Gateway to the Cascades ~ Sisters, OR

You know you’re in for a special treat when the view that greets you as you approach town is an impressive skyline of snow-capped peaks.   Welcome to Sisters, where the town’s namesakes, North, South, and Middle Sister Peaks, all towering over 10,000 feet, grace the horizon, literally rising out of her backyard.   Complimenting this imposing panorama are Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, Broken Top, and Three-Fingered Jack, quite a sight to behold.

As Oregon’s highways better developed, Sisters became known as the Gateway to the Cascades. She has retained her Old West flair while having a healthy tourist side, sporting specialty shops, antique stores, galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants.  Our favorite store was Jeffrey Murray Fine Art Photography. His landscape photography drew us in and we learned after visiting with Jeffrey that many of the photos in his gallery were taken during his 5-year sojourn as a full-time RVer. This talented young artist now calls Bend home. You can check out his artistry here.

Since we began our summer travels on May 1st, I have marveled at the places we have been able to squeeze our little Fox into, roads we have traveled, and stops we have made that we would not have attempted with our 5th-wheel. But there are places that even a truck camper should not venture, as we learned during our time in Sisters.

We planned to hike Black Butte and our home was coming with us so decent forest service roads to the trailhead were a must. After only one mile of a 5-mile drive, having been sufficiently bounced around by potholes and constant washboard surface, we reluctantly turned around and moved to Plan B, which became the 82-mile loop drive from Sisters, the McKenzie-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway.  It sounded wonderful, and it was, with a few little twists and turns. 😉

The initial phase of our drive took us to two beautiful “classic” Oregon Cascade waterfalls, via an easy 2.5-mile hike. The McKenzie River plunges over Sahalie Falls in an angry torrent, twists down a boulder-strewn canyon before once again throwing herself off the Koosah Falls cliff. Both falls are breathtaking and have been used in scenes for several movies.

We continued east onto Highway 242 and soon saw signs strongly advising against continuing over McKenzie Pass in vehicles longer than 35 feet.  Terry hesitated, but being well within the limit we chose to carry on, and this is where things got rather interesting.

The road began to narrow, with several sharp turns, but before too long we arrived at our next stop, Proxy Falls. An easy 1.25-mile hike took us to the base of one of the most photographed spots in Oregon. This spectacular waterfall is nestled in a deep, heavily shadowed forest that seemed to evoke ancient myth. Many photos later we continued our slow crawl up the mountain.

The road leading up to McKenzie Pass continued to narrow, with no shoulders and hairpin turns so tight the road seemed to nearly fold back on itself in many places. Vertical rock formations edging the road added to the thrill.  At one point a cyclist came flying down from the opposite direction, barely missing our bumper.  If that wasn’t exciting enough (and it was), moments later a skateboarder, sans helmet, propelled himself down and around a turn, with a car right on his backside. Did I mention there are few guard rails on this road?

You can imagine our relief when we saw the sign for the pass, our final planned stop. On this windswept site sits Dee Wright Observatory, which offers a sweeping panorama of the Cascades and the lava flows that dominate the pass.

The remaining drive back to Sisters was uneventful. Needless to say, our second hiking choice along Highway 242, Black Crater, was crossed off the list as well. Scenic or not, we would not be venturing up that road again.

When we settled into our campsite, Terry pulled out his Mountain Directory book to read their interpretation of McKenzie Pass.  “The “highway” on the west side of this pass is so narrow that in many places a regular-sized vehicle, such as a pickup or van, will be over the center line….A small motorhome might make it over this pass, but there is risk of damage”. This stretch of highway was aptly named Deadhorse Grade.

The hike we finally chose was more sedate than our drive, but no less thrilling, the Tam McArthur Rim trail. This 5-5-mile out-and-back hike, with 2400’ elevation gain, provided lovely views of Three Creek Lake and ended at the base of Broken Top Mountain. The vistas at the top were magnificent.

Our Sisters’ visit, like many, seemed far too short.  We would love to stop back in the fall sometime for the nationally renowned Folk Festival. We hear it is an event not to be missed.

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50 thoughts on “Gateway to the Cascades ~ Sisters, OR

  • How spectacular — and thrilling! Your photos are wonderful. I was wondering while reading your post if we would be okay traveling the same roads with our Tundra — but now I’m thinking perhaps not. Maybe we should do it on a skateboard! 🙂 We bought tickets for the Sisters Folk Festival several months ago and are looking forward to the music and exploring the area. Thanks for the great hiking tips!

    • Thanks Laurel! We would not attempt to take Hwy 242 with any rig ever again, nor with our dually. If it is not too busy, I would say the Tundra may be fine, but there are so many hairpin turns where people don’t stay in their lanes (if they can), I would be skeptical. If you want to go to McKenzie Pass I would recommend doing it from the opposite direction out of Sisters. The road is less narrow and straight. And if you are adventuresome enough to try it on a skateboard, please get Eric to take photos, and then post about it, ok? Lucky you to be going to the Folk Festival. Sounds like a fabulous event. 🙂

  • What a fun and exciting adventure…. probably a little more white knuckle driving than either one of you planned but exhilarating non the less. The area looks beautiful and you did a wonderful job of capturing it.
    I visited Jeffery’s website. A talented and gifted young man. It might be enlightening attending one of his workshops.

