The river spills its secrets for Wayfarer Resort's guests.
The McKenzie River in central Oregon is not the West's longest, wildest, or best–known watercourse. From its headwaters in the Cascades to the point where it joins the Willamette River near Eugene, it runs just 90 miles
But what a run.
The McKenzie begins at Clear Lake, formed some 3,000 years ago when lava from nearby Sand Mountain dammed up a free–flowing stream. The lake is so crystalline that you can paddle out, look down, and see, rising up from 175 feet below, a ghostly forest of preserved trees. From here, the river tumbles down the steep mountain through fern–lush rapids and over two thunderous waterfalls. And then, as if by magic, it disappears into the fractures of another lava field, resurfacing three miles downhill in a luminous turquoise pool.
As the river rolls on, patches of churning white water interrupt long placid stretches where reflections of the banks on the gently rippling surface recall impressionist paintings. Its many moods make the river a perfect playground for vacationers.
"If you've never tried white–water rafting," says longtime river guide Dan Justus, "the McKenzie is a great place to start." There are thrills, he promises, but without the spills. Meanwhile, the river's quiet passages are a haven for hikers, fishing aficionados, and idlers who simply want to float along, soak up the sun, and watch the world go by.
At Paradise Campground on Highway 126 at milepost 53 (or 53 miles up from I-5), more than two dozen outfitters launch floating and fishing trips in crafts that range from white–water rafts and pontoon boats to canoes and kayaks. However, the classic ride, offered by several companies, is in a broad–beamed McKenzie drift boat. "It's a beautiful boat with a high bow and curved bottom that's specially designed for the river," says guide Stan Steele, whose father, Keith, a master boatbuilder, hauled his tools to Washington, D.C., to build one for the nation's 1976 bicentennial.
Whether by boat or car, a trip along the McKenzie steeps you in history both cultural and natural. At the little hamlet of McKenzie Bridge, the river runs in view of the Log Cabin Inn, a late–19th–century stagecoach stop. From there the river sweeps past old–growth stands of Douglas fir, massive rock monoliths, airy groves of hazelnut trees, and banks thick and lush with red huckleberries and Oregon grapes. Near Rainbow it flows under Belknap Bridge, one of two covered bridges that span the river. The other, the Goodpasture Bridge downriver from Vida (at milepost 26), is the state's second longest. Only about 50 of these bridges, originally covered to prolong their lives in this rainy region, still stand in Oregon.
At Blue River, little remains of the mining operations begun in 1863, which eventually yielded more than $1 million in gold. Yet anyone idling downriver is likely to see what miners toiling on the banks would have glimpsed: harlequin ducks, ospreys, and sometimes even bald eagles.
Keep a sharp eye out and you could also spot a family of mink or river otters as they splash by the banks. Among the most startling sights are American dippers, also called water ouzels. These slate gray, starling–size birds hop right into rushing currents, dive down, then strut along the river bottom in search of food. "Since the water here is so clear," says Steele, "there's no better place to see them."
Not to mention the river's abundant fish. The McKenzie is generously stocked with rainbow trout and chinook salmon from two downriver hatcheries, while wild salmon and native rainbow, cutthroat, and endangered bull trout also prowl the waters. In fact, it's not unusual during summer months to spy up to 300 fish in one hole.
But you don't have to wet your feet to soak up the valley's beauty, thanks to the 26.5–mile McKenzie River National Recreation Trail. It begins at a trailhead on Highway 126 one mile west of the McKenzie Ranger Station and closely follows the river north all the way to a spot above Clear Lake. The path leads through old–growth groves, across old lava beds, and over several tributaries by way of log bridges. Ten access points along Highway 126 make it easy for you to stop and hike any stretch of the trail; parking is free.
By far the most spectacular loop leads past 100–foot Sahalie and 70–foot Koosah falls, while a trail less traveled leads to Tamolitch Pool, where the McKenzie resurfaces after its underground passage. "It really is an amazing sight—a heavy–duty, full–fledged river issuing directly out of the ground," says Dave Kretzing, a hydrologist for the McKenzie River Ranger District. Snowmelt from the high Cascades flows for some 10 years both aboveground and belowground to reach here, Kretzing says, one reason for the river's striking clarity.
