’t enough to do it justice. We took two days to traverse it entirely, going up Highway 242 from the south end at Sisters the first day, and going in from north end on Highway 20 the second time around. All along the route are campgrounds and trailheads, among them the 12-mile Obsidian Trail, one of the most popular in Central Oregon. The Sisters area boasts three major wilderness areas nearby, the 52,515-acre Mount Washington Wilderness, 111,177-acre Mount Jefferson Wilderness and 283,402-acre Three Sisters Wilderness.

For autumn at its best, this central Cascades byway is stunning. But time is running out to take it this year. Highway 242, which features some of its top attractions, will soon be closed. It is only open from June through October because of snow.

But whether you take it this year or next, it’s an experience that will stay with you. After driving through it once, you’ll soon be thinking about which trail to explore the next time around.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a retired Mail Tribune page designer and travel/nature columnist. He can be reached at dieffsr@gmail.com.

A rainbow streams out of Sahalie Falls in this view from the trail just off Highway 126 on the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway.
A glacier field shines under afternoon clouds in this zoomed-in view of the 10,047-foot Middle Sister taken from McKenzie Pass.