Volcanic Sunset | McKenzie Pass

I arrived at the Dee Wright Observatory atop McKenzie Pass an hour before sunset. The seasonal road reaches an elevation of 5,300 feet providing stunning high desert volcanic views in all directions. The observatory is built with volcanic rock and sits equal distance between North Sister and Mt. Washington.

This evening North & Middle Sister mountains were prominent on the horizon. It was July and Middle Sister still had a good deal of visible snow on its north slope. Both seemed ready for their 15 minutes of sunset fame!

The skies looked very promising. A blanket of clouds were moving east to west. The western sky was mostly clear and the sun was setting at a nice angle to the horizon. This is the perfect formula for a colorful cloud sunset. 

I thought about parking myself on the upper tier of the stone observatory and documenting the sunset using a telephoto lens. I scrapped that idea and instead began the hunt for a worthy foreground to compliment the beautiful mountain peak scene on the horizon.

I wander south on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Southern California to Canada hikers byway. It crosses the McKenize Pass just a couple hundred yards to the west of the observatory. I knew this trail. I had traveled it with my sister a few years ago on a backpack trip. We started at this very spot and spent three days hiking 30 miles south to Elk Lake on the Cascade Highway. 

McKenzie Pass, built in the 1870’s as a wagon toll road, sits on top of a big old lava flow. The rock here is jagged and sharp. Of course this isn't an issue if you stay on the trail, ….. of course the trail doesn't offer the best views! With backpack tightly attached I carefully picked my way south looking for that perfect photo spot.

Ten minutes, 20 minutes, nearly 30 minutes later I ran out of time. A sunset scene was forming in front of me. Time was up.

I found what I thought was the best location to create what my mind had envisioned. I set my backpack down, pulled out the camera and began the ritual of taking test shots, choosing the best lens, and finding the right height for the tripod.

My goal was to make the mountains prominent in the frame but to also include enough surrounding area to give the scene context.

The landscape leading up to the mountains is a combination of tall clumped together tress punctuated by large black rock lava flows.

Storm clouds were forming as a backdrop and cotton candy cirrocumulus clouds loomed overhead. Maybe, just maybe I had the makings of a photo 'keeper'!

I framed the scene, leveled the camera and began to take photos. The sky changed from mostly blue with a tinge of pink to nice mix of both colors. Then the bonus arrived. A set of cumulonimbus storm clouds behind the mountains, probably hanging directly over Bend, emerged adding a bit of yellow.

McKenzie Pass Sisters I 1810162LND8

McKenzie Pass Sisters I 1810162LND8

As I worked through the next 15 minutes changing lenses, filters and tweaking the exposure, I marveled at the what nature had to offer. I truly was "capturing the outdoor world in [amazing] natural light”.

The color faded. I packed my gear and began to traverse the jagged lava rock back to the trail. My hope was to reach the trail before a headlamp was necessary.

When I got back to the road I spent some time talking with some folks traveling in an RV. They too had witnessed the sunset. They too were impressed with natural beauty.

If you would like to join me on my next photo adventure visit Oregon Inspired. Review our list of 1/2, 1 & 2-day scheduled group workshops. We’ll guide to stunning Central Oregon locations and help you capture it with a camera.

Each workshop is led by professional photographers and includes skill and technique instruction. Register today!

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We'd love to guide you to stunning locations and help you capture a dramatic sunset scene like this one!

Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and for your support.


Steve J. Giardini

Nature, Landscape & Lifestyle Photographer

“Capturing the outdoor world in natural light."

Giardini Photography, LLC

Bend, Oregon, USA