    • I know you two are adventuresome when it comes to mountain passes, but we have never been on such a narrow stretch of road before, with such tight turns and so much vertical rock right next to the road…never again! Jeffrey was so warm and engaging and it was so neat to know that his full-time adventures rewarded him with a vast portfolio of photos for his two galleries.

  • Those waterfalls got my attention! So glad you can get to these very difficult places with your camper. How fun and exciting all in one.
    FABULOUS PICTURES!

  • What an exciting adventure you found! Just a few years off your life, no big deal:) The falls are just spectacular! It’s nice to see so much water flowing. I love the turquoise water of the “little” lake way down below!!! Now that was a workout! To climb 2400 ft in two and half miles is big time! Great job:) The beautiful views made it worth it:) A very cool stop we have never done. Glad you shared.

    • I think our little misadventures took us to the hike that we were meant to do. The views from the top, with the canyon dropping away from the foot of the mountains was breathtaking! I will be writing about Mt. Rainier soon, where all the hikes we did were rated strenuous, for that reason, as the elevation gains were done in a short amount of mileage. We loved it!

      • I am now hiking through you two:) I am enjoying where we have been so far:) Boy, am I missing my hiking! Hiking in these temperatures with this very heavy, thick air deos nothing for me. Also, hiking without views and mosquitoes and ticks makes me shiver! So…we’ll be walking and biking till we leave, just like last time. So you may be feeling the extra weight; it is just me riding along:) Thanks for the ride!

      • I am happy to have you along Pam. Some day we hope to do some hiking with the two of you, not just in spirit. I would not be hiking in that weather either.

  • We’ve done that drive in the opposite direction with our big truck (no camper shell!) in the fall. It is such an amazingly beautiful area. We’ll be back that way summer I believe so I’ll have to remember the Tam McArthur trail…thanks!

    • The opposite direction is the way to go, I believe, and without the camper, and maybe without our dually as well! I think you two would like the Tam McArthur Trail. It sounds so much more scenic than what we had originally planned.

  • Why would people skateboard or even ride a bike on those dangerous roads? Just crazy to me.

    Fantastic photos. LuAnn, the one with you and the mountains in the background is so lovely. I would print and frame that one.

    • It certainly was a little nerve-wracking being on that stretch of road. I cannot imagine being on either a bike or skateboard. The views from the ridge line were stunning.

  • So glad you enjoyed our area. I’ve always felt that being up on Tam McArthur Rim is like dancing with the mountains!

    • We loved your area Carolyn. And yes, I agree that being on the Tam McArthur Rim is like dancing with the mountains. The views are spectacular!

  • Again such an amazing scenery, and more beautiful waterfalls! Excellent views from the hike you finally chose. Any trail that has ‘rim’ in it’s name is likely one to give you great views:)

  • I remember McKenzie Pass and that observatory. It was not the drive that excited me… as I was not driving. I was hiking and crossed on the PCT there. Seems like a lot of sharp lava after that for a while.

  • Spectacular part of the country isn’t it! We made that drive and I have to say I didn’t enjoy reliving it…..ah well, live and learn right? Thanks for taking us along, we miss being in Oregon.

  • Too bad you missed the Black Butte hike. We don’t remember the road being that bad but then we were in our Subaru:-) Looks like you found a good substitute in the Tam McArthur trail. Such beautiful views!

    • We were really bummed about the Black Butte hike. The Rangers told us that since we were there so early in the season not much had been done to grade any of the roads yet.

  • What gorgeous waterfalls, LuAnn. My heart would have been in my mouth driving along that narrow road. As for the skateboarder…..talk about ‘adrenalin rush’!! I just can’t imagine. 😯

    • Oregon has so many beautiful waterfalls. I don’t understand the need for that kind of thrill, like the skateboarder, but it must be similar to what I experience on a tough trail with gorgeous views at the end.

  • Deadhorse Grade, you Americans have the best and grimmest names for things. I heard that Oregon was a lot more treesy than I am used to over there but it is great to see it and all the varied terrain, I do hanker to explore and you seem to find all the best places. As ever much jealous.

    • I often wonder how those naming such places come up with these names. Hoping no horses lost their lives in the naming. When we meet, you had better have your hiking legs in shape. 😉

      • I want to start naming places,that would be an awesome job and I would make them all whimsical. I’m English we walk loads, mainly because we are too tight to fork out for bus fare or petrol.

  • Be safe on the road Terry and Lu! Geez! 🙂 But “what I wouldn’t dare” to be sitting on that ledge. And that waterfall … soothing even just in pictures. You should have your own RV pictures gallery.

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