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home : columns : columns November 24, 2015

3/26/2013 12:55:00 PM
Skiing the McKenzie Highway
Belknap Crater is seen here from the Windy Point viewpoint on the snow-covered McKenzie Highway. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
Belknap Crater is seen here from the Windy Point viewpoint on the

snow-covered McKenzie Highway. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis

Because of my personal plans, I knew I would be unable to take part in the John Craig Memorial ski event, which was scheduled over last weekend. Still, it seemed like an interesting idea; so, I decided to take a run up there anyway. Prior to that time, skiing on a road that I've driven many times before hadn't been real high on my to-do list; but I'm glad that I took the time to do it.

When my friend and I decided to make the trek, we were unable to drive within about a mile of the snow gate because of snow on the road. So, we parked down on the flats and hoofed it to a place where the snow more or less fully covered the road. Because of the extra distance involved in just getting to the gate, we decided (or, at least, I did) that a trip all the way to the Dee Wright Observatory at the summit was out of the question.

I don't think that my companion necessarily fully bought into my assessment of the maximum distance to be covered that day; but, nevertheless, she cheerfully acquiesced. It seemed to me that reaching Windy Point was a reasonable goal, so I set out with that idea in mind. Given our starting point, that would make for about a nine-mile round trip.

On the day of our excursion, we saw only a single snowshoer from Redmond; although it was apparent that another skier had been in and out before we even started. The tracks were there in the snow to tell the story; we can also reliably report that the early-bird skier had been accompanied by a large dog.

The long slog uphill turned out to be not really as steep as I remembered, and the slow speed of advance made the trip seem much more like a walk in the woods than it does in a motor vehicle. At the lowest elevations, we encountered a few short patches of bare pavement but were able to find enough snow to prevent us from having to remove our skis.

After passing the snow gate, the next landmark of note was the "Cross District" snowmobile trail that runs from the McKenzie Pass area all the way north to Ray Benson Sno-Park at Santiam Pass. The sign said the distance at that point is 15 miles.

As our adventure continued, my friend tried to be encouraging by (repeatedly) saying, "Windy Point should be just around the next corner." After about a dozen or so "next corners," a road sign came into view that actually said "View Point Ahead." By that time, I was already fantasizing about what I assumed would be a much easier downhill run on the way back.

When we finally arrived at Windy Point, I was surprised to see that the exposed curve in the highway was completely bare for about 100 yards in that vicinity. Then I thought, "Oh yeah, it's windy here." The wind had swept the road almost completely clear of snow, and the snow we had been skiing on at point was several feet deep.

Even if we didn't make it to the summit, I was happy to have covered the 4.5 miles that we did. It was quite impressive to see the black McKenzie lava fields covered with the white of drifting snow. We found a spot that was kind of in the lee of the wind and snacked on the lunches that we packed in. I took a few pictures, and soon we were on our way back down.

Not being a big fan of downhill runs on cross-country skis, I was slightly apprehensive  about the return trip.

As it turned out, the snow conditions were pretty slow that day; and worries about runaway speeds were unwarranted. Never having skied long distances downhill, however, what surprised me most was the fact that the long 4.5-mile downhill run was a lot more work than I expected.

At the end of the day, we had covered nine miles and a thousand feet of elevation, so it was a significant outing.

The McKenzie Pass snow gate is located 11 miles west of town on the McKenzie Highway (242). Whether or not there is vehicle access all the way to the gate will depend on the daily snow conditions.

As spring progresses, more bare spots are likely to open up along the roadway, making a ski transit of the road much more difficult. Last year the highway remained closed until June 21. The earliest recorded opening of the highway was on March 21, 1934. The latest opening was on July 29, 1999.

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