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I think we planned on a five day stay in McKenzie River, Oregon as a fill in. Somewhere to stay between Bend and celebrating 4th of July in Eugene.
There was availability in the Paradise Campground, on the McKenzie River Trail, which we found on a random Google search.
It was all that was available in the region, otherwise we may not have gone at all.
It drains part of the Cascade Range east of Eugene and flows westward into the southernmost end of the Willamette Valley.
McKenzie River ended up being one of my favorite places in Oregon, and down below are the must-do waterfalls, lakes, hiking trails, and scenic drives, and where to stay
The McKenzie River Valley is a year-round recreation destination, and a centerpiece for many is the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail.
The trail is 26 miles long and follows the river’s path for most of that length.
It is a very popular mountain biking and hiking trail. Mountain bikers will be pleased to know it’s one of the most famous mountain bike trails in the country and the first 10 or so miles are a “black-diamond” technical trail.
Sadly, we only stayed in this small Pacific Northwest region for 3 nights as we did not have internet connection here.
We weren’t prepared for that and all desperately needed to get online to do some work. The joys of a digital nomad lifestyle.
But, you could easily spend three days in McKenzie River or longer if you just want to relax.
There are two major scenic highways in this area that showcases Oregon’s wildly diverse landscapes: Fir and cedar forests, mossy-green river valleys, snowy glaciated peaks and stark black lava fields.
It’s stunning river and timeless pristine forest makes for the perfect Oregon getaways from Eugene or Bend.
Bend is just under 2 hours to the northeast, and 40 minutes to the southeast is Eugene. And it’s only 2 1/4 hours to Portland.
Here are a few things we discovered during our three days exploring the McKenzie River Trail in Oregon.
McKenzie River Highlights
Drive the Scenic McKenzie River Highway (OR-126)
The OR-126 is where you follow the journey of the Upper McKenzie river as it tumbles over waterfalls and lava flows and flairs it’s shimmering hues of bright blue through the bright green of the forest lining the road.
The Fall colors here are meant to be spectacular.
The McKenzie River Scenic Byway (126) winding its way through the Oregon Cascade Range will mesmerize you.
There are several stops along the journey and we recommend at least half a day to experience them.
These are the unmissable highlights of the McKenzie River Highway.
Hike the Mystical Blue Pool Trail
Ugh, I so wanted to dive into the Blue Pool. I’m not sure how you can safely do that, but I have heard people do.
The Blue Pool’s real name is Tamolitch, which means “tub” or “bucket” in Chinook.
This enchanting pool was formed several thousand years ago, as a result of lava erupting from nearby Belknap Crater – adding a pause in the McKenzie River’s journey.
Blue Pool is where the river reappears from a 3-mile underground detour through a lava tube.
It’s iridescent blue waters speak of refreshingly chilled summer days. The Tamolitch Falls tumble a short distance into the pool before waters keep running down as the Mackenzie River.
The 4 mile return trail feels like you’re wandering through the home of pixies. Its a forest filled with alder trees, lichens and moss, downed discolored trees to climb on and creeks to cross over and many trail bridges.
You can continue hiking to the Carmen Reservoir from here or all the way to Sahalie and Koosah Falls.
I highly recommend you get to the trailhead before 10 am. We had the trail almost to ourselves and the gorgeous views of the blue lagoon were only ours to soak up.
The minute we turned to start the trail back, the crowds came filtering up the trail.
The available parking was all taken by the time we got into our car. The line stretching far back to the highway and adding probably another mile onto your walk in.
Apparently, during the summer peak season it is this way every day until late afternoon when the crowds return to their campfires and ice cold Oregon beer.
- From McKenzie Bridge, take Highway 126 east 13 miles to Trail Bridge Reservoir.
- Turn left (west) on Forest Road 732, crossing the McKenzie River.
- Go straight at the junction, northeast up Forest Road 655 to McKenzie River Trailhead – Tamolitch (Blue Pool).
Kayak on Clear Lake, Oregon
Fancy seeing a forest preserved underneath the depths of a crystal clear blue lake?
We paddled our rowboat with great difficulty to see it, and didn’t really succeed in the attempt.
I think we saw a few trees and decided that was good enough before the kids overtook the oar and began to row the boat in the other direction.
It was too much of a struggle to turn back so we instead appreciated the beautiful views of the lake and the forest surrounding it.
Fed by numerous springs, Clear Lake is the headwaters of the McKenzie River and was formed when an ancient lava flow dammed the stream 3,000 years ago.
This damming of the stream caused water to rise over its banks and cover the forest.
You will not see anyone swimming in Clear Lake, Oregon!
