Take a trip along the southern section of the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass National Scenic Byway to the summit of the McKenzie Highway (Oregon 242) and you will find the Dee Wright Observatory settled atop vast, black lava flows. On the Cascade Range at 5,187 feet, this mountain observatory offers panoramic views of the Mount Washington and Three Sisters Wilderness areas.
As you make your way up to the observatory you will find interpretive panels with accounts of early travelers and area geology. Inside the observatory strategically placed windows frame the surrounding mountain peaks. On a clear day, you may even see Mt. Hood located a whopping 78.5 miles to the north. Continue up the stairs to the roof and you will discover a bronze peak finder with the names and elevations of the surrounding buttes and mountain peaks.
A Land Full of History
As you journey to the observatory take a moment to consider the history and beauty of the route. The McKenzie Highway has grown from a trail, to a wagon road, to an early automobile route, and finally to the present highway. The route became a state highway in 1917, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. The highway’s designers sought to harmonize built structures with the natural setting, and with this idea in mind the Dee Wright Observatory was created. The observatory was designed by William N. Parke, and constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Camp F-23 of Company 927, during the Great Depression. The circular tower was named as a memorial to Dee Wright, an employee of the Forest Service, a long-time packer, and Conservation Corps foreman. Since its completion in 1935, the observatory has been a favorite attraction for thousands of visitors each summer.
The east flank of the Cascade Range is a geologically young and complex volcanic region. Large composite and shield volcanoes line the crest of the Cascades, and hundreds of cinder cones dot the landscape. The Dee Wright Observatory is constructed on the lava flow which erupted from Yapoah Cone 2,600 to 2,900 years ago; this flow overlaps an earlier flow from the Little Belknap Crater. The basaltic lava found in the area is called A A lava (pronounced “Ah Ah”); and is characterized by its rough and jagged surface.
The Lava River Interpretive Trail
The accessible Lava River National Recreation Trail is next to the observatory, offers an unusual half-mile hike. This paved interpretive trail provides remarkable views of lava that flowed from the surrounding craters. Hike right through numerous lava formations, learning about the area’s geology from signs along the way.
- Amenities: Parking, garbage services, and restroom facilities.
- Operating Hours: The observatory itself does not shut down, but the McKenzie Highway is closed in winter (approximately November – July, snow dependent) restricting vehicle traffic. In early spring as the snow melts there is often a window of opportunity for non-motorized traffic to travel the McKenzie Highway. Many bicyclists take advantage of this opportunity, and head over the pass.
- Fees: None.
- Reservations: None.
- Think safety: The narrow and curvy McKenzie Highway is a high traffic area. Watch for bicyclists and other vehicles. The highway is also not suitable for trailers or long recreational vehicles. Volcanic terrain can be hazardous, please stay on designated trails. The open landscape provides no protection from the elements, so remember sun protection and stay hydrated.
- Accessibility: In 2003 the observatory was renovated to provide a number of accessible features including a paved trail that winds from the accessible parking area, to interpretive panels, through the lava, and to the observatory. The observatory itself is also accessible with the exception of the roof, which must be accessed by stairs. The nearby Lava River National Recreation Trail is accessible, but please note that even though trail is paved it is “most difficult” for wheelchairs due to steep grades (at 0-8%) with drop-offs. And, though the majority of the trail is accessible, be aware that there is a “hiker loop” at the back of the trail which is not barrier free. Make sure to bring your camera! Even if the mountains are obscured the scenery is still spectacular.
- A panoramic view across 65 square miles of black lava rock. You might even think it looks like a moonscape. In 1964 NASA conducted drills with astronauts in the lava as they prepared to travel to the moon!
- Mountains, mountains, and more mountains! If the snow has melted don’t forget to look for the glaciers on the Sisters Mountains. Collier (on the North Sister) is the largest glacier in Oregon.
- Life in the lava. Even in these harsh conditions you can find trees, a variety of lichens, and animals.
- Local and international visitors. You may also meet hikers traveling through the area on the famous Pacific Crest Trail.
44°15’37.97 N, 121°48’04.37W
From McKenzie Bridge, OR travel east on Hwy 126 for ~5 miles and take a right on Hwy 242. Continue on Hwy 242 for 22 miles to the Dee Wright Observatory.
From Sisters, OR travel west on Hwy 242 for 15 miles to the Dee Wright Observatory.
The observatory will be visible from the highway, and parking is immediately available.
The Willamette National Forest stretches for 110 miles along the western slopes of the Cascade Range in western Oregon. It extends from the Mt. Jefferson area east of Salem to the Calapooya Mountains northeast of Roseburg. The varied landscape of high mountains, narrow canyons, cascading streams, and wooded slopes offer excellent opportunities for visitors.
The boundaries of the two wilderness areas are approximately 66 feet on either side from the edge of the McKenzie Highway.
The Dee Wright Observatory is situated at the boundary between the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests.
The observatory was built as an open shelter/structure.