Pursuing the Paths of Pioneers


At the suggestion of a friend, my husband, daughter and I followed the McKenzie Pass over the Cascades Saturday in search of some fall colors. We weren’t disappointed. Quaking Aspens and Vine Maples were ablaze in oranges, yellows and reds. Bracken Ferns were fading as well, their bright green fronds mellowing to a milk chocolate color.

The Pass is a daunting stretch of highway that loops in and around ninety degree turns for twenty-two miles from Sisters, Oregon in the east to a place just above Blue River on the western side. Originally a wagon toll road in the 1870’s, the route afforded pioneers passage over the mountains.  As a descendant of one of those pioneer families, I had heard  many different accounts of my ancestors picking their way over the mountains in a covered wagon—traversing miles of forest, lava rock and daunting ravines.  One slip of a wheel over the edge could send a wagon and its occupants plunging to the depths below with no survivors.

 The three of us traveled the highway in reverse, going from the west side eastward. We wove in and around the steep climb, the twisting road often curving one hundred and eighty degrees, letting us glimpse the road below from where we’d just come. I’m sure the winding path was  designed to keep heavy wagons from descending too fast and losing control.

 The western side is filled with fir forests, their giant statures reaching high into the sky. The elevation rose at regular intervals, posted signs informing us when we passed 2,000 feet, then 3,000 feet, until we arrived at the summit, a healthy 5,000 feet above sea level. Often  from the edge of the road we could peer into a ravine filled with trees that had grown all the way from the forest floor to tower above us, their massive height breathtaking, the thought of falling over the edge terrifying.

At the summit is one of the oldest and largest  volcano tops.  Lava beds stretch for miles in all directions. The Dee Wright Observatory, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1920’s and named for its foreman, sits in the center, an all-lava tower that allows those willing to climb its steps a view of the mountain and  its surrounds from every angle. Inside the stone structure, little windows called lava tubes have been carved out of the rock where visitors can focus in on three mountains collectively known as the Three Sisters—Faith, Hope and Charity—and other peaks including Mount Washington.  

As we descended the eastern slope, the terrain changed drastically.  The forest floor was more arid, the tree varieties pine. Gone was the lush, green vegetation of ferns and low-growing bushes. Instead the forest was open, the dry floor brown, the visibility through the trees covered miles. I thought of those pioneers who first climbed through the open forest, only to reach the top and gasp at the abundant acres of firs and available timber on the other side. The change is remarkable.

Stuart K. Hine, the author and composer of one of my favorite hymns, How Great Thou Art, writes in the second verse, “When through the woods and forest glades I wander, And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze, Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee; How great Thou art.”

Psalm 148:7,9,11,13 the psalmist writes, “Praise the Lord from the earth, . . . Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars, . . . Kings of the earth and all people, . . .Let them praise  the name of the Lord.”

Let us.  Indeed.

3 Replies to “Pursuing the Paths of Pioneers”

  1. Loved your post – it is astonishing to consider what the pioneers traveled through to make it to the west. Your photos are lovely too! Liz

  2. Pat, thanks for the name of the fern. I, too, noticed them turning brown so soon. We did a real wagon train adventure in the summer of 1993. Rough ride, no springs. Three nights on the trail. Eleven wagons, forty horse riders and 50 walkers. You brought back the memories.

  3. Very nice, Pat. Great pictures.

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