Old Route 242

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WATERFALLS! A lava rock observatory, pioneer grave, and more delight along Old Route 242, a portion of The Mckenzie Pass Highway. This 36 mile stretch of scenic byway is a twisted good time, a curvy ascent into Oregon eye candy pleasure land.  On September 1st my Husband and I set out in search of Fall colors, blue skies, and fern grotto cascades. We began in Sisters and headed West, up through the Ponderosa addled forests and beyond, landing on a vast volcanic moonscape. The Lava fields here are in impressive 65 square miles large. It is here that in the mid 1960’s astronauts trained on the rubbly basalt lava fields not so in similar to the moon’s own surface.

Dee Wright Observatory
The Dee Wright Observatory

We arrive at The Dee Wright Observatory just after 8 am, the sky an awesome blue ombre. Here we are at the nexus of a ring of volcanoes; the highest concentration of such in the lower 48. This lava rock castle is a gallery of mountain vistas, framed in slots in the observatory wall. Atop is a mountain sundial, detailing the location and elevation of each encircling peak.

The observatory was built during The Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corp, a public relief program that provided work for young, unmarried men. The CCC constructed more than 800 state parks nation wide from 1993-1942. Familiar spots created by The CCC in Oregon include Timberline Lodge, Honeyman State Park, and Crater Lake National Park.

Little Belknap Crater from Dee Wright Observatory
Little Belknap Crater from Dee Wright Observatory

The next spot on our early fall road trip was the gravesite of pioneer mailman, John Templeton Craig. Mr. John Tom was a visionary spirit, mailman, road builder, and devout man of God. In 1862 John Tom was hired by Captain Felix Scott to build a trail from Eugene over The Cascades. Mr. Scott’s road traveled around the lava fields, high in to the Three Sister’s Wilderness. This route was abandoned and is now Scott’s Trail near North Sister. John Tom, however, favored a route through the lava and campaigned, independently for 15 years, to fund and build the road we know today. He labored night and day to build his road, making his bed at nightfall in whatever ferns lay at his feet. In 1872 his road opened and he began to collect tolls for travelers on wagon and horseback. 5 years later, in December of 1877, John Tom set out on nordic ski to deliver the Christmas mail from Eugene to Central Oregon. The mail was never delivered as a brutal storm hit John Tom, forcing him to take shelter in his hand built cabin. Mr. John Tom was discovered frozen, in the Spring of 1878, in the ashes of his cabin’s fireplace. His mail sack, a dozen half spent matches, and a charred spool of thread lay around him; evidence of a futal attempt to start a lifesaving fire.

The John Craig Memorial Monument was constructed in 1930 and dedicated by 400 rural mail carriers. Since then several memorial Nordic Ski events have been held in Mr. John Tom’s honor. Can you imagine a life so weathered, adventurous, and legendary? One more reason I am a proud Oregonian.

John Tom's Road
Grave of John Tom, Pioneer Mailman & Visionary Road Builder

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Heading West and down a series of curves the terrain changes, lodge pole pines give way to Redwood Cedar trees and we are engulfed in the lush lime embrace of The Willamette Valley. It is so green here! The oxygen level has increased and my mountain head feels flushed and full of thick, forest air. I breathe deep as we start out on the trail to Upper and Lower Proxy Falls.

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The first fall colors are visible here, among the lava rock and moss blanketed firs. This place is certainly visually intoxicating; a breathe of pure plant, sun, life, and wonder(lust). It is about a mile into the falls, we passed the path to Lower Falls and headed to Upper Proxy first. I have been here before and I wanted to save the best for last…

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Crystal clear waters at Proxy Falls

Upper Proxy Falls is a fairytale gem in the land of Cascadia! There is an easy scramble up and into the middle of the relatively small waterfall. You’ll get wet, that’s part of the fun. The water here collects into a shallow, clear pool about 30 feet wide. The water soaks into the underlying lava bed and reemerges as a spring several miles away. Oregon is mysterious like that.

Upper Proxy Falls
Upper Proxy Falls

Doubling back and down a scramble you will find the seminal Proxy Falls! A photographer’s dream and the naturalist’s muse, this is enchantment to the max! The 200 foot Cascade is as iconic to Oregon as the roaring waves of the Pacific, the environment just as damp. We melee our way as far up into the falling water as possible, our hair wet, smiles wide. I can’t define ‘Adventure’ as anything more than a walk into a waterfall. It is a simple pleasure, a treasure that will wash the spirit clean and ignite the heart of the soul.

Lower Proxy Falls
Lower Proxy Falls in  the golden sunlight of late morning.

Highway 242 is open seasonally (From Mid June to November) and begins in Sisters, Oregon and ends in Rainbow along the Mckenzie River. Travelers can visit nearby Belknap Hot Springs and loop back to Sister’s via Highway 126 to Highway 20.

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