McKenzie Pass: Dee Wright Observatory


One of the high points of a beautiful drive along the McKenzie-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway is the devastated lava-flow area surrounding McKenzie Pass.  At the top of the pass, in the middle of all that jagged, igneous rock, you’ll find the Dee Wright Observatory, and a remarkable view out over an other-worldly landscape.

My Visit

My visit to McKenzie Pass was far from beautiful.  I had the misfortune of arriving at the pass during some particularly nasty, rainy, windy, cold weather.  Somehow, though, it seemed appropriate, given the harsh nature of the landscape.

I pulled into the parking lot at the Dee Wright Observatory, and tried to figure out what to do.  My windows were fogged, and a horizontal rain was beating on my car.  The gusts were so strong, I could barely open the door.  Did I really want to?  All that awaited me was a cold, damp run up to the rock-walled observation tower.  The weather was miserable, and I was not having fun.  Getting out would only make it worse.

But I did anyhow.  It was an unpleasant jog up to the tower, but I knew I’d get some shelter from the wind and rain, once inside.

The observation tower is built out of the same igneous rock that covers the surrounding area.  It’s a simple structure…

… with a handful of windows, which are supposed to help you identify the surrounding mountain peaks.  On this day, though, I couldn’t see any evidence of nearby mountains.

Larger passageways looked out on the wasteland of rocks.  I tried to find the most sheltered corner of the tower’s interior room, to avoid the wind, and attempt to warm up.

I’m sure the view is much more spectacular on a clear, blue day.  On this day, though, all you could see was the lava flow, which swept over the landscape sometime around 1,300 to 1,900 years ago.

Interesting facts: the Dee Wright Observatory was built during the Great Depression, and completed in 1935.  Dee Wright was the construction crew’s foreman, who died one year before the job was finished.

Once I regained feeling in my fingertips, I hid my camera under my rain jacket and made another run back to the car.  As you can see in the Drivelapse video below, the rest of the drive down to Sisters, Oregon was equally rainy.  It’s no wonder that this road closes each year, usually between November and July.  It’s too bad, though, because it would be remarkable to see the rolling fields of lava rock, buried in snow.

The Bottom Line

If the road is open (it closes during the winter and spring due to snow), Route 242 is an excellent scenic highway.  You’ll certainly want to stop at the Dee Wright Observatory at McKenzie Pass, unless the weather is unfavorable.


McKenzie Pass is located northwest of Bend, Oregon, on Oregon Highway 242.

The McKenzie-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway makes a loop, beginning at Sisters, Oregon, and traveling clockwise on Highway 242 over McKenzie Pass, then Highway 126 and US 20 over Santiam Pass.

On this trip, I took Oregon 22 east from Salem, then 126 south, then 242 east.

Drivelapse Video

Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Salem to Detroit Dam…

… Detroit Dam to Dee Wright Observatory…

… and McKenzie Pass on to Bend:

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