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High-mountain lava fields, snowy volcanic peaks and panoramic Cascade-pass views present a striking world of contrasts on this 82-mile/132-kilometer loop route northwest of Bend.

Oregon’s highest mountains create wildly contrasting landscapes, which you’ll clearly witness on this drive. On the east side of the Cascade Mountains, golden grasslands and lodgepole pine prevail; over the passes, you’ll cross into fir and cedar forests and mossy-green river valleys. Fire juxtaposes with ice, too, where snowy, glaciated peaks rise up from stark black lava fields. It’s a region of national significance — home to several endangered species, centuries-old pristine forest and noteworthy volcanic geology — that you can experience up close on a weekend road trip.

Sisters and Santiam Pass

Start the loop in Sisters, named for the Three Sisters — 10,000-foot volcanic peaks rising up to the southwest. Sisters has a charming Western ambience, with boxy 1800s-style architecture along its main street and storefronts filled with galleries, Western wear and antiques.

To travel the loop counterclockwise, follow the byway northwest on US-20/OR-126. Near the 6,436-foot cinder cone of Black Butte, a side road leads north to Camp Sherman. A cool spot along the spring-fed Metolius River, it’s been a favorite summer retreat since the homesteader days, when wheat farmers came to fish and escape the high-desert heat. A scenic viewpoint overlooks the Metolius headwaters, meadows and a grand view of Mt. Jefferson to the north.

Continuing on the byway, you’ll get a prominent look at Mt. Washington as the road climbs toward Santiam Pass. On the way, the road skirts the pretty sliver of Suttle Lake, carved by glaciers and popular for boating and fishing.

Santiam Pass takes its name from the Santiam Indians, a Kalapooian tribe native to the area. Several ashen buttes and other volcanic features are visible from the 4,817-foot pass. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail crosses here too, a particularly memorable stretch of the famous Canada-to-Mexico route, threading high among several volcanic peaks. This section of the road passes by mysterious Lost Lake, which fills up with water every spring and disappears in the fall down a hole into a lava tube. The byway descends the pass, then turns south on OR-126.

OR-126: The McKenzie River Highway

This stretch of the route showcases the beautiful peacock-blue waters of the Upper McKenzie, as the river tumbles south over waterfalls and through lava flows and here parallels the West Cascades Scenic Byway. The McKenzie River National Recreation Trail also follows the river’s route for more than 26 miles/41.8 kilometers, with several well-marked access points from the byway. Popular with hikers and mountain bikers alike, the trail was recently named by Outside magazine as one of its 10 Great American Mountain Biking Trails.

Fly-fishers, too, hold the McKenzie in high regard, casting dry flies for redband and rainbow trout. The McKenzie drift boat originated here — a dory with flared sides, a pointed stern, and a flat bottom with continuous rocker — specifically designed for maneuverability in rapids. Many area guides work the McKenzie and run its rapids in one of these time-tested boats.

Clear Lake is the headwaters of the McKenzie River, fed by numerous springs and formed when an ancient lava flow dammed the stream. A 5-mile/8-kilometer trail encircles the lake, but you can get a good view just by crossing a small footbridge or paddling in a canoe. The lake’s clarity is remarkable. A submerged 3,000-year-old forest — preserved by the cold waters — remains easily visible more than 100 feet below the surface.

Lava flows also created 6 Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls downstream, two beautiful cascades that you can see by hiking an easy 2.6-mile/4.1-kilometer loop trail. For non-hikers, Sahalie Falls can be viewed from the parking lot. The greatest volcanic oddity is farther downstream at the Tamolitch Pool, also listed on maps as “the Blue Pool.” Here the river reappears from a 3-mile/4.8-kilometer underground detour through a lava tube into a pool that is an impossibly iridescent blue.

OR-242: McKenzie Highway

Past Belknap Springs, the byway swings east onto OR-242, the McKenzie Highway. Snow closes this seasonal road each winter. Before it reopens to vehicles in June, road crews plow open one lane for nonmotorized recreation, making it a favorite spring cycling destination.

