Take a trip along the southern section of the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass National Scenic Byway to the summit of the McKenzie Highway (Oregon 242) and you will find the Dee Wright Observatory settled atop vast, black lava flows. On the Cascade Range at 5,187 feet, this mountain observatory offers panoramic views of the Mount Washington and Three Sisters Wilderness areas.
As you make your way up to the observatory you will find interpretive panels with accounts of early travelers and area geology. Inside the observatory strategically placed windows frame the surrounding mountain peaks. On a clear day, you may even see Mt. Hood located a whopping 78.5 miles to the north. Continue up the stairs to the roof and you will discover a bronze peak finder with the names and elevations of the surrounding buttes and mountain peaks.
A Land Full of History
As you journey to the observatory take a moment to consider the history and beauty of the route. The McKenzie Highway has grown from a trail, to a wagon road, to an early automobile route, and finally to the present highway. The route became a state highway in 1917, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. The highway’s designers sought to harmonize built structures with the natural setting, and with this idea in mind the Dee Wright Observatory was created. The observatory was designed by William N. Parke, and constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Camp F-23 of Company 927, during the Great Depression. The circular tower was named as a memorial to Dee Wright, an employee of the Forest Service, a long-time packer, and Conservation Corps foreman. Since its completion in 1935, the observatory has been a favorite attraction for thousands of visitors each summer.
The east flank of the Cascade Range is a geologically young and complex volcanic region. Large composite and shield volcanoes line the crest of the Cascades, and hundreds of cinder cones dot the landscape. The Dee Wright Observatory is constructed on the lava flow which erupted from Yapoah Cone 2,600 to 2,900 years ago; this flow overlaps an earlier flow from the Little Belknap Crater. The basaltic lava found in the area is called A A lava (pronounced “Ah Ah”); and is characterized by its rough and jagged surface.
The Lava River Interpretive Trail
The accessible Lava River National Recreation Trail is next to the observatory, offers an unusual half-mile hike. This paved interpretive trail provides remarkable views of lava that flowed from the surrounding craters. Hike right through numerous lava formations, learning about the area’s geology from signs along the way.
The Willamette National Forest stretches for 110 miles along the western slopes of the Cascade Range in western Oregon. It extends from the Mt. Jefferson area east of Salem to the Calapooya Mountains northeast of Roseburg. The varied landscape of high mountains, narrow canyons, cascading streams, and wooded slopes offer excellent opportunities for visitors.
The boundaries of the two wilderness areas are approximately 66 feet on either side from the edge of the McKenzie Highway.
The Dee Wright Observatory is situated at the boundary between the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests.
The observatory was built as an open shelter/structure.
44°15’37.97 N, 121°48’04.37W
From McKenzie Bridge, OR travel east on Hwy 126 for ~5 miles and take a right on Hwy 242. Continue on Hwy 242 for 22 miles to the Dee Wright Observatory.
From Sisters, OR travel west on Hwy 242 for 15 miles to the Dee Wright Observatory.
The observatory will be visible from the highway, and parking is immediately available.