Looking like some medieval castle about to be attacked by dragons, the Dee Wright Observatory is located near the top of McKenzie Pass at an elevation of 5,187 feet. No, there is not a telescope set up here for star viewing, but you can see several Cascade Mountain peaks nearby standing tall amidst 65 square miles of black lava rock.
The lava is from relatively recent flows from Yapoah, Little Belknap, and Belknap Craters. One of the types of lava you will see here is called Block or A A lava.
Though there is little rainfall in this area, there can be up to 20 feet of snow. The melting snow travels through cracks in the lava to underground reservoirs that feed the McKenzie and Metolius Rivers.
History of Dee Wright Observatory
The McKenzie Pass Highway follows parts of the McKenzie Salt Springs and Deschutes Wagon Road that was built in the period of 1866-1872. It was used to move cattle east. The wagon road was established as a toll road in 1872. It’s hard to imagine how travelers made it over the rough lava rocks at the pass and many had to abandon their wagons. See my previous post on the Santiam Wagon Road for a little bit more history on the wagon road.
The Dee Wright Observatory building was completed in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This and other projects in the area, such as the Santiam Ski Lodge, employed many people in a time of economic hardship. Dee Wright supervised the crew but passed away a year before the observatory was completed. This site was named in honor of his 24 years of service with the Forest Service as an officer, guide, and packer.
There are large and small openings in the observatory that have labels indicating which mountains you are viewing. If you follow the staircase up to the top of the building, you will find a peak finder. Arrows pointing in various directions show the distance to different peaks with their respective elevations. You can see many peaks including the Sisters, Little Brother, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Black Butte, Cache Mountain, Dugout Butte, Condon Butte, Scott Mountain, South Belknap Cone, Belknap Crater, and Little Belknap.
If you want to take a short hike, the ½-mile long Lava River Recreation Trail is right next to the observatory. This accessible trail has informational panels that will teach you more about the site.
We drove the entire 82-mile loop of the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway. We started at Sisters and drove west along the winding byway. The two-lane road is only open for part of the year due to snow. If you go early in the day, you can avoid the traffic – motor vehicles and bicycles. Note that vehicles over 35 feet long are not allowed on this narrow, curvy road.
Flora & fauna
It’s an interesting drive because you pass through several types of habitat. East of the loop you will see drier sagebrush steppe habitats. As you travel around the loop, you will go through Ponderosa pine forests and subalpine forests. On the west side of the loop, you’ll travel through mixed conifer forest areas with high rainfall. Keep your eye out for interesting wildlife that live in the different habitats along the route.
You can see Clarks’s nutcrackers, gray jays, woodpeckers, crossbills, grosbeaks, rock wrens, Northern goshawks, and grouse in forested areas near McKenzie Pass and several types of ducks and sandpipers at nearby Scott Lake and Hand Lake. There are also deer, elk, and many other mammals here.
Belknap Springs, located 23 miles west of McKenzie Pass, is 3,625 feet lower in elevation. If you coast most of the way down like we did, look at the gas mileage you can get! Ours went all the way up to 99.6 mpg. It’s a fun drive with a lot to see.