Friday, October 19, 2018

Upper McKenzie River/McKenzie Pass Guide

I promised a friend I would write up a self-guided tour of the area described in the title before this weekend, and if I'm going to get it done, it needs to be now. I don't have mileages, but I can post links that have lat/lon details embedded, and satellite imagery. Oh, and photos, of course. Oh, and links to old posts (maybe).

Before starting: Advice
  • Gas up before you leave Sweet Home (probably cheapest here or out at I-5). There's no gas for most of the trip until near the end.
  • Take food. There's a mom and pop burger joint at Clear Lake Resort, but it may be seasonal; I'm not certain it's open at this point.
  • Take layers and a windbreaker. It'll be a lot chillier at Pass levels, and it's often quite windy, so even if you don't need it, be ready to warm up.
  • I just checked: McKenzie Pass appears to still be open, which I expected, but for future reference, it's often closed at this point. It generally doesn't reopen until sometime in July.
Let's start with the Rte 34 crossing over I-5 as a beginning. Continue east through Lebanon, where 34 is rejoined by Rte 20, then on through Sweet Home. Stay on 20 until you come to McKenzie Junction. From I-5, I'm guessing this is a bit more than an hour, maybe 1:15 or thereabout. At the Junction with 126, there's a good pullout just after the turn. (Crosshairs on pullout here.) Walk back up the grade, west, along 20- there's a wide berm, and a great view of Three Fingered Jack.
Also, at this time of year, the vine maples are flaming red. Very evocative on the recent lava flow.
Speaking of lava flows, this is the first of many recent ones you'll see today. On the drive up from Sweet Home, you've been traveling through Western Cascades Volcanic rocks, which range in age from about 35 million to 5 million years old. Coming down this hill, you crossed from Western Cascades to High Cascades volcanics, which started about 5 million years ago, and continue to present. If I recall correctly, this flow is one of several from the Sand Mountain chain of cinder cones, at about 3000 years ago. More info here.

Head south on 126 to the Fish Lake parking area. Most of the year, this location is a meadow, but during late winter and spring melt and runoff, it fills with water and a native trout that resides in the creek most of the time occupies the lake. As it dries during the summer, they return to the creek. An interpretive sign describes their situation: apparently, they're reproductively isolated, and seem to be in the process of speciation- though that's my inference, and not explicitly stated on the sign.
Continue south, watching for signs to the Clear Lake Resort- it's a turn to the left, and always comes sooner than I expect.
A different lava flow than we saw at the junction blocked the McKenzie River about 3000 years ago. Most of the time, except for occasionally during peak melt-off, the lake is entirely spring fed, with no surface streams running into it. Nevertheless, the McKenzie River drains out of it, full-blown. There's a river's worth of springs under this lake! Also, you can see the trunks of trees drowned when they were inundated 3000 years ago!
Also, weird illusions... is this boat *in* the lake, or floating a few feet above it?
There are something like 18 lakes with the same name in Oregon, but to my mind, there's only one "Clear Lake." Note the drive in and out of the resort is south to north, so you passed the exit getting here, and you'll pass the entrance again once you leave. You have my permission to drive back through again. I mean, who could blame you? Continue south, and turn off (right) in a couple miles to Sahalie Falls.
According to the person who did her doctoral dissertation on the hydrology of this area, little or no water is added to the flow between here and Clear Lake, so this is a dramatic demonstration of just how much spring water flows into the lake.

Continue a few miles south to the Koosah Falls turn off, then drive in a ways to park. This is a frustratingly difficult waterfall to get a good view of, but there is a view area along the southern loop of the footpath.
You can also see the brink from a viewpoint there, but you can't really see the falls themselves. The really interesting thing is all the springs coming out of the walls in the lower gorge.
Continue south on 126 to the junction with McKenzie Highway, 242, and turn east (left). This looks like it's about 14 or 15 miles from Koosah Falls. Head east on 242 to Proxy falls, and park in the pullout on the left. There's a nice ~1 mile loop trail to Lower and upper Proxy Falls. The lower falls are quite spectacular.
The upper falls aren't as grand, but they *do* offer a nice analogy for all the weird water goings-on in this area: They originate as springs above the cliff, fall over it, and the plunge pool sinks right back into the ground. I don't think this "stream" even has a name; it's only a few hundred feet long. Incidentally, this lava flow is from Collier Cone, up near the North Sister, and at only 1600 years old, is the youngest lava flow you'll see today.
Continue the loop back to your vehicle, then continue driving east. You're heading up a glacial valley that was incised into the High Cascades during the last ice age, and the road switches back and forth to climb up the headwall of that valley's cirque. It gets... hairy. Take it slow and easy- the road's in good shape, it's just kinda scary. You can see why they don't maintain it for winter travel, though.

When you come out on top of the plateau, the road straightens out, the trees are much more sparse, and the views open up. This is from the edge of the first lava flow you encounter on the roadside after you're up on the plateau.
It may not look like anything special, but this young volcanic landscape is why there are so many springs: hundreds of inches of snow fall up here every winter. When that snow melts, all the water just runs into the ground, then re-emerges as springs along the Upper McKenzie River. The almost entirely spring-fed nature of that section is also why the water quality is so stunningly high. Continue east toward McKenzie Pass. There are several pull-outs on the right, with nice views of the Sisters.

Then comes McKenzie Pass and the Dee Wright Observatory. This spot is an Oregon Gem, but I'm always surprised how few know of it.
The lower story is enclosed, and each of the windows faces toward a particular volcano. The labels under the windows aren't easy to read in some cases. But the upper story is open, and has a compass rose point out many visible peaks. If you have time and interest the trail out onto the flow has quite a few informative signs.

This is more or less the end, but you have a couple of choices here. First, continue east to Sisters, then Head back to Corvallis over 20 and Santiam Pass- more scenic, but longer. Second, you can turn around and head back on 242 to 126, then follow 126 to Eugene/Springfield, then take I-5 back north to 34. Shorter and quicker, but less scenic. Hope this was fun! Below, geologists in their preferred habitat.