Frequently described as the most spectacular bike ride in all of Central Oregon...and it delivers! Once you reach the upper elevations, you have views of the Three Sisters to the south and views of Mt. Washington & Mt. Jefferson to the north. At the top of the pass is the Dee Wright Observatory, which is built out of lava rock and provides 360 degree views of all the nearby peaks. On the bottom level of the observatory there are special windows built into the structure that frame the nearby peaks. It’s well worth the stop.
How hard is it to reach that point though? From the West, you climb from Belknap Hot Springs at 1700' feet all the way to the summit at 5325' in just under 25 miles, which comes to a gain of 3,625 feet. The grade is rarely punishing but the uphill is nearly constant for the first 20 miles. From the East, you leave Sisters at 3200' feet and go up to the summit in just around 15 miles–a gain of 2,125 feet.
Oh, and here's the best part. The pass is only open to vehicular traffic in the summer and autumn, but the route is often clear of snow and navigable well before it opens up to cars in June–meaning bicyclists can enjoy the route traffic free for a number of weeks in late spring. The owner of Crank Bicycles informed me that he has done this route even with it open to cars and finds it still worthwhile.
GUIDEBOOKS & MAPS
May - October, car-free until mid-June in a normal year. Use Oregon Trip Check to see if the snowgates on Highway 242 (McKenzie Pass Scenic Byway) are open to vehicles.
There are multiple ways to do this trip. If you are chomping at the bit for a single day bike ride with nearly 80 miles of distance and 6300' of elevation gain, then I highly suggest that you start and end at Belknap Hot Springs. They have affordable camping available with bathrooms, showers, a beautiful garden area, and of course the hot springs pool, which is amazing after a hard day of biking.
If you want to do it in two days, then you can either start at Sisters, Oregon or Belknap Hot Springs with a night at the opposite end. Be forewarned that on weekends, Belknap requires a two night reservation. Alternatively, there are campgrounds on either side of the pass. The ones closest to the ends are Cold Springs Campground (4 miles west of Sisters) and Limberlost Campground (5 miles east of McKenzie Bridge). Both can be reserved via Recreation.gov.
Out and back is also an option. Many groups and families will start at Sisters and bike up to the pass, have a long break at the observatory's parking area, and then zoom back to Sisters. The route up from Belknap Hot Springs (or one of the parking areas along the way up), is longer and steeper but you are traveling through a cool Cascadian forest, which slightly offsets the difficulty of the climb.
Whichever route you follow, you are on Highway 242 the entire way so there is no getting lost. Make sure to pack a bike tool, patch kit, pump, and plenty of food and water. The pass has no running water and if the road is closed to vehicles, any flat or bike problem could mean a long walk. Also, there is frequently still debris on the road before it opens to cars. Gravel, downed tree limbs, and even snow will exist. While descending the winding roads, it behooves you to take it a bit slower than normal.