Stacks Image 421

Hiking the Pioneer Santiam Wagon Road

There’s nothing quite like walking an old pioneer wagon road to bring immediacy to Central Oregon’s history. One can almost hear the creaking of the freight wagons and the “hee” and “haw” shouts of the mule drivers. Operated as a private toll road, the Santiam Wagon Road was a vital route across the Cascade Mountains from the late 1860s to the 1930s.
Photo of old freight wagon and team
Today, from late spring to early fall, one can walk a well-preserved section of this pioneer road on a shady 3.0-mile hike, which winds through stately groves of old-growth Douglas fir.

History of the Santiam Wagon Road
The original need for a road arose in the mid-1850s, when settlers in the Willamette Valley realized that pasture lands were becoming scarce, and they needed an easier route back over the Cascades to Central Oregon’s grasslands than the way they came on the Oregon Trail. In 1859, Andrew Wiley led a group of Lebanon pioneers up the South Santiam River scouting a new route over the Cascades, following existing Native American trails. In 1864, the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Road Company was formed, and by 1867, the road was completed as far as Fish Lake. In 1868, it was extended to Camp Polk, two miles northeast of present day Sisters.

Stacks Image 423

The wagon road was a well-maintained enterprise that included bridges, toll gates and road houses. A rider with a good horse could make the trip across the Cascades in four days, stopping each night at a road house where hay, a bed and a meal cost 25 cents each. Early traffic on the road was primarily sheep and cattle being herded east over the mountains to graze in Central Oregon for the summer, then herded back to the Willamette Valley in the fall.
Old car on wagon road
By the 1890s, much of the traffic was west-bound wagon trains loaded with bags of wool, headed for woolen mills in the Valley. For several decades, a stage and mail line also operated between Sisters and Cascadia.

By the early 1900s, however, railroads had considerably reduced the wagon road’s freight traffic. By the 1920s, use of the road declined and nearly ceased when the McKenzie Highway was completed to Sisters. The road company was dissolved in 1925, and the rights to the wagon road were sold to Linn County. In 1939, the Santiam Highway was completed, supplanting the route of the old Santiam Wagon Road.

Hiking the Santiam Wagon Road
Though several remnants of the old road can be hiked today, one of the better preserved and less traveled is the 3-mile section to the east of the Fish Lake Station. The trailhead is just an hour’s drive from Bend on paved, all-weather roads.
Santiam wagon road through lava field
Starting in Bend, take Hwy 20 through Sisters, past Black Butte Ranch, to Santiam Pass. About 9 miles west of the pass, turn south on Hwy 126. Then drive 2.0 miles south to the signed turnoff for the McKenzie River Trail parking area on the left. (See the Travel Map download below, for both driving and hiking maps).

From the paved parking area, the wide trail goes south, past the turnoff on the right for the McKenzie River Trail footbridge, and past an interpretive board about the wagon road. For the first half-mile, the double-track trail wanders over a rugged lava field, which flowed from the Nash Crater to the north about 3,000 years ago. There are clusters of giant Douglas firs in this section, and the shrub maple understory offers vibrant fall color. It’s not uncommon to encounter mountain bikers on this part of the old road.

Santiam wagon road through old-growth firs
At 0.7 miles, the now single-track trail begins a long, steady climb up through smaller firs, past a white marker post at 1 mile, to the top of a gentle ridge. One feels for the mules who pulled heavy freight wagons up this long grade! For the next half mile, the route runs nearly level along the ridge top, through primeval stands of Douglas and grand fir. At 1.7 miles, the road meanders across over a flat open plateau, past a white marker post at 2 miles, with a drier, more sparse understory. Past 2.4 miles, the road ascends a series of gentle benches, through more big fir groves again, any one of which can make a shady lunch spot on a hot summer day. At 3.0 miles, the hike ends where the old wagon road meets Forest Road 2676.

Download (PDF, 677 KB): Photos of Santiam Wagon Road Hike
Download (PDF, 562 KB): Travel Map for Santiam Wagon Road Hike

DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, but the authors do not guarantee that it is either current or correct. The reader assumes full responsibility for any use of this information, and is encouraged to exercise all due caution while recreating.

Back to Blog Page