Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cycling Mackenzie Pass

If there was ever any doubt that Oregon is a biking mecca, let them now be put to rest.

McKenzie Highway, AKA Highway 242
The McKenzie Highway is a lightly traveled route that connects Belknap Springs to Sisters. As it's largely redundant (there are several other highways that cover more or less the same ground), it's closed in the winter months and re-opened in mid-June.

But between the snow melt and the official re-opening for cars, a magical thing happens:
No cars!
Still no cars...
The road is opened for bikes only. Yesterday a couple friends and I let Portland at around 6:30 AM, arriving at the junction of 126 and 242 at around 9:00. The parking area was mostly empty, but quickly started to fill up, so we hit the road as quickly as possible.

The early part of the ride is actually not closed to cars, but traffic is minimal. After a short 11 mile jaunt you reach the gate, which is where the real magic begins.

Beyond this gate, the lane is yours.
We started from the West side of the pass, which in Oregon means that we climbed in the shade of large trees. The temperature was cool, perhaps high 50s, but with the climbing and the shade it was quite comfortable.

As you approach the top of the climb, the landscape changes dramatically, with open views of The Three Sisters, along with a bunch of other mountains I don't know the names of.

At the summit of the pass you are greeted with lava fields as far as you can see

There's an observatory of sorts as well, built into the rock
View from inside the observatory
The final elevation of 5325' represents a ~3500 foot gain over ~20 miles.

It's a nice steady grade, never exceeding 6%, so nothing to write home about. But of course a 3500 foot climb means a 3500 foot descent.

A funny thing happened on the way back. I was hammering along a long flat section at about 24MPH, feeling pretty good. Nobody's going to pass me here! And then a guy passes me. On a mountain bike. On knobby tires. Pulling a few fit young road-racers behind him. Once the road turned downward, I retook the lead.

Now I'm not going to brag about my descending, but it's generally pretty good. (wait, did I just brag?) However after the ~10 minute winding 2000 foot drop back down to the gate, mountain-bike-man was only about 45 seconds back, still pulling his posse. Remarkable. I don't know my pro-mountain-bikers from my pro-lacrosse-players, but given the close proximity to Bend I'm willing to bet that this guy was a pro.
Back to the gate
Anyway the ride back to the car was pleasant, and a good time was had by all. This route had all the elements of a perfect ride. Good company, perfect weather, beautiful scenery, pleasant climb and awesome descent, and no cars.


Max said...

Ohhh, that's unfair. Mountain road, no cars, cool dry air. Just when I'm reconciled to living east of the Rockies you throw this cycling sand in my face.

Any sport I've been on the fringes of, and the list is long, might justify a post bearing a title with the words "Oregon" and "Mecca". You really do have it all there.

Does the lightly traveled modifier mean the highway is a nice ride even when cars are on it?

sam said...

From what I have heard, yes. There's no shoulder, but what traffic there might be would be going slowly enough so that's not an issue. And it's windy enough that, on the way down, a bike can go faster than a car anyway.

Unknown said...

Between you and another friend of mine who just moved to East Bay, SF, I'm all envied up on the cycling front. Out our way, when roads are closed to cars, it usually means they have grades of 37% and were paved with hand grenades.