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ORbike’s Guide to Biking McKenzie Pass

RIDE OVERVIEW

Follow the path of an 1860s wagon route and get ready to climb. McKenzie Pass is a special region of Oregon that, due to extreme snowfall and narrow winding climbs, is only open a few months out of the year. At the beginning of the season, ODOT plows the road and opens it exclusively for non-motorized traffic. The smooth, clear pass is now available to bikers likely until June 16 – so get out there while you can.

McKenzie Pass travels between two federal wilderness areas. At the top, an observation tower provides an incredible view of rugged, charcoal black lava as far as the eye can see and six Cascade peaks.

Begin your ride in either McKenzie Bridge on the west side or Sisters on the east side. You can drive up to the snow gates, park and ride from there. The climb up from the west gate is approximately 11 miles and 1,900 feet of elevation with tons of switchbacks. From the east, you’ll cover eight miles and 1,700 feet of elevation. Read below for additional info.

Driving McKenzie Pass is breathtaking, but biking on the quiet, traffic free road is even more magical. Check out our complete guide to trip options and plan your adventure now, before it’s too late. The weather has been lovely and I speculate there’s a chance ODOT will open the road sooner.

SUGGESTED SHORT TRIP ROUTE

2 days of travel, 1 day of biking
15.5 miles of climbing, 3,000 ft of elevation gain and grades of 1-6%. 15.5 miles of nearly pure downhill.

Mandatory step one: Have your bike looked at and ensure your brakes are in EXCELLENT condition and not squeaking.

CAMP DAY 1 Drive to McKenzie Bridge and camp at the amazing Paradise Campground which lives up to its name. I’ll tell you that much, but I’m not revealing my coveted favorite site within the park (there are plenty of good ones). Enjoy the drive there, relax into camp, and get a good night’s sleep.

CLIMB DAY 2 In the morning, eat a healthy, protein-rich breakfast, prepare your lunch, pack up camp, fill your water bottles in the campground (good water) and hit the road. If you didn’t make coffee in camp, head west a few miles out of camp to the espresso joint in McKenzie Bridge (north side of the street). Enjoy your coffee as you head back east on Hwy 126 and veer off for McKenzie Pass.

PARK AT WHITE BRANCH Drive to White Branch Youth Camp, about 6.4 mile in. There’s a huge gravel area outside of the camp entrance and few people park there. There are no amenities. You’ll see snow gates, but these ones are not THE gates.

From here you’ll have about a 4.5 mile significant climb with extremely light traffic to the snow gates where there’s a restroom and an additional parking area. I don’t recommend parking here as the climb up isn’t as… er… rewarding.

RIDING BLISS Haul your bike over the gates and prepare yourself for car-free riding bliss in a lush, serene forested area. You’ll snake along many switch backs as you climb up to the summit and the observation tower. Don’t be shy about taking breaks to rest, drink your water and maybe have a snack. There are plenty of cool sights along the way so take pictures and enjoy the ride. The summit is an excellent lunch break spot and you’re likely to meet other friendly riders there.

THE DESCENT When you’re ready, turn around and cruise back down. The descent is intense and the switchbacks can be misleadingly sharp, so take it easy because there’s no guardrail to stop you from going over the edge. Don’t be shy about taking breaks on the descent – it can be rather intense on your upper body and quite a mental game.

POST RIDE Back at the parking spot, high five your friends or yourself and head into town for a well-deserved burger. If you’re headed home via Hwy 126, I recommend McKenzie Deli Stagecoach just outside of Springfield around mile marker 10. The service is a little discombobulated but the burgers are perfectly done and a burger and (mediocre) fries will somehow only run you $4. Maybe they mischarged me.

AMENITIES

McKenzie Bridge has a couple restaurants, including Takoda’s which stays open until around 8:30pm (call). There is a small market, a coffee shop and gas. Not much else, but that’s hopefully all you need. I recommend spending a little cash in McKenzie Bridge as it’s always a good idea to support the small towns we visit on our adventures.

CHALLENGE ROUTE

24 miles of flats and climbing, 4,110 ft of elevation gain and grades of 1-6%. 20 miles of nearly pure downhill.

You can extend your route with additional mileage and climbing by parking at the Ranger Station along Hwy 126 (south side of the street, between Paradise Campground and the actual McKenzie Bridge).

UP AND OVER

THERE: 15.5 miles of climbing, 3,000 ft of elevation gain and grades of 1-6%.

BACK: If you start from the gate (hitch a ride?) 8 miles of climbing, 1,700 feet of elevation gain and grades of 1-4% (approx). Otherwise, it depends on your start point out of Sisters.

2-3 days of travel, 2 days of biking (though hardcore riders will do this all in one day with no overnight in Sisters).
Drive to McKenzie Bridge. Pack light overnight gear (more if you’re camping) and lunch. Park at White Branch (we have not verified you can park there overnight or more). Bike to the top for lunch. Bike down the east side to Sisters.

