Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dee Wright Observatory

After hiking The Obsidian Trail, I did not turn around and drive the 3 1/2 hours back to Portland (I'm not quite that crazy!)  The Central Oregon town of Bend, a mere hour and a half away, beckoned.  I love, love, love visiting Bend, and it was an easy decision to spend the rest of my weekend there.

This highway runs right through the lava fields

But first, I had sights to see.  During my 4th of July trip, I'd missed traveling the rest of the McKenzie Scenic Highway.  Time to remedy that!  From the Obsidian Trailhead parking area, I turned my car onto this highway, heading east towards the town of Sisters.

Belknap Crater at the end of a lava field

I didn't travel far before the forests cleared, and I found myself in the middle of an enormous lava field.  Huge black basalt rocks stretched for miles.  Anchoring the northern skyline sat Belknap Crater, the volcano responsible for producing all this basalt.  The eruptions, taking place between 1,500 and 3,000 years ago, filled this area with tons upon tons of jagged lava cinders.

Dee Wright Observatory!

The road offered numerous pullouts for vehicles to park and allow their occupants a closer look.  I jumped out a couple of times and clambered up the tall lava blocks, being careful not to scrape myself (the basalt was sharp!)  It was a desolate black moonscape as far as the eye could see.

The observatory looks like a hobbit house

One great thing about the lack of forests - wide open views of every adjacent mountain.  I stopped for a killer view of North and Middle Sister.  Across the road, Mt. Washington towered above the black, rocky sea of basalt.

Great view of North and Middle Sister

McKenzie Pass, at 5,325 feet, marks the high point of this scenic byway.  Located here is a unique structure, built to allow the public a panoramic view of adjacent mountains and landscape.  I'd heard of the Dee Wright Observatory, but until that day, had no idea exactly what it was.

Everything here was made of lava rock

Perched up on top of the lava field, at first glance this observatory blends right into the landscape.  Built of the same lava rock, it looks like a little Hobbit house - complete with a rocky staircase.

Viewing platform at the top

Built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, this tiny building provides an outstanding viewpoint.  It's lofty perch helps visitors locate nearby geologic features and surrounding mountain peaks.  On a clear day, seventeen mountains are visible from here, including the larger peaks of Mt. Washington, Jefferson, North and Middle Sister, Belknap Crater, Black Crater, Black Butte, and even Hood (on a good day).

Mts. Washington and Jefferson

The observatory was finished in 1935, and named for the construction crew's foreman, who had died the previous year.  A career Forest Service employee, Dee Wright served 24 years working in the area.

Black Butte rises over the lava

I followed a winding asphalt path that took visitors through the lava field up to the building's entrance.  Inside, windows had been strategically placed so they lined up with views of the closest mountains.  I'd hoped to get a couple of peek-a-boo mountain shots through these openings, but a man touting a video camera was blocking the ones with the best light.  I waited a couple of minutes hoping he'd move, but the guy stayed put.  He appeared to be camped out for the long haul.

McKenzie Pass from on high

Giving up, I continued up a very elaborate stairway, built entirely of lava rocks, to the rooftop observation deck.  A small rock column had been constructed, and atop it's surface, a large bronze medallion inscribed with the names of the nearby mountains.  An elaborate sign, this "peak finder" helped visitors to identify the nearby features.

Black Crater fills the eastern sky

Looking down, I spied the McKenzie Scenic Highway, cutting a small path through the rough lava fields.  This road follows an old wagon route.  Created in 1860 to help wagons navigate over the mountain pass, this road had to be cut through the lava beds.  Just a short distance to the west, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway, and meanders through this hostile environment.  It crosses over the flank of Belknap Crater, before reaching the forested foothills of Mt. Washington.

Another view of this unique building

I was really fortunate to visit on such a clear, blue-sky day.  The views on top were nothing short of spectacular.  I identified all the Cascade Peaks poking up through barren lava beds.  It would be fun to see this place when all the mountains are covered in snow.  But due to the narrow, windy nature of the road, the McKenzie Scenic Highway is closed during winter months.   

McKenzie Pass and Black Crater

Although it doesn't look like much from the road, a stop at the Dee Wright Observatory is now a must-see on my list.  I'm glad I took the time to stop and poke around. 

But more adventures awaited.....on to BEND!!

Sharing with:  Our World Tuesday.


  1. Thats really a lovely post - Informative and Good photos...:)

  2. Neat photos from your trip! I love the view of the Sisters! The lava fields reminds me of the Big Island of Hawaii! Thanks for sharing your visit!

  3. Hey, that looks like a toposcope those people are leaning on at the top of the observatory! I saw my first example just this summer at an earthcache in England. Fascinating landscape.

  4. Hi! Nice captures of mountain photos with lava rocks. I enjoyed them very much. The view of North and Middle sister is especially beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  5. A lava filed! That is quite spectacular! I've never seen anything like it. Wonderful captures of this adventure.

  6. What views. It is such a different landscape.

  7. Belknap is crazy-looking, isn't it? Like something evil from Tolkien. Hubbie & son have hiked/backpacked on the Obsidian Trail and I would also like to go there. So impressed you did that as a day hike from Portland. Where do you stay in Bend? I guess I'll soon find out.

  8. Probably safe to say I've never seen anything like this before. Cool!

  9. Yippee, a road grip! This looks like a moonscape. I've never been to Bend but have friends who live there.

  10. Can't wait to see Bend through your lens!

  11. This is fascinating! I didn't know about this particular lava covered land. Of the many hats you wear (mountain climber, uphill skier, photographer, runner, mom, traveler, extremely awesome..) ..Educator is one of them, too!
    I've had a couple of geologist friends, and boy, do I find it interesting to learn how all this landscape we're walking on was formed.
    Shout out to the CCC, too! We've admired their work all over the country.

  12. What a remarkbale landscape - the pines pushing through the rocks are great.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  13. The lava fields make it look like you were on a different planet. I'm glad you didn't drive the 3 1/2 hour drive back in the same day as you traveled there AND hiked the trail!

  14. Otherworldly looking place- nice series

  15. Really interesting and I've never heard of this place.

  16. You have captured the moment brilliantly, Linda!

  17. What incredible lava fields!

  18. What a great observatory - the lava is like another planet.

  19. Ah, the one highway I have wanted to take a trip on for awhile now:) Love the "hobbit" house and mountain views!

  20. Wow it really is an amazing landscape.

    Should have kindly asked the fellow for a minute of his space. He could have shared.

    great images.

  21. What an amazing landscape and such awesome views to the mountains.

  22. I'm thinking I may have been here or at something similar. We were on our way to Crater Lake and stopped at a Lava Field but it's been a long time so I'm not sure if it's the same one. Anyway this is really cool.

  23. A highway through the lava beds sounds like the coolest thing ever!

  24. What a great adventure! How interesting!

  25. If I keep looking at your photos we will have to do carry out for dinner! (o: What a cool place!


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