Oregon Trip Planning: Dee Wright Observatory

Our second time at the Dee Wright Observatory was even more impressive than our first. We ended up there by default when the campground we aimed for was full. Oregon trip planning isn’t really something that I do very well. I actually don’t tend to do any trip planning at all.

Since we have been unable to get to our cottage this year, I have been trying to fill in the gap by buying another kayak and googling every freshwater lake in Oregon.

Oregon Trip Planning: Santiam Pass

We packed everything from kayaks to remote control trucks and headed to Big Lake Campground, near Sisters, Oregon. Most of the campground is first come, first served. It was mid-week and I was foolishly hopeful. The campground was full. For those of you interested in Big Lake Campground, it shares a driveway with Hoodoo ski area and is adjacent to Big Lake Youth Camp, which happened to be one of CD’s re-supply stops when he hiked the PCT. The campground was crowded and the sites were small. Other than feeling bad about driving all that way and not getting a campsite, I wasn’t too disappointed to not camp there.

Camping everywhere between there and Sisters was full. We headed back west on 242.

Cold Spring Campground had 2 spots available even though it was nearly 7:00 at night. We opted to gamble on the Willamette National Forest and continued west.

McKenzie Highway Pass: OR 242

McKenzie Highway runs between Sisters and Belknap Springs and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I recommend this route as long as you are not in a hurry, enjoy driving twenty miles per hour, and are not prone to motional sickness.

If you chose this route, the pay off is one of the most interesting lava fields I have seen.

It wasn’t long before we caught our first glimpse. The lava runs right up to the road to the north and towers high above it but to the south there is just the usual landscape.

Oregon trip planning at its finest! Check out the lava flow next to the road!

We hoped to camp at Lava Camp Lake Campground. Be careful not to confuse this with Lava Lake Campground, east of Bend. The entrance to Lava Camp Lake Campground is just before McKenize Pass summit when headed westbound. The entrance is difficult to find and is a dirt two track on the south side of the road. You follow this for approximately two miles to a day use area and a hand full of camp sites. Most sites are not on the lake. I wouldn’t have wanted to drive anything higher or much longer than our Sprinter down the road and when we got there, the campsites were full, of course. It is National Forest and I am sure some people slept in day use area parking but we chose a brief walk and drove on again.

Dee Wright Observatory

Less than a half of a mile up hill is one of the most unique places that I have been.

We pulled into the parking lot of Dee Wright Observatory, I opened the door and set up the stove. It was well passed dinner time and we all needed a break and a second to think of what to do next. I was lighting up the stove when some people a few spots away shouted: “you must have the same idea as us.”

It took for a moment to see what was going on but then I realized that this couple was setting up a tent on the sidewalk, a table next to thier car, and two camera tripods. Another couple at the other end of the parking lot were sitting in thier car playing cards and eating chips. Everyone was there to see the comet NEOWISE.

Dark Skies, Oregon Trip Planning

Here we were at the top of McKenzie Pass, surrounded by 8 miles of black lava rock and not an artifical light in sight. It was nearly dusk. The kids and CD went for a hike while I made dinner. We moved the kayaks to the sidewalk and turned the van around for prime coment viewing. We just happened to find a great camping spot!

The excitement in the parking lot was obvious. People were chatting and pointing while be attentive to social distancing. It was helpful that there are two large parking lots and there was never more than six or eight cars at a time.

Between the cool temperatures and the wind, there were few mosquitos. We opened our van doors and watched the sky. We saw the comet in between camera flashes. It was good for the soul.

Cars came and went until midnight or so and then it was quiet and dark. We slept until 9:00 and woke up feeling like we had landed on the moon!

Trees and lava next to each are impressive, however.
Lava and mountains

From the observatory you can see glaciers on the Three Sisters, views of Mt. Washington, and random trees growing out of lava flows. There is a paved walkway with signs discussing different features of the lava flow.

Oregon trip 101, have fun, of course!

Pacific Crest Trail Access: OR 242

CD is pretty much always looking for PCT access. Approximately a 1/4 mile west of the observatory, on the north side of the road, there is PCT day use parking. You can hike southbound and head towards the observatory or northbound and head for Belknap Crater. We did both and they were both amazing! The landscape is so unique. Wildflowers, red dirt, and trees touch fields of black lava. The lava towards 10 or 20 feet above the ground at times and it feels bizarre to imagine how it just stopped flowing and piled up in such dramatic fashion.

The trail is well marked. Footing on the lava is a bit tricky but the dirt trail is easy walking. For this PCT day hike you don’t need much more than a parking permit, sunscreen, snacks, and camera. Enjoy!

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