Tag Archive | forest service road

Yellowstone Road Trip 2017: Dee Wright Observatory and Balancing Rocks

Day 11, Thursday, August 3, 2017

We didn’t have a need to get up really early this morning, so I took a brief walk, had breakfast, and hit the pool. It was so hot out that it was already warm enough for swimming!  I loved spending some more time in the pool!

Me at the Pool

Once we got going, we headed out and went to the Dee Wright Observatory.  It is an observation structure at the summit of McKenzie Pass in the Cascade Mountains near Sisters.  The road up to the summit of McKenzie pass is the route of an 1860 wagon route on the Oregon Trail.  The pioneers actually had to build the road in order to get the wagons across the lava – and you think your commute is bad!

The road leading to Dee Wright

The observatory is a 5,187 feet in elevation, and offers panoramic views of the nearby mountains.  The area around the observatory consists of 65 square miles of black lava rock.  It was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and was named for the foreman of the project to build the observatory, who died before the project reached its completion.

Dee Wright Observatory

When it is clear, you can see Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, South, North and Middle Sister, Mount Hood and many more.  Unfortunately, the day we were there, the area was covered in a thick haze of smoke from the wildfires up in Canada.  We could see the closer mountains, but not as well as I would have liked, and the mountains further away were not visible at all. I will have to visit again.

The observatory structure is very cool because it has multiple windows built into the stone structure where you can see the various mountains framed in stone – and they are all labeled so you can tell which mountain you are looking at.  We checked out all the windows, and took photos.


We also did the nature trail walk, which explained the volcanic eruptions that occurred in the area, the different types of lava flow and how plants and animals returned to an area after the landscape is changed by volcanic eruptions.  There were small trees and shrubs growing, and there were hundreds of monarch butterflies!


After we went to the Dee Wright Observatory, we went into downtown Sisters to get lunch; burgers and fries that were good, but nothing to get all excited about.  We wandered around town for a bit and poked around in some shops before we got on the road for our next destination.

Our next stop was the Oregon Balancing Rocks.  If you hadn’t heard of them, never fear – I hadn’t either.  Apparently, years ago, my brother and sister in law saw a documentary on the Oregon Public Broadcasting Station about the Balancing Rocks.  They visited many years ago, and wanted to see them again with the kids.

The Balancing Rocks in Oregon are similar to the more famous balancing rocks in Arches National Park in Utah.  The harder stone above is held up by softer stone underneath.  The softer stone erodes away more quickly, leaving these mushroom-shaped capped stones.  The Oregon Balancing Rocks are not nearly as exciting as the rocks in Arches though – the colors are more brown than red, and they aren’t nearly as pretty.  There were lizards there though!

I have no idea where these rocks really were, besides about 30 miles north of Sisters down a gravel forest service road, somewhere overlooking Billy Chinook Lake and the Metolius River (how’s that for vague?).  There is an unmarked small gravel parking lot at the trail head, but no services.  The quarter mile trail is well maintained gravel though – and the kids enjoyed running down it with abandon.  Which they probably shouldn’t, because I am sure this area has rattlesnakes – but hey, I’m the aunt…

We checked out the rocks, and checked out the view, which was hazy because of the wildfire smoke, and took some pictures of the lizards, but really, there isn’t a whole lot to see out there in the middle of nowhere.  Like I said, they aren’t as exciting as their more famous cousins in Utah…


After the Balancing Rocks, we started the long drive home.  The wildfires made the sun bright red and the sky really hazy.  We even got out of the car for a minute to take photos of the sun because it was so unusual.  We got home to my brother’s house about 8 pm, unpacked the car and discovered a house that was about 87 degrees upstairs – Yikes!  Home sweet home!  The air conditioning and some fans did manage to cool it down to 85 by the time we got into bed – that certainly isn’t much though!

The wildfire sun and haze

Distance for the Day: Sisters, Oregon – Dee Wright Observatory, Sisters, OR – Balancing Rocks, OR – Portland, OR (4 hours, 15 minutes; 185 miles – this is a guess, because Google Maps is being fickle and wouldn’t let me map some of these because the roads are still closed for the winter)
Fees: None
Lodging: Back home at my brother’s house

Terror on the Bear Camp Road!

The third full day of our short vacation, we made a reservation for a hotel on the beach in Gold Beach, Oregon.  This is further down the Oregon Coast than Jon or I had ever been, so it was a chance to see something new.  But first we had to get there from Medford.  Who knew what an ordeal that would be.

I knew the road that went directly from Medford to Gold Beach was a smaller road – not a highway.  Even some of the highways are really more like country roads.  But given that the GPS had gotten us lost the day before, I double checked the directions the GPS gave us with Expedia directions.  And I talked to the hotel clerk too.  She said, “It’s a small road, but it’s not a bad road.  It is paved the whole way.”  MMMM… HMMM….

