No matter which side of the Cascades you live on, the McKenzie River offers a refreshing escape from a hot summer day. Accessed a few miles south of the junction of highways 20 and 126, there are numerous parking lots that make a perfect meeting spot between the southern Willamette Valley and Central Oregon.
The easiest, most popular and most impressive section of the 26.5-mile McKenzie River Trail is near its origin, where Sahalie Falls roars and Koosah Falls fans over basalt cliffs. Because of the volume of water, both falls can appear much taller than they actually are, though that doesn’t make them any less impressive. In between, the river rumbles over rocks and funnels through deep channels, where whitewater shares the spotlight with brilliant aqua and deep green.
A half-mile separates the waterfalls, and it can be traversed by trail or road. Although the footpath through old-growth forest is a little bumpy and has stairs in some areas, I can attest that even an 80-something grandmother can make the trek from one viewpoint to another. The west bank has more undulations and is frequented by mountain bikers, but it’s generally less crowded and offers of different perspective of each the falls. Numerous spurs off the main trail lead to the shore of the river, so children should be watched carefully.
The great thing about the McKenzie River Trail is that it gives you options. Hike or bike. A drive-by, an easy loop hike long enough to require a shuttle. Make it a pit stop or an entire weekend. A 2.5-mile loop from Sahalie Falls to Carmen Reservoir and back delivers the most postcards for minimal effort. There’s plenty to see no matter how much time you have, with several campgrounds along the trail for those who want to linger.
You can picnic along the river and watch dip their heads into the current for food, or head upstream about a half-mile to Clear Lake, the river’s origin. (Connect either via the trail or by driving.) A few miles south of the reservoir is Tamolitch Pool, also known as Blue Pool for its topaz hue. It sits below a dry fall that the McKenzie used to drop over. The river now flows underground, some through a lava bed and some diverted to a power plant, and reappears at this pool. Crazy people jump in, which, as you might expect, is dangerous.
For most, the powerful cascades and colorful river will be thrilling enough.