The Scenery Is Everything on this Road Trip
This week, Roadtrip-'62 ™ travels along US-28, a number that was already gone by 1962! When it did exist, it was only 462 miles long and located completely in Oregon. It followed what is now US-26 about halfway across Oregon, from Ontario to Prineville. We already covered that section from Ontario to Prineville as US-26. From Prineville to Eugene, it was already renumbered US-126 by 1962. Even that number was eliminated in 1972 and that portion is now OR-126. But let’s take a look at that final 131 miles as it existed as US-126 in 1962.
That 131 miles mostly travels across the Cascade Range of mountains and as such is very scenic. Leaving Prineville, we immediately pass Ochoco Wayside State Park, which includes the Ochoco View Point, giving panoramic views of the area from a rock hill. We’re still in the dry country here, with no mountains in sight, but we begin climbing soon after. As we get higher, we pass through some farm country around the settlement of Powell Butte. We continue climbing through ranch pasturelands on the way to Redmond, Oregon. The Redmond area sits on some ancient lava flows from volcanic mountains in the nearby Cascade Range. Redmond Caves Recreation Area is a great introduction to the lava and the caves it has left behind. There are five caves where you can learn about geology, wildlife and past human use over the last 6,000 years. During the 1960s, the caves were considered for fallout shelters! The three largest caves were reviewed and rated to have a capacity up to 450 people. These caves are part of the large Horse Lava Tube System and extend south to near the city of Bend. Overall, there are 122 known caves in the system with one having a walkable length of nearly 4,000 feet.
Highway US-126 continues westerly through the high desert and range, where you might see a truck hauling hay in front of you. The first foothills of the mountains loom in the distance, and we’ll get there soon. First, we’ll stop at Cline Falls State Park, which is strangely NOT at the falls. The park is south of US-126 and was originally bought by the Highway Commission in 1936 for a gravel pit, but the falls are a short distance north of the highway, not even within the park boundary. However, you can see the Deschutes River as it descends through some small rapids and pools around some very large boulders. The scenery changes little as we roll into Sisters, Oregon, a city founded on lumbering the pine forests of the nearby hills. Driving through in 1962 we would have been near the end of the lumbering, as the last sawmill closed in 1963 and was soon dismantled. At the east edge of town is Sisters State Park, which was established in 1939. It is mostly open conifer forest: a large stand of old-growth Ponderosa pine. It’s a small park split by the highway but adjacent to two city parks and connected by a covered walking bridge. Sisters is also a great place to stop for ice cream, at the Sno Cap Drive In. Sno Cap was opened in 1952 and makes old fashioned milkshakes and burgers, with some flavors of ice cream made right on the premises!
At Sisters, we join US-20 and travel together to about 10 miles west of Santiam Pass. The sign at the west edge of town announces that we are now on the McKenzie Pass / Santiam Pass Oregon Scenic Byway, so we know we are getting close to the mountains. The pine tree landscape we saw as we entered town continues here and we enter the Deschutes National Forest. For my tastes, this is where the great scenery begins. Though we begin in a sparse Ponderosa pine forest, the National Forest spans a variety of landscapes, ecosystems, and elevations. The lowest point is only 1,950 feet above sea level, while the highest, at South Sister’s summit, is 10,358 feet. We will eventually cross the mountains at Santiam Pass at 4,817 feet and catch views of Mt. Washington at 7,794 feet. Deschutes National Forest has changed names and size several times over its history, starting in 1908 as parts of the Blue Mountains, Cascade, and Fremont National Forests. Though the sawmill in Sisters closed, there are plenty of logging trucks on US-126 taking the lumber longer distances to other mills.
Beautiful Suttle Lake is below us and reachable from a short side road. It has a day use beach area. We pass numerous signs pointing to wilderness hiking in the backcountry. Even nearby Elliot R. Corbett State Park is accessible only by hiking in, so it doesn’t have as many visitors as other state parks in the area. It sits above the south shore of Blue Lake, which consists of three craters overlapping each other. The park was acquired as a gift to the state of Oregon in 1952 from Henry L. Corbett and his wife Gretchen, on condition that the lands remain a wilderness area. The Mt. Washington Observation Site turnout is nearby, giving us great views of that and other mountains from near our highest point. Though we now cross the Cascades through Santiam Pass, in 1962 the route was changed. Early in that year, it used McKenzie Pass, which is now OR-242. The current route was paved that year and US-126 moved. McKenzie Pass is about 500 feet higher than the current highway, so was a more difficult route. Route OR-242 is not plowed or sanded in the winter and is closed the, so stick with US-126 from November through the end of June.