In 9 miles/14.4 kilometers, a 1.3-mile/ 2-kilometer trail leads through lava fields reclaimed by forest to Proxy Falls. The lovely two-part falls spills over mosses and ferns, its waters largely disappearing right back into the green-blanketed rocks. The byway then switchbacks steeply through an area known as Deadhorse Grade, climbing nearly 1,200 feet in just 4 miles/6.4 kilometers. You’ll be treated to more outstanding volcano views, this time of North Sister and Middle Sister. Double the view with a short side trip up to Scott Lake, which mirrors these ragged peaks.

The forest abruptly ends just shy of McKenzie Pass, replaced by an expanse of dark and broken lava that stretches for 65 square miles/104.6 square kilometers. It’s one of the most recent and most remarkable examples of volcanic activity in North America, the result of eruptions from Belknap Crater about 2,000 years ago. Learn more on the Lava River National Recreation Trail, a paved path through lava gutters and ridges. The Dee Wright Observatory — constructed of lava rock by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 — has viewing ports to see many surrounding Cascade peaks. Mt. Washington, just 5 miles/8 kilometers away, looks close enough to touch.

From here the route begins its descent, with one last overlook at Windy Point before reentering the forest and returning to Sisters.

related Trip Ideas

  1. Road Trip: Sisters

    an Oregon Story by Eileen Garvin on February 26th, 2015

    When you pull into the Old West town of Sisters, you’ll feel like you’re making a getaway. This friendly little outpost in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains draws visitors for its profound natural beauty as well as annual celebrations like…

  2. McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway

    an Oregon Story by Emily Forsha on May 29th, 2013

    If your idea of a weekend getaway is getting away with your bike, then the McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway is calling your name. Although the route is open all summer, for a few weeks each spring it’s only open to cyclists and enjoying the…

  3. Roadtrip: Redmond and Sisters

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  4. 10 Things to Do in Sisters

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    Sitting between the high desert and the spectacular Cascades mountain range, Sisters (pop. 2,174) is a little city with oversized character. Maybe best known for its Wild West ambiance, this Central Oregon community is also packed with culture and…

  5. Fishing and Boating the McKenzie River

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  7. An Adventurer’s Guide to Oregon: Mountain Biking Along the McKenzie

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    Twenty-six miles along one of Oregon’s most pristine rivers in one of Oregon’s most pristine forests, the McKenzie River Trail #3507 is home to some of the best mountain biking in the west. A variable trail with ancient lava beds, waterfalls…

  8. Ride the McKenzie River Trail

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  9. Capturing Oregon: Sunset on the Old McKenzie Highway

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    Living in Bend, one can easily take for granted the wonderful view of the Three Sisters Mountains to the west. As a photographer, I have had the pleasure of enjoying so many beautiful crimson-colored sunsets as the cloud layers build up over these…

  10. McKenzie River Drift Boat Trout

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Drive safely.

Keep in mind many of the routes listed here travel through remote areas where gas stations are few and far between. And since road and weather conditions can be hazardous, even into summer, we urge you to call 800-977-6368 or check Trip Check before starting out.

Share your thoughts Comments

Have something to say? Your Comment

  1. Howie Smith says…

    Am I missing something? I tried to learn how to arrive at the Blue Pool from Portland and if it exists on this website, I was unable to find it. Please tell me how to find it, via car, and walk.

    Written on February 28th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  2. Emily Forsha says…

    Here’s a Grant’s Getaway about the Blue Pool that includes helpful directions: http://traveloregon.com/trip-ideas/grants-getaways/tamolitch-the-blue-pool/

    Written on March 5th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  3. marcus says…

    I would like to see an elevation profile & water stops.

    One is nice and the other almost life and death.

    Thanks!

    Written on June 30th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
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