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home : current news : current news June 23, 2018

6/12/2018 1:01:00 PM
McKenzie Highway to open June 18
Sweepers are still clearing debris from the roadway. photo by Jim Cornelius
+ click to enlarge
Sweepers are still clearing debris from the roadway. photo by Jim Cornelius

By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

The McKenzie Highway - Highway 242 - is scheduled to open on Monday, June 18. The historic route across the Cascades is closed each winter due to snow.

The winding, climbing road west of Sisters attracts numerous cyclists seeking to ride it before it's open to motor vehicle traffic. However, Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Peter Murphy clarified last week that the route is not actually opened to cyclists before it's open to cars.

That's a point of significant confusion, Murphy acknowledged.

ODOT plows a single lane through the snow on the road during the spring, and then lets snowmelt do the rest. Once the snow is melted off, work crews sweep the roadway to clear debris, dirt and gravel, and patch potholes created over the winter. Opening of the highway used to be arbitrary - the gate was opened whenever the work was done. For the past three years, the agency has determined upon a consistent third-Monday-in-June opening.

During the plowing and maintenance period, the roadway is closed to traffic. However, cyclists and walkers go around the gate to use the roadway. Murphy recognizes that the public perception has grown that the road is open for cyclists - car-free. And he acknowledged that he himself had contributed to that perception.

"We don't 'open' it for bicycles, and I no longer publicize or, if you will, promote that it's open for bicycles," he said. "I had to learn that.

"Honestly, it's the liability," he noted. "It's not maintained for bicycles."

Last Thursday morning, work crews turned several bicyclists back as they approached the gate. With large equipment stirring dust, debris and gravel still on the road and incomplete patchwork on the roadway, the area was clearly not a safe place to ride. However, crews don't work on weekends, and anyone driving the highway sees dozens of riders headed up the road to - and beyond - the snow gate.

Cyclists across the nation are apparently not aware that the road isn't really "open" for them. Murphy said that he gets many inquiries.

"I've never had so many calls as this year in terms of the status (of 242) for use by bicycles," he said.

He said that there is no concerted effort to reverse the public perception that the road is open for cyclists in advance of motor vehicles.

"There's no action to reverse that perception," he said. "I explain the details when they call and ask if it's open for bicycles."

This year it required extra work to get the road into shape due to impacts from last summer's Milli Fire. Crews repaired damaged asphalt, rebuilt damaged road shoulders and squared up embankments and created channels to allow runoff to move without flooding the highway.

The stretch of highway running from the east gate to the Dee Wright Observatory was hit very hard by the fire. Thousands of blackened trunks now stand on seared slopes where forests formerly stood. The area nevertheless retains a certain stark beauty, and the mountains remain magnificent.

The route continues to be, as Murphy tagged it, "a great ride." The annual Crest the Cascades cycling event is set for Saturday, June 16, along the highway. That event operates under a permit, Murphy noted.

So cyclists will summit the McKenzie Pass, and the cars will follow after Monday's opening - all moving on a freshly repaired and swept roadway through a changed landscape.

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