McKenzie & Santiam PassAre you looking for a beautiful scenic drive in Central Oregon? Check out the McKenzie-Santiam Scenic Byway loop. The McKenzie-Santiam Scenic Byway loop will take you through some of Oregon’s most beautiful scenery, some of the best views of Central Oregon’s ancient lava flows and volcanoes, and you will see beautiful old-growth forests, waterfalls, lakes and rivers on this drive as well. On the on the drier east side of the highway, lodgepole pines prevail, and on the west side of the Cascades you will be treated to lush Douglas-fir and red cedar forests.

This scenic drive loop begins in Sisters, Oregon, on US 20. Please keep in mind the highway usually closes in mid-November, and doesn’t open until mid-June depending on the weather, and the amount of snow the area receives in winter. There are also no gas stations along the way, so make sure you fill up before beginning your trip. The McKenzie Pass Highway, which was the main route between the southern Willamette Valley and Central Oregon, became a seasonal scenic highway in 1962 with the completion of the Clear Lake-Belknap Springs section of OR 126. When it served as the main route between these areas, the narrow, twisting roadway and high elevation (5,325 feet) and the amount of snow it receives during the winter made it too difficult to maintain and keep clear during the winter months.

McKenzie-Santiam Scenic Byway Photo Gallery

View photo gallery of the McKenzie-Santiam Scenic Byway scenic drive.

We started from the Bi-Mart parking lot, and from the parking lot we turned right onto W Hood Avenue, then made a right turn onto the McKenzie Highway, OR-242, after a few hundred feet (see the Google map of the loop below). However the McKenzie Highway does intersect with Highway 20 at the location of the USDA Forest Service – Sisters Ranger District offices, so you can begin your loop there if you prefer. You will need a Northwest Forest Pass to park at many places along the highway, so you can pick one up at Bi-Mart or the ranger station if you don’t already have yours.

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View from the Windy Point turnout.

The first few miles takes you are in town, but it very quickly begins the slow very windy climb up and you enter some thick lodgepole pine forests, and you will begin to get fantastic views of nine of the Cascade Mountains peaks.

The McKenzie Highway follows the path of an 1860s wagon train route, which must have been quite a trip in a wagon I’m guessing. One of the first turnouts along the highway that you will not want to miss is Windy Point. It is hard to miss because it is one of the first places where you emerge from the forests, and you will see a beautiful view of Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, and other Cascade peaks, it also provides a nice view of a huge lava flow. The viewpoint at Windy Point can be very crowded during the summer months, so parking might be limited.

The the Dee Wright Observatory at the summit of the McKenzie Pass, at 5,235 feet of elevation.

The Dee Wright Observatory.

About three-miles after the Windy Point turnout you will reach the Dee Wright Observatory at the summit of the McKenzie Pass, at 5,235 feet of elevation. The observatory is a lava rock structure constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, and it is named for their foreman who had died the previous year after serving 24 years as a Forest Service packer and crew foreman at Camp Belknap.

The observatory is an open shelter that was built with lava stone found at the construction site. There are viewing windows inside the structure that are cut to specifically highlight the neighboring mountains. These “lava tube” viewing holes allow visitors to easily identify the different Cascade peaks that one can view in the area.

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The 36 inch diameter, bronze azimuth-like “peak finder” on the observatory’s roof, and one of our Hydro Flasks.

At the top of the Dee Wright Observatory, visitors have a wonderful panoramic view of the Cascade Mountain Range including Mount Hood in the far north, and there is a 36 inch diameter, bronze azimuth-like “peak finder” on the observatory’s roof to help visitors locate nearby geologic features as well as the surrounding mountain peaks. Many peaks can easily be seen from Dee Wright Observatory, including Mt, Jefferson, Cache Mountain, Dugout Butte, Black Butte, Bluegrass Butte, Black Crater, North Sister, Middle Sister, Little Brother (and ridge west), Condon Butte, Scott Mountain, South Belknap Cone, Belknap Crater, Little Belknap, and Mt. Washington. During good weather it is also possible to see Mt. Hood, Bald Peter, Green Ridge, and Horsepasture Mountain.

There is a half-mile long Lava River Interpretive Trail that begins at the observatory, and it will take you on a 30-minute walk through lava beds, and the trail also offers open beautiful vistas of the surrounding landscape. The trail is paved and easy to follow, and there are interpretive panels located along the trail that highlight the geology of the area.

Scott Lake.

Scott Lake.

After leaving the observatory, this scenic highway heads through the Willamette National Forest alongside an ancient lava flow for a few miles, then you will enter the lush forests again. Several miles after the observatory you will reach Forest Road 260, which takes you to Scott Lake. This was a gem of a find for us on a recent trip, as the views of the Three Sisters from the lake are breathtaking. There are several camping spots at Scott Lake, and several picnic tables as well. However, during the summer months it can fill up quickly, so if you want to be able to find a camping spot or picnic table you are probably better off during the week instead of the weekends. But it is very popular and you still might find the area has filled up. When you first get to the lake don’t stop at the first spots available like we almost did, continue along the road for about a ½ mile until you almost get to the end of the lake as the views of the mountains are best from this part of the lake.

From Scott Lake the highway takes you past the road to the Obsidian Trailhead, and further down the road you will also pass the trailhead for Proxy Falls, one of Central Oregon’s most photographed waterfalls. The hike to the falls travels through thick old-growth forests and lava flows.

A few miles past the turnout for Proxy Falls OR-242 comes to the junction for OR-126 where you will turn right to continue this beautiful scenic loop. This part of the McKenzie-Santiam Scenic Byway loop heads north on OR-126 towards Sisters. This part of the highway is surrounded by many lava flows, beautiful old-growth forests, and it also follows the beautiful McKenzie River. Along the McKenzie River there is the 26-mile McKenzie River National Recreation Trail which offers some of Central Oregon’s most beautiful scenery.

About thirteen miles from the junction of OR-242 and OR-126 along the McKenzie River is the turnout for Koosah and Sahalie Falls. This is a must see waterfall that I always make sure take first time visitors to Oregon to see. From the parking area for Sahalie Falls it is a short walk to Sahalie Falls, and the trail also continues down river to Koosah Falls.

After leaving Sahalie Falls you will come to Clear Lake,  which offers boating, and fishing opportunities. It is a really nice place to stop for a rest, and perhaps a picnic and a short walk.

As you continue on OR-126 you will see several other lakes, and will soon merge onto US-20, and begin the drive back to Sisters where you began the loop. You will pass by the Hoodoo Ski area along this part of the highway, and you have nice views of Three Fingered Jack Mountain, which has an elevation of 7,841 feet. As you travel along the Santiam Pass and the highway starts to descend back to Sisters, you will also have beautiful views of Mount Washington, Suttle Lake, and more lava-flows.