So off we went on our way to Gold Beach – we stopped for gas, got some coffee for Jon and set out.  We drove through some scenic countryside and then we got to the road… Bear Camp Road – aka the Coastal Route.  At some point you hit the end of the county road, and end up on the National Forest Service road.  Which doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, considering that the roads in the National Forests are Forest Service roads.  And then part of it is a Bureau of Land Management road.  I know nothing about how the BLM maintains its roads…  The one thing that this road had going for it is that there are signs along the side quite frequently marking the Coastal Route.  There are mile posts too – although that isn’t all that helpful when you don’t know which milepost will mark the end of this hell on earth, but we didn’t know that yet…

Bear Camp Road

The Not So Bad Part of Bear Camp Road

So, up we go – and it was paved – and we continued up and up and up.  Basically we were driving straight up a mountain – well really anything but straight.  At first, the road isn’t very narrow and there are other cars and you feel ok about it.  Until you don’t.  Once you get up to the top of the mountain, the road has gradually narrowed down to one lane, with turnouts.  There were hairpin, blind curves, no guard rails and a sheer cliff drop off.  There are logging spurs turning off every so often, and still you have the blind curves.  Every curve is sheer terror, because you don’t know if another car is coming.  Did I mention the cliff and the lack of guard rails?  You are on a tiny one lane road, driving along the edge of a ridge, with nothing but a drop off the side of the road.  Really the scenery is quite beautiful; as you are looking out over miles and miles of forest, it reminded me of some of the hikes that Jon and I have gone on around home.  But the problem is that you are so terrified you can’t take your eyes of the road for a split second to enjoy the view.

Along the Ridge

Along the Ridge – This Photo Doesn’t Do Justice to the Narrowness of the Road, or the Cliff

Side Note:  In the photo above we are driving behind a truck from Wisconsin.  I wondered to myself what they might be thinking of Oregon and the crazy roads!

Jon was driving and I know he was as nervous as I was.  And for me, well this was one of the most terrifying experiences that I have had in my entire life – I’ve never had panic attacks, but on this trip I think I was close!  The entire trip took a little more than three hours.  We were up on the mountain for about two and a half hours of the total trip.  Two and a half hours of white knuckle, afraid to look down, hold your breath around every corner, driving.  The strangest thing was that it really seemed like the Oregonians intend for this to be a regular route.  As I mentioned before, there are milepost markers every mile, and signs every couple of miles marking the Coastal route. There are signs stating the road can be closed in the winter, and isn’t a good route for winter driving.  Hello?  This isn’t a good route for summer driving!  But strangest of all, there are well constructed viewpoint turnouts.  You know the kind that were typically built by the CCC with rock blocks or sandstone?  Yeah those – quite pretty really.  We couldn’t understand why they were built along a Forest Service road or Bureau of Land Management road.

So when we finally got off the mountain and into Gold Beach, our nerves were so frayed that we both needed a drink.  Never mind that it wasn’t yet 2 o’clock.  We went to the Porthole Café for lunch, and we each ordered a beer.  And we split a second one.  The seafood we had there was quite good – I had the sampler platter – but we NEEDED the beer.  We sat there for awhile, just decompressing and savoring the fact that we were still alive!

Jon talked to his mom later that day on the phone and told her about our harrowing journey.  That was when she told us that one of the logging spurs off of Bear Camp Road was where James Kim died.  C’mon, you remember the Kims right? Everybody remembers the Kims.  They were the 30 something couple from San Francisco who were driving on the Thanksgiving weekend in 2006 from Portland to Gold Beach with their two little daughters.  It was night, and a snowstorm was rolling in, and they tried taking Bear Camp Road.  After getting stuck in the snow, they waited for 8 days to be rescued.  Finally resigned to the fact that no one was coming, James Kim tried to hike out, and died of hypothermia. Kati Kim and her children were lucky enough to be rescued, although they were suffering from frostbite, hypothermia and starvation.  That was the road.

So that was our trip to the coast on Bear Camp Road – NEVER AGAIN!  Knowing that our drive took place in the late morning of a perfect sunny summer day, I am absolutely convinced that you would have to be insane to drive on that road in the winter, and even more insane to attempt it in the winter, in the snow, in the dark and with a two wheel drive car.  What happened to the Kims was really a tragedy, but Jon and I have wondered more than once how or why they ever went as far up the road as they did without turning around.  You won’t ever catch us on that road again.  Hopefully readers, if you are ever considering taking the “Coastal Route”, you will skip it and head over at Eugene instead.

More on Gold Beach in the next post, once I get a glass of wine. This post is giving me flashbacks!