You can see plenty of snow-covered mountain tops from here. There are side roads to several ski areas that take advantage of all that snow. Depending on what time of year you drive here, you may see Lost Lake on the north side of the highway…or not. This shallow lake has two hollow lava tubes beneath it that drain the water just like a bathtub. In the rainy fall through spring months, the lake has water. But during the drier summer and fall, these tubes are large enough to drain the lake dry, leaving a meadow behind. The lake is only about 9 feet deep when full and has no natural streams to drain it. The eventual outlet of the tubes is not known. As we saw back at Redmond, Oregon has many lava tubes from old volcanic activity. When lava streams flow, the outside crust cools as it makes contact with air but the hot lava continues to flow under the hardened crust. These can later collapse, leaving us tubes, caves, and holes in the bottom of lakes.
Drone view of Lost Lake draining down one of its lava tubes. (video by Ryan Brennecke)
Across the pass, US-20 leaves us and heads northwest to Newport, Oregon. We also cross into Willamette National Forest but we are not out of the Cascade Mountains yet, as there are plenty of peaks visible ahead. Piles of lava boulders are added to the forest landscape as we travel a bit southwest and pass Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls, on the McKenzie River. A loop trail through an old growth conifer forest takes you to the falls and a bridge across the river. Close up views of the wild McKenzie River are all around as it passes over cascades between the 100-foot high Sahalie Falls and its shorter neighbor. There are interpretive panels that tell the story of area geology along the way. After the falls, the riverbed is dry for three miles because a lava flow buried the river about 1,600 years ago! The river flows under it now and resurfaces at Tamolitch Pool. A short ways down the road is Belknap Hot Springs, a private resort. There are two mineral hot spring pools at the resort, which has been open since the 1870s. There is also a Secret Garden, which is free to visit! The garden includes fountains, architectural elements, and of course the plantings that hide it away from the rest of the resort.
Views of the river continue as it runs adjacent to the highway down to Mackenzie Bridge, Oregon. This is where we leave the Willamette National Forest. McKenzie General Store was established here in 1932: today it is both a store and a restaurant. I’m stopping for souvenirs. From here west, our former US-28 follows the wild and scenic McKenzie River as it drains down from the Cascade Mountains toward Eugene. By the time we get to the settlement of Blue River, we have descended to the 1000-foot elevation mark but are still in the forest and there are various county parks along the way where you can enjoy the river. Back in 1962 the H. J. Morton State Park was on a bend of the river here, but it has been demoted to just a roadside rest area. Likewise, the Ben and Kay Dorris County Park was once a state park. Both offer river access. While driving, we can still see the river crashing over rapids next to the road, and even a couple of waterfalls down the rock adjacent to the road.
From this point we see farms along the road again, mostly orchards and vineyards. We are entering the fringes of the Willamette Valley, one of the most agriculturally diverse areas in Oregon. The soils here can be up to ½ mile deep, due to massive flooding that occurred at the end of the last ice age. The good soils probably contributed to the name of an area south of the McKenzie River and the bridge to it. The Goodpasture Bridge in Vida crosses the McKenzie River and is located just off US-126. It was built in 1938 and is the second longest covered bridge in Oregon. It was completely renovated in 1987 and in 2010 it was again improved, restoring its 40-Ton weight limit so it can still handle logging trucks, which you will see on the road. Lane County today has more covered bridges than any other county west of the Mississippi River. Of its 17 bridges, 14 are still open to traffic.
Just across the river at the next bridge is the Leaburg Trout Hatchery. The bridge crosses the Leaburg Dam, which creates a water supply for cities in the area. At the dam you can view salmon and steel-head climbing a fish ladder, while at the hatchery you can view mostly rainbow trout. The hatchery raises these for release into various Oregon rivers. Children can also feed the fish. The adjacent EWEB Water Board Park features picnic sites overlooking the McKenzie River and plenty of play equipment and sports fields. Fishing in Leaburg Lake is also popular.
The valley broadens as we approach Walterville, where we cross the river for our last time. Just before we cross is Hendricks Bridge County Park, which, as we have seen before, was a state park in 1962. Looks like the state unloaded a bunch of these smaller parks to the counties; perhaps a cost-saving measure? Hendricks has a swimming and wading pool marked out with stones, though it’s rather shallow in summer, just when you would want to use it. By the time we get to Springfield, Oregon there are no mountains and any hills are off in the distance. Many of the orchards we have seen are hazelnut (filbert) orchards. Hazelnuts are my 2nd favorite raw nuts. Though we import a lot from Europe, 98% of American filbert production is harvested here in the Willamette Valley.
And that’s the end of this scenic drive. It’s about 9 miles from the edge of Springfield to the end of modern US-126 in downtown Eugene, the same place former US-28 ended. I’ll deal with Eugene attractions someday when investigating US-99. But while we’re traveling highways that are no longer around, I’ll mention US-32 today. The east end was originally in Chicago, Illinois and the west end of US-32 was originally in Council Bluffs, Nebraska. The total length was 511 miles. It existed for only seven years and was gone before 1962. We already traveled this as US-6, and it’s covered on Days 19-24 of that trip, beginning in Joliet, Illinois. That gets a couple of short, long retired highways out of the way. Next time, Roadtrip-'62 ™ will look at a longer road that is still around, US-29.
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2020, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2020, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.