McKenzie River

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If heaven exists on earth, surely the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail would qualify. The 26-mile trail winds through old growth forests, tumbling waterfalls, a lake so clear you can see 100 feet to its bottom, a pool so mysteriously blue it defies explanation, ancient lava flows, hot springs and handmade log bridges. Best of all, it’s easily reachable off Highway 126 between Sisters and Eugene.

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photo by Mike Putnam

Oregon native Jule Gilfillan, an Emmy-winning producer of OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide,” said the famous trail was just as “gorgeous and fabulous as I could have imagined” after her first trip. “I was stunned into a state of awe by the old-growth forests,” she added. McKenzie River begins as the outflow of Clear Lake, the starting point for most people hiking or biking the trail. Go around either side of the lake, but on a bike, the west side is gentle, the east side gnarly. The trail eventually merges and crosses the highway. A few miles downstream are Sahalie and Koosah falls, great stopping places for selfies or group shots. After this, the river goes underground. “It’s weird walking along a rushing river and all of a sudden it disappears and becomes silent,” said Gilfillan. It re-emerges at the Tamolitch/Blue Pool, a stunningly still pool that invites contemplation, wonder and a few more shots. 

The trail gets easier to navigate after the lava flow beyond the Blue Pool. Revel in the rain forest filled with moss and ferns, tumbling water, quaint bridges and eventually Belknap Hot Springs. A pull-off area along the highway about a mile past the McKenzie River Ranger Station signals the trail’s end (or beginning if you choose to travel uphill).

“I really liked the trail’s multiuse—bikers, hikers and school children on field trips,” Gilfillan said. “It tickled me to hear the kids’ enthusiasm.” For a multiday trip, camp and make loops along the trail or bike it one-way, but you’ll need to arrange a shuttle with friends or hire a ride from the  McKenzie River Mountain Resort. Gilfillan added that she never travels without trekking poles and dark chocolate. 

 

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