Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Room With a View: Dee Wright Observatory

"The most beautiful view is the one I share with you." - Author Unknown

So, if you have read my blog much, you know my family rarely takes the most direct route anywhere. Therefore, we opted to detour and follow McKenzie Pass (Oregon Route 242) on our journey back towards the valley rather than the quick route home over Mount Hood. 

McKenzie Pass, which follows the path of an 1860s wagon route, features the highest concentration of snowcapped volcanic peaks (and associated glaciers) in the lower 48 states, making for an incredibly beautiful drive. Due to snow and ice, the road is only open seasonally, generally July to October. Depending on weather conditions (either early snowfall or late snowmelt in the high country) this timeframe may vary. So, if you are determined to go explore this scenic byway for yourself, make sure to check current conditions before heading out. 

The road was narrow and winding. While we were well under the maximum length limitation in the RV (the maximum vehicle length for this road is 30 feet and the RV was 25 feet long), I would not recommend this road for any large vehicle. There were times we were almost too wide to fit comfortably in our lane, and there was some white knuckle driving my husband had to endure. Was it worth it? Of course! Would we do it again in an RV? Probably not.

My husband enjoying the view along the highway

After a drive through the Deschutes National Forest, we were suddenly presented with a stark and barren landscape as the road starts traversing a 65 square mile lava flow. If it were not for a still snow capped Mount Washington in the distance, we might have thought that someone had suddenly dropped us into something right out of a National Geographic special about Kilauea and the island of Hawaii. The road appears to be literally chiseled into the lava bed. I can’t imagine how daunting early settlers in their wagons must have found this landscape, and as they reached this point on the wagon trail probably wondered what in the world they were thinking.

Mount Washington across the lava field

I have heard mention of Dee Wright Observatory in the past, but rarely paid much attention. Hearing the word "observatory," I had imagined a rather generic-looking structure with nothing especially unique or exciting about it. In fact, I had never even taken the time to Google it. I figured that if I happened to make it that way someday so be it, but it was by all means not worth a special trip. I was about to find out just how wrong it is for a person to make assumptions.

As you reach the summit of McKenzie Pass, there it stands, looking something like a cross between a medieval castle and a strange geologic formation as it rises from the volcanic rock. I sat there in my seat, half in wonder, half in surprise. I could not get my seatbelt off fast enough so I could get outside and see just what in the world this place really was.

Dee Wright Observatory via my iPhone and Instagram

Throughout this particular journey, the ongoing debate has been “What mountain peak is that?” as Central Oregon seems to be littered with the things. As official expedition navigator (i.e. holder of the map) I had a pretty good idea of what was what, but still, without someone actually pointing them out to me, it can sometimes be a little hard to discern (or it could be I am just a little bit map illiterate). This place was quite literally the answer to all of our questions.

Built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Core and named for the project foreman, Dee Wright Observatory sits in the shadows of North and Middle Sisters and has panoramic views of the Cascades, stretching as far north as Mount Hood on a clear day. On the roof of the structure is a bronze “mountain finder”, pointing out the peaks and other geologic features in the area. However, the inside of the building offers something a little more unique. 

North and Middle Sisters through the Lava Tube

Small windows were marked by well worn plaques, mimicking lava tubes open to almost telescopic views of each mountain. Finally, we had a definitive answer to the journey long question: “Which mountain is that?” There was no room for debate or interpretation. When you gazed out the opening in the rock wall, you knew EXACTLY which mountain or butte you were viewing.

After enjoying dinner in the RV with what can only be described as a billion dollar view, we reluctantly headed down the other side of the pass, our sunlight rapidly fading. We traveled out of the desolate landscape of the lava field, into a rich and lush forest. I remarked to my husband, Jon, I wasn’t so much worried about a deer jumping out in front of us as a unicorn popping out from behind a tree. It was so beautiful it had to have been taken straight out of a fairy tale.

The sun finally disappeared behind the trees and we traveled home along the dark highway, certain we were missing some beautiful photo opportunities. We finally arrived home, an extra 70 miles or so added to the trip, a little road weary and looking forward to a night of rest in our own beds. 

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  1. I love this road. I posted your blog on my FB page Go Oregon Now. Check it out: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Go-Oregon-Now/232578963434835

  2. wow that mt washington photo looks like an orca! neat