The water is so cold, 37 degrees year round, that the bacteria could not survive in the temperatures to break down the dead trees so they have been preserved as they were when they drowned.
It’s a spectacular lake and when the sun is shining, it’s the perfect place for a picnic, a rowboat, a kayak or stand up paddle board.
You can paddle right up to the volcanic rock frozen in time bordering the lake.
I’d ditch the rowboat for a kayak or SUP board as it was too cumbersome and awkward. Be sure you are not going to fall of your SUP as you’ll be in for quite the shock!
If you’re up for it, there is a 5 mile Clear Lake loop trail.
The Clear Lake Resort is situated here where you can hire the boats and kayaks etc. They also sell food.
Visit Sahalie and Koosah Falls on the Waterfall Hike
The waterfall trail hike is one of the best things to do in McKenzie River Oregon, and my favorite thing to do. Actually, it was one of my favorite things to do in Oregon.
The beauty of this hike alongside the pristine blue river was incredible.
It’s a short 0.5 mile one way trail that meanders beside the river through a green forest and between two waterfalls: Koosah and Sahalie Falls.
You will find more parking at Koosah so we began our hike from there.
You can either hike directly by following the river, or there is a larger 3 mile loop walk going through the forest that takes in the two waterfalls.
We didn’t do this one, but I think the direct path along the river would be far prettier.
The loop walk does not go beside the river, and that was the real highlight for me.
Non-walkers can also see these two waterfalls from the parking lot.
Scenic Drive OR-242: McKenzie Highway
The Scenic 126 McKenzie River Byway turns east onto OR-242 just after the McKenzie Bridge and continues to the town of Sisters.
The wild and scenic McKenzie Highway follows the path of an 1860’s wagon train route winds up through the Willamette National Forest (which is meant to be beautiful in the Fall) until it reaches the open expanses of the ancient lava flow and spectacular 360 degree views of nine of the Cascade Mountains peaks at McKenzie Pass.
From there, the McKenzie Highway continues down through thick lodgepole pine forests, to Sisters.
There are several stops you can make along this road. Here are the two that we made.
Hike the Proxy Falls Loop (Upper and Lower)
Nine miles along the Scenic Drive 242 is the pullover for Proxy Falls, one of the most photographed falls in Central Oregon.
Proxy Falls was definitely the kids’ favorite waterfall along the McKenzie River. (There are loads of waterfalls in Oregon by the way. See more outstanding adventures not to miss on your Oregon road trip).
This one way 1.3 mile loop, located in the Three Sisters Wilderness, travels through open lava fields and dense forest, offering views of two different waterfall: Upper and Lower Proxy Falls.
The first part of the walk is through the unique and beautiful black lava fields before moving into a forested area.
Lower Proxy Falls is the first waterfall you’ll come to and is the most stunning and fun for the kids.
You may think you’re at the end when the trees open up to give you a view of the waterfall cascading down the mountain.
However, you can scramble down to the bottom of the waterfall close to it and feel its spray.
Look up and appreciate its dazzling beauty as it plunges 225 ft. from above you. And jump on the massive log bridge for a spectacular family photo of the falls behind you.
There are plenty of moss covered logs for the kids to walk over and jump over creeks. Be careful it is slippery here.
It’s a different world down here with a feel more of a rainforest. It’s tranquil, lush and beautiful. Be sure to stay awhile and soak it up.
Continue back up to the trail and turn right. A few hundred yards away will be the Upper Proxy Falls.
While not as dazzling as the lower, and you can’t get close to it, it’s worth stopping and appreciating its unique beauty.
Climb over the roots and small hill opposite the falls for the best view of it. Instead of feeding a stream, the water pooled at the foot of the falls seems to disappear, but it’s actually sinking through the porous lava into the ground.
The Proxy Falls trail is meant to be beautiful in the Fall with the vibrant colors against the black lava rocks.
Get Panoramic Views at Dee Wright Observatory
At 5,235 feet of elevation, the Dee Wright Observatory is at the summit of the McKenzie Pass.
The observatory is an open shelter built by the surrounding lava stones.
It’s a very cool structure and super fun place for the kids to reenact Rapunzel’s climb down from the tower and escape from her wicked mother.
This is the place for panoramic views of the Cascade Mountain Ranges.
You’ll be amazed at how many peaks you can see from here on a clear day even as far as Mount Hood in the north near the Washington border along the Columbia River Gorge.
Other peaks easily seen include Mt, Jefferson, Cache Mountain, Dugout Butte, Black Butte, Bluegrass Butte, Black Crater, North Sister, Middle Sister, Little Brother (and ridge west), Condon Butte, Scott Mountain, South Belknap Cone, Belknap Crater, Little Belknap, and Mt. Washington.