Boating and hiking may be top attractions, but bicyclists also prize the river trail's twists and turns. And avid golfers with a day or two to spare should definitely pack their woods and irons. A few miles east of Blue River, the Tokatee Golf Club offers 18 challenging holes made even trickier by arresting vistas of the Three Sisters, a trio of snow–tipped peaks. And whether you golf, hike, bike, or ride the river, you can soothe sore muscles at Belknap Hot Springs, where two heated pools fed by thermal mineral springs are open to both guests and day visitors ($8.50 a day or $4.50 an hour).
Although the valley's cuisine is more hearty than haute, the cafés and restaurants that line the river pepper their menus with regional specialties: panfried trout, grilled salmon, fresh berry pie and cobbler, and local hazelnuts, chopped and seared onto grilled chicken. Many fishing and rafting packages include lunch (trout or salmon, naturally), and hikers can find picnic fare at any of several markets along the way. It's a good idea to show up early if you hope to grab one of the 13 shaded tables at Ben & Kay Dorris State Park, upriver from Vida. Or if you're late you can always find a streamside place in the sunshine. There's also a far more secluded picnic spot on Goodpasture Road that has just one table and a fine, high view of the river—but keep it a secret, please—about four miles east of the Goodpasture covered bridge.
If you like, you can spend a whole week along the McKenzie and not run out of things to do. But a three–day stay gives plenty of time to explore the area and its trails. Even if you're driving I–5 and have only a few hours to spare, it's still worth a side trip. The perfect place for a sneak preview of the valley—the sparkling river and its verdant banks—is 11 miles east of Eugene at Hendricks Bridge Wayside Park. Sit for a spell on a sunny rock. Dip your toes in the cool, clear water. Plan your next trip here.
Photography by Greg Vaughn
This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Oregon & Washington TourBook and map or the Northwestern CampBook. Area code is 541 unless noted. Contact the McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce at 896-3330 or visit mckenzie.orenews.com.
TO DO AND SEE
Dean Helfrich & Sons River Outfitters Fishing, white-water, and float trips. 747-8401. Justus Outfitter & Guide Service Rafting and fishing trips. 342-3587. McKenzie Ranger Station Trail maps and other information. 57600 McKenzie Hwy., 822-3381, www.fs.fed.us/r6/willamette/general/offices/#mck. Oregon Whitewater Adventures White-water rafting, scenic float, and fishing trips. (800) 820-7238, www.oregonwhitewater.com. River Run Oregon McKenzie drift boat trips, white-water rafting, and fishing trips. 752-8350, www.riverrunoregon.com. Schaefers Guide Service Fishing and rafting trips. 896-3789.
Finn Rock Grill Soups, salads, and hamburgers served on a deck overlooking the river. 50660 McKenzie Hwy., Finn Rock, 822-6080. Log Cabin Inn Generous dishes from salmon and trout to pork ribs, venison, and ravioli. The inn's marionberry cobbler à la mode is legendary. 56483 McKenzie Hwy., McKenzie Bridge, 822-3432. Takoda's House specialties include fluffy omelets and gourmet pizzas. 91806 Mill Creek Rd., Blue River, 822-1153. Vida Café Simple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, plus delicious homemade fruit pies. 45641 McKenzie Hwy., Vida, 896-3289.
Belknap Hot Springs Lodge & Gardens Rooms $85–$185, cabins $55–$400. 59296 Belknap Springs Rd., McKenzie Bridge, 822-3512, www.belknaphotsprings.com. Holiday Farm Resort $135–$400. 54455 McKenzie River Dr., Blue River, 822-3715, (800) 823-3715, www.holidayfarmresort.com. Log Cabin Inn $65–$120. 56483 McKenzie Hwy., McKenzie Bridge, 822-3432, (800) 355-3432, www.logcabininn.com. Wayfarer Resort $95–$265. 46725 Goodpasture Rd., Vida, 896-3613, (800) 627-3613, www.wayfarerresort.com.