Spend the night in Sisters. There’s a camping park in town and plenty of accommodations – but book ahead to play it safe.Oregon State campground in Tumalo is the other closest camping spot.

Either rest for a day to enjoy Sisters or hit the pass again the next day.

GETTING THERE

From Salem, PDX, Vancouver, etc, take I-5 to the 194A Springfield exit and hop on Hwy 126 headed east to McKenzie Bridge, which is 160 miles from Portland. Give yourself ample time; Hwy 126 is scenic and travels along the gorgeous McKenzie River.

ALTERNATE RETURN
If you live northeast of the pass, consider a drive up Hwy 126 north to 20 (Santiam Hwy) and through Sweet Home for a different route back home. This equally scenic route makes for a great drive without adding much time to your journey.

WHEN TO GO

McKenzie Pass opens to exclusively to non-motorized traffic in May every year. You can sign up for pass opening alerts from ODOT here and get more info here. For the most striking experience, go right when the route opens and the snow is highest. The route is usually restricted for only a month, so jump on the opportunity while you can. The pass is open to cars for only about three months of the year.

PREPARE FOR YOUR TRIP

BRING

  • 2 water bottles – there is no water along McKenzie Pass but you can refill at the top with snow!
  • If you’re going on a day that’s under 65 degrees in McKenzie Bridge (check weather), bring light gloves and long sleeves for the downhill – it can get chilly
  • Sunscreen – you’ll be in and out of the shade at high elevation
  • Camera – it’s gorgeous
  • Lunch for the top, maybe a snack for the climb.

WEAR
It’s your preference. I climbed on a delightfully warm day and wore bike shorts (no padding), stretchy skirt, sleeveless cotton top, bike shoes, no bike gloves and was perfectly fine.

PREP

  • Check your bike, especially your brakes. The downhill is nearly 30 minutes of sustained descent with tricky switchbacks. Be safe!
  • Air up your tires to max pressure – you’ll thank yourself as you trudge along.
  • The ride is taxing on your upper body – so strengthen beforehand as much as you can.
  • If you haven’t ridden much for the year, ensure your legs are limber and your hips are loose. Try some yoga hip opening poses for the week leading up to the ride and practice some hill climbs – but rest the day before you plan to ride McKenzie Pass.
  • There is no cell reception or water along McKenzie Pass.
  • If you’re riding with others, you might not want to stick together unless you have the same riding pace. On a sustained climb, it can be rewarding to get into your own groove and not worry about others. There are generally plenty of riders on the road so someone will always come by in case of emergency.

TIPS

  • Don’t count the miles, just plod along. There are few flats, so just keep grinding up like you’ll be doing it all day. When you see the sign indicating you’re two miles from the observatory (the top), go all out and have a strong finish.
  • Take generous rests as you need them, but try to not walk your bike. If you do walk, there’s no shame in that; getting to the top is what counts.
  • The ride is gorgeous – take photo breaks and enjoy it.
  • Keep your core steady, avoid pushing down hard with your legs. Instead, climb with your hips and glutes (butt muscles).
  • Use about 85% of your gears but save the rest for when you really need them, which will be a nice respite when you most need it, especially if you’re not used to sustained hill climbs.
  • Stand periodically for a saddle break and to work different leg muscles.
  • Be sure to switch up your hand position regularly. Relax your upper body and don’t grip your handlebars or push with your arms.
  • Total time varies greatly by rider. It took me 2.5 hours up with generous photo/resting breaks and about half hour down with reasonable descent speed (I’m no daredevil). This is an average to slow pace.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Travel Oregon’s Ride Oregon info >>
ODOT website >>
Ride reviews and suggestions on BikePortland >>

VIEW PHOTOS

View a brief photo set here >>

GROUP RIDE

Check out this group weekend ride, organized by the very experienced riders of NW Rideabouts, as listed on the ORbike calendar.
McKenzie Pass Ride – 6/1-6/2 (Sisters)

YOUR RIDE EXPERIENCE

Have you ridden McKenzie Pass? Share your experience below.

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Comments
3 Responses to “ORbike’s Guide to Biking McKenzie Pass”
  1. brandonal says:

    I think you answered all my questions – and I had a lot of them. It seems like there could be a bunch of different ways to go about this ride and you have some good suggestions here. I hope to get this ride accomplished this year.

  2. Glenn says:

    Great article – it’s certainly a great drive so I’m sure an awesome cycle – but 2 corrections:

    Cheers.

  3. Chris says:

    We do shuttles for the McKenzie Pass 541-844-5990
    This is a fantastic ride. Start in sisters for a shorter/easier climb. Leave your car at end of ride and we can take you to the start in Sisters. Other custom shuttles are available.

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