Oregon is renowned for outdoor recreation and the McKenzie River in central Oregon is a great place to experience so much the state has to offer. From hiking on old lava flows to relaxing in ancient hot springs, the McKenzie River is loaded with family friendly fun. All of the local activities, accommodation and even the highway follows this beautiful river.
On our recent multi-family road trip to Oregon, we started our adventure on the the McKenzie River located in the lush green forests east of Eugene. This river is not only beautiful, it is special in that it is fed by a network of cold (ice cold!) springs located under lava flows in the Cascade Range. Some of this water has been underground for 7 years! Because of how the river is supplied, even with the epic drought in the West, the river never runs dry. Read on for our recommendations on what to do, where to stay and what to eat while visiting this beautiful part of Oregon.
What to Do
Cascades Raptor Center
Technically in Eugene, this is worth the detour if you aren’t going through Eugene. A cute nature center and wildlife hospital focusing on rehabilitating rescued raptors. The center itself isn’t massive but is so well done and is staffed by incredibly informative employees who are never shy to answer questions. The Cascades Raptor Center is a must for any bird lovers as you get the opportunity to get up close to everything from snowy owls to bald eagles. There is also a cheeky resident crow who will delight and entertain visitors as they pass by!
They say you haven’t visited the McKenzie River unless you have rafted down it! There are several tour operators providing guided half day and full day tours on the river. The rapids are quite mellow here making this an ideal place to go for your first rafting trip. However, I hear there are also areas with stronger rapids for those looking for a bit more excitement! High Country Expeditions offers a half day tour that accommodates families quite easily with about 2.5 hrs on the river. Departing and returning to the Belknap Springs Resort makes it convenient for those staying on the river. It’s a beautiful day out on one of the clearest rivers out there. Watch out for osprey and blue heron searching for prey on the river.
There are several places along the McKenzie River for visitors to experience real hot springs. The most sanitized version is at the Belknap Hot Springs Lodge. These are actual pools fed by the local hot springs. It costs $8 per hour or $15 for the day. Swimsuits are required and children under 2 (and not potty trained) are not allowed.
For a more local hot spring experience, head to Terwilliger Hot Springs, also known as Cougar Springs. A visit to this hot springs is what most people envision when they think of soaking in springs. After a 1/4 mile hike through lush forest, you will arrive to the 5 hot springs pools separated by rocks. Clothing is optional and you will definitely see many people without clothes on! Admission is $6 per person which includes parking and access to the pools.
If you don’t want to pay for a hot springs experience and want a quick dip, there is a small ‘warm springs’ pool located about 7 miles from the McKenzie River Ranger Station. It is not signposted and is not super easy to find. Ask at the ranger station for a map. Once you find the turn off the highway on Deer Creek Road, you will cross a small bridge. Park in the small parking lot near the campground and cross over the street. Head down near the bridge and follow the path. You will see the warm springs pool on your way. Again, this one is clothing optional, which people take seriously here!
Dee Wright Observatory
Not quite the type of observatory you might imagine, this lava rock castle looking observatory located deep in the Willamette Valley offers grand views over 65 miles of lava rock landscape rather than insight into the starry night! As you make your way up the stairs (or paved ramp on the backside), you will find interpretive boards with information about early travelers and the local geology. Once you reach the top, you will find cut out windows in the rock framing the surrounding mountain peaks. Continuing up to the roof, you will find a bronze mountain peak finder with the names and elevations of the surrounding mountains. It’s a great way to get a handle on all the local mountain peaks you will see as you venture around Oregon. If you are lucky, on a clear day you can see all the way to Mt. Hood.
There is also an interpretive trail, the Lava River National Recreation Trail, that offers beautiful views over the lava fields as well as more information about the lava flows that occurred here. Keep your eyes open for the adorable chipmunks that will race across the lava fields!
Proxy Falls Hike
Proxy Falls is one of 5 waterfalls in the Willamette National Forest. This 1.5 mile loop trail is easily accessible for families with mostly flat dirt and lava rock paths and little to no major drop off sections. However, it is not stroller friendly. This hike actually has two waterfalls that can be viewed, one of which drops 226 feet. The other waterfall appears to end into nothing, not flowing away in a stream, rather disappearing through the porous lava into the ground. This is some of the coldest water I have ever stepped in. Cooling off in the falls turned into having feet on fire within minutes.
Where to Stay
The beauty of the McKenzie River is that there are an abundance of picturesque places to stay for all budgets. From house rentals along the banks of the river to the Belknap Hot Springs Lodge to camping or cabins in the Cascades, you will surely find your ideal place. We loved our Vacasa rental situated on the banks of the river outside of Vida. For other options on where to stay, check out the Eugene Cascades Coast for a variety of rental options in the area.
Where to Eat
There are not a ton of places to eat along the river, so load up on supplies before you leave Eugene (or Bend). There are limited stores along this area. The few shops that are around stock basic necessities and dry goods. We were tired of cooking for ourselves, so we ventured out a bit to try the local restaurants. We loved the Obsidian Grill at the McKenzie General Store. There is a beautiful outdoor seating area behind the general store with a few yard games, picnic tables and plenty of space for the kids to roam around. The food was made to order and delicious! Get an order of onion rings. They are massive and so so good!
We also tried Takoda’s Restaurant which is great for a more traditional diner feel. We never made it out for breakfast, but Vida Cafe sounds delicious and worth a try if you are in the area. Apart from a handful of places, there are very few options for eating out, so make sure you have stocked up on food before you arrive to the area.
The McKenzie River is the perfect family destination for a weekend away or a week long holiday. Have you been? Any other recommendations?
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