Not sure which peak is which?
Not to worry, the observatory was built to help you here. There are viewing windows inside the structure that are cut to specifically highlight the neighboring mountains.
These “lava tube” viewing holes allow visitors to easily identify the different Cascade peaks that one can view in the area.
I thought this was one of the coolest things I’d seen and I loved moving from one window to the other discovering what the peak was in the distance.
There is also a 36 inch diameter, bronze azimuth-like “peak finder” on the roof of observatory’s roof to help you locate the peaks and surrounding geological features.
We ran out of time, but I recommend taking the half-mile long Lava River Interpretive Trail that begins at the observatory through lava beds.
You’ll get the same views as at the observatory, and the trail also offers open beautiful vistas of the surrounding landscape.
But interpretive signs will give you geologic information describing the numerous lava formations along the trail.
Worth learning about one of the latest and most remarkable examples of volcanic activity in North America, this area was created as a result of eruptions from Belknap Crater about 2,000 years ago.
It’s interesting to learn about it.
Enjoy Local Music and Food at McKenzie Bridge General Store
After you have finished exploring the McKenzie River Trail you can relax with local organic food, local craft beer and Willamette Valley wine AND live music at the popular McKenzie General Store.
They also have events like visiting guest speakers and movie nights.
There is a back patio dining area with twinkling lights, a fire pit and picnic tables making it a lovely riverside gathering spot along the McKenzie River.
Foodies will love to know that the McKenzie General Store is featured on the South Willamette Valley Food Trail.
The trail is a self-guided journey through Oregon’s agricultural heartland, which features farm-to-table restaurants, world-class wines and unique on-farm experiences.
The General Store is most noted for its NW Salmon Tacos, made from fresh-caught, wild salmon and their locally sourced Lookout Pulled Pork Sandwich, featuring a house-made marionberry and bourbon BBQ sauce.
We were disappointed that the sound was not very good on the night we visited, and due to where we were sitting we could not hear the singer very well.
It would have been very memorable otherwise as the setting was so homegrown and picturesque and the food good.
The McKenzie Bridge General Store is also the place to pick up your supplies for your days adventures.
The have a variety of general grocery items, with a focus on natural, local organic products.
Map of Mckenzie River, Oregon
Where to Stay at McKenzie River, Oregon
They were not wrong in how they named it Paradise Campsite.
It’s tucked within a lush, old-growth forest of Douglas fir and western red cedar, with ferns covering the ground and moss draping the trees.
It has a sub-tropical vibe along the banks of the McKenzie River. I wish we could have stayed here longer, it was so tranquil and peaceful.
Our sites were large with ample space for sitting in the forest and for the kids to play among the trees and the vines. They even created a little world of swinging hammocks they hung out in.
Be sure to book in advance, especially if you want a river site.
The river runs too fast for safe swimming, but kayakers and rafters will love it. It’s $24 a night. See more here.
Belknap Hot Springs Lodge and Gardens
The Belknap Hot Springs Resort’s claim to fame are its hot springs, which is free for guests to use.
Belknap is an old school lodge nestled in the most spectacular scenery and hiking country on the McKenzie River.
It offers lodge rooms, cabins and RV camping.
Belknap has two mineral hot spring pools and many acres of gardens including the extravagant Secret Garden and is open all year.
Belknap Hot Springs have been open to the public since the 1870s.
You can pay a day use fee to enjoy the hot springs (lower pool only) if you don’t stay here – $8 an hour, or $15 for a day.
They were quite busy when we went and the pool was quite small and looked just like a concrete pool so we decided to save our money.
Guests have access to the upper hot spring pool which we did not get a chance to see.
Access to the hot springs as a guest may be a great reason to choose Belknap Hot Springs Resort for your McKenzie River accommodation.
Eagle Rock Lodge
Offering views of the river, Eagle Rock Lodge is located in Vida, Oregon on 5 acres of garden, forest, and riverside property.
Guests can enjoy having bonfires along the river bank at the property.
Recent guests said they loved complimentary wine, stunning location and excellent breakfast.
From cozy, rustic cabins to riverside retreats, Airbnb has several options for places to stay in McKenzie River Oregon.
Car Rental for McKenzie River, Oregon
As with most places in Oregon, the McKenzie River area is best explored via car.
Check car rental prices and availability for Eugene departures
RV and Campervan Rental
When you book your RV rental online through the secure RVshare payment system, it’s backed by a $10,000 peace of mind guarantee.
Every rental booked online through RVshare comes with 24-hour travel concierge and roadside assistance!