Oregon Department of Transportation crews began removing snow from McKenzie Pass Highway this week, but because of remaining repair work needed after the 2017 Milli Fire, cyclists and hikers won’t have full access to the road this spring.
Snow blowers will clear both lanes of the winding highway from the gate near Sisters to Windy Point, instead of the traditional method of clearing one lane. This is due to lingering damage from the Milli Fire, which destroyed 24,000 acres of forest, according to ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy. The agency will only clear one lane from Windy Point to the Dee Wright Observatory.
In 2018, the Federal Highway Administration gave ODOT $800,000 to fix culverts, stabilize banks along the road and repair pavement, Murphy said. Because crews couldn’t finish the work last summer, ODOT will send equipment to make these repairs this spring, once both lanes of the lower part of McKenzie Pass Highway, also called state Highway 242, are cleared of snow.
Although the area is a popular spot for cyclists in the spring, when the gate hasn’t opened and only bikes are allowed, Murphy said bikes wouldn’t be allowed on the highway while crews are working. There will be large signs that say “Extreme Danger: Do Not Enter” when crews are working.
“We’re going to have big equipment on the highway. … it’s going to be dangerous,” he said.
On weekends, when there’s no sign barring travelers, the highway will be open to cyclists. However, Murphy warned that until the highway is fully open for the season later this year, the road won’t be swept, meaning cyclists will likely have to dodge rocks and tree limbs strewn across the pavement.
TJ Jordan, the co-owner of The Hub Cyclery in downtown Bend, said he’d never heard of ODOT completely shutting down McKenzie Pass Highway in the spring before. He listed many reasons why it’s a popular spot for cyclists.
“It’s got great views; it’s a nice little climb, and with no cars on it, that’s an added bonus,” he said. “It’s a beautiful ride.”
Murphy said he couldn’t predict when the highway would be fully open this summer to cars as well as cyclists, because ODOT didn’t know exactly how much snow needed to be cleared. He said the highway would likely be fully cleared by mid-June and that ODOT crews believe there could be about 10 feet of snow on top of the pass that needs to be cleared.
According to ODOT statistics, the highway didn’t open until August in 2008 and 2009 due to construction delays. Exempting those, from 1925 through 2011, the latest opening date for the highway was July 29, in 1999.
Jordan didn’t seem too dismayed about the highway not being available for biking on most weekdays this spring.
“Around here, it seems like people ride here every day. But they’ll find other routes to ride,” he said.
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