News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

McKenzie Highway is not open

While ODOT has finished its plowing operations on the east side of McKenzie Pass, the road is not open — to anyone — and won’t be until mid-June.

The status of the roadway from the eastern snow gate to the summit has been a point of confusion and contention for several years.

ODOT plows a single lane through the snow on the road during the spring, and then lets snowmelt do the rest. Once the snow is melted off, work crews sweep the roadway to clear debris, dirt and gravel, and patch potholes created over the winter. Opening of the highway used to be arbitrary — the gate was opened whenever the work was done. For the past several years, the agency has determined upon a consistent third-Monday-in-June opening.

During the plowing and maintenance period, the roadway is closed to traffic. However, cyclists and walkers go around the gate to use the roadway and public perception has grown that the road is open for cyclists — car-free. That perception has been promoted extensively in the past and again recently in local media — and ODOT Region 4 Director Gary Farnsworth really wants it corrected.

“It’s not open,” he told The Nugget. “The sign says ‘Road Closed.’”

Farnsworth noted in an email communication to a couple of Sisters residents last weekend, “as of last week or so we have removed the ‘authorized personnel only’ sign, because we have not been conducting any operations, which was the exact purpose of the sign. If and when we need to conduct additional operations, we will post the signing again.”

The main issue is safety; the road is not maintained for cyclists. And with COVID-19 restrictions in place, Farnsworth feels an even greater sense of urgency that the roadway not be used.

“For everyone’s safety ODOT does not want folks wandering up past the gate while they’re working there, especially if they have a sign posted ‘authorized personnel only,’” he said. “And for everyone’s wellness in potential use of the route, ODOT is concerned about the ability for folks to practice social distancing in general.”

In his e-mail and a subsequent conversation with The Nugget, Farnsworth acknowledged that there will inevitably be use of the road, regardless of closure gates and signage.

“At the same time, and while the gates are closed into mid-June, we recognize that many people will continue to make their own choices traveling by other than car or truck or RV, and are able to get around or over the gates to use the section of highway beyond those gates,” he said. “We (ODOT Region 4) do not conduct enforcement of the closure other than the gating, and we do not expect other organizations (such as USFS or law enforcement) to conduct enforcement. Therefore, such users of the roadway are entering at their own risk.”

Farnsworth told The Nugget that he plans to continue to press for a wider understanding that the road is not open to cycling prior to the mid-June opening.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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