A Pair of Passes (McKenzie and Aufderheide)
Two of the best one-day rides in the state are so close together as to be almost connected, making for an epic two-day trip that features a distinct flavor each day. One day it’s the stark beauty of the McKenzie Pass–Santiam Pass Scenic Byway; the other day it’s the lush forest and rushing water of the Aufderheide Memorial Drive.
You can start this journey at either end and enjoy it equally; for this description we’ll start in Sisters. From this Old West tourist town, set out east on Highway 242, which is open seasonally, with majestic mountains on the horizon. (A strong hint: This road is navigable by bike long before it’s open to cars; check in at the local bike shop in Sisters, Eurosport, for current info.) After a few miles of gradual rise, the road turns right and the climbing starts. it’s about eight miles to the top, and along the way you’ll break out of the juniper-and-ponderosa forest into a moonscape of lava rock from three ancient eruptions of nearby volcanoes.
At the top there’s a lava-rock observatory specially built to frame 360 degrees of peaks visible from the apex of the pass. you’ll pedal through the surreal surroundings for several miles before descending into a different kind of forest on the western flank. Hairpin curves will wind you down to where the road connects to Highway 126 near Belknap Springs. There are multiple lodging and camping options as well as a store in McKenzie Bridge, a bit down the highway toward Eugene. You’re only riding about 45 miles today, but make sure to spend some time off the bike immersing yourself in the scenery.
On day two, you’ll be heading out on what has been called “the magic carpet ride.” From Highway 126, you’ll turn south near Rainbow on Forest Road 19 — the Aufderheide. This is a nearly symmetrical ride, halfway up and then halfway down. you’ll climb fairly gradually up to Cougar Reservoir, a serene lake tucked between forested slopes. Along the southwest side of the reservoir you’ll go by the turnoff to Terwilliger Hot Springs. For a few dollars you can stop in at this lightly regulated spring area that features several natural pools of different temperatures.
After the lake, you’ll start climbing more seriously, following the South Fork of the McKenzie River up to the crest. Here’s where the magic-carpet effect begins: even though you’re climbing, for much of the way the smooth rolling pavement is so sublime that you don’t notice the effort. Traffic is light, sunlight filters through the trees, and you hear the sounds of nature all around. After peaking at the top of the pass, your reward is the roller-coaster descent for roughly 30 miles into Oakridge, a former logging town turned into mountain-biking mecca. Don’t miss one of the finest covered bridges in the west at the junction to Westfir. Today’s mileage is roughly 65.
Seasons: Summer, Fall
Getting There: Start either in Sisters, on Highway 20 via Highways 126, 22 or 20; or in Oakridge, on Highway 58 east of Eugene.