Oregon has more than its share of exhilarating and beautiful waterways stretching from the rugged Pacific coast to the Cascade mountains’ volcanic peaks. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the beaver state, take a drive along the McKenzie River.
Flowing from an underground spring in the central Cascade lava fields, this designated Wild and Scenic River was made of fire and ice. Wandering for 90-miles through the Willamette National Forest, beneath obsidian glass cliffs and ancient growth forest, the ‘Blue McKenzie’ is a river for all seasons.
McKenzie River hot springs
On the riverbanks, about 60-miles equidistant between Bend and Eugene sits Belknap Hot Springs, where one can blissfully soak away winter-weary woes. Opened in 1874, the hot springs have been accessible to the public almost continually. Native Americans believed there was magic here. The Lodge, cabins, and campground provide amenities for all comers. Across the river, their Secret Gardens are as mesmerizing as they are beautiful. Greek-inspired columns, serene pools and fountains, mini man-made waterfalls, and meandering pathways surround ethereal gardens.
In the spring, the forest awakens with a warm glow, beckoning the traveler to the riverbank to enjoy a picnic. Every turnout and roadside stop provide postcard-worthy photos of the river with wildflowers in bloom. The Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Bachelor’s peaks might peek out above the treetops as an osprey swoops down from overhead.
Stop in the Blue Sky Market in Rainbow for deli delights. The Obsidian Store and Grill in McKenzie Bridge can fill your picnic basket with artisan breads and cheeses, local blueberries, and Oregon wines and craft beers.
A side trip up the winding Old McKenzie Highway passes by Proxy Falls, a 200-ft shimmering veil of water. Historic Dee Wright Observatory, constructed entirely of lava rock, offers a panoramic 65-mile view of the volcanic peaks all the way to Mt. Hood. And there are numerous trailheads into the Three Sisters Wilderness. Eventually, you will end up in Sisters, a delightfully western, crafty town.
Summer is when the McKenzie explodes with outdoor activities. River rafting is a fun way to see it from the inside out. Imagine rushing through the rapids as the white water hits your face with a splendid icy chill, everyone shrieking in delight. Or gliding along the calm, crystal waters, fishing line dragging behind, seeking the elusive iridescent rainbow trout, and then pulling up to a secret secluded spot along the bank for a gourmet lunch. Book a trip from one of the many outfitters and guide services available. Not a boater? No worries, the McKenzie is also a favorite of fly fisherman.
Wave hello as the boaters glide by your campsite in one of the Willamette National Forest campgrounds. Two favorites are Paradise – the name speaks for itself – and Ollalie. They are close to Sahalie and Koosah Falls on the 26-mile McKenzie River Trail, a world-class destination for hiking and mountain biking.
Every 2nd weekend in July ushers in the McKenzie River Lavender Farm Festival and the acres are in full, fragrant bloom. Cut a bouquet or purchase a live plant for your garden and take home a bottle of lavender oil. Local artisans offer unique foodstuffs, arts, and crafts. Music enlivens the party.
Pull-on your rain boots and head to Herrick Farm Store. Slosh around the pumpkin patch to find your perfect jack-o-lantern-to-be. Next stop, Spring Creek Holly Farm, a family tradition since 1934, is the place for a handmade swag or a wreath to usher in the holiday season. Further up-river, the hazelnuts have fallen for the harvest, Christmas tree farms are open for business, the blueberry bushes have turned crimson and orange. The forest emerges in glorious fall colors.
Like the Phoenix
Traveling the McKenzie Santiam Pass Scenic Byway is a picturesque riverside journey from Eugene to Bend. Still, there is so much to see and do, you really ought to stay a day or three. Being outdoors in Oregon is rejuvenating. The McKenzie River is surviving despite the devastating Holiday Fire in the summer of 2020. It’s rising like the Phoenix out of the ashes.
Posted on a roadside marquis were the words “Faith, Hope, and Love.” A short but meaningful message that helped brighten the dim vision of the devastation caused by the fire.
McKenzie River lodging and eateries
About Deb Dickerson—Deb is a freelance travel writer and copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest. She believes road trips are essential, and the only way to see the world is by traveling off the interstates. However, when the world turns cold and gray, a big jet might take her to where it’s warm and sunny. Southern Mexico is her favorite destination. You can see her other work in International Living, Short Weeks-Long Weekends, Travel Thru History, Travel Post Monthly, and other local publications. Visit her website, Deborah Dickerson.