Oregon is renowned for outdoor recreation and the wild and scenic McKenzie River, Oregon is a great place to experience so much the state has to offer. The McKenzie River is a tributary of the Willamette River that runs through this area and is a favorite spot for mountain bikers, hikers, and rafting and fishing enthusiasts alike
On our 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.
From hiking on old lava flows to relaxing in ancient hot springs, the McKenzie River in Oregon is loaded with family friendly fun. The McKenzie River area is one of our favorite spots to visit in the Pacific Northwest. Read on for our recommendations on what to do, where to stay and what to eat while visiting this beautiful part of Oregon.
The Best Things to Do in the McKenzie River Area
1 | Cascades Raptor Center
Technically the Cascades Raptor Center is located in Eugene, however this is worth the detour if you aren’t going through Eugene. This cute nature center and wildlife hospital focuses on rehabilitating rescued raptors. For our animal loving crew, this was a must visit.
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!
2 | Raft on the McKenzie River
They say you haven’t visited McKenzie River, Oregon unless you have rafted down it! This is an alpine river high in the Cascade Mountains, with its headwaters located at Clear Lake. Rafters cascade through a canyon blanketed in Douglas fir and old growth forest with picturesque waterfalls and stunning views of snow-capped mountains.
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 rafting trips on the most section of the river including the upper McKenzie River. For families, they offer a half day tour with about 2.5 hrs on the river. Tours begin in two areas – the Olallie campground ending at Blue River boat ramp or the lower portion which begins at Blue River and ends at Thompson Lane. 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.
The McKenzie River area is an amazing destination throughout the year, but especially during the summer. One of the highlights is the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail, which offers 26 miles of trail that is popular with both hikers and mountain bikers.
3 | Soak in Natural Hot Springs
If you follow us at all, you know that we are suckers for hot springs. One of our favorite places in California is near Mammoth Hot Springs, so when we heard there were hot springs here, we had to check them out. 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. They offer hour passes or day passes. 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!
One of the top places to visit in the McKenzie River area of Oregon is the Tamolitch Blue Pool, also known as Tamolitch Falls. This pool was formed thousands of years ago from lava erupting. The Blue Pool is where the river comes above ground after a 3 mile excursion through a lava tube! The water is icy cold, but refreshing (for some!) on those hot summer days.
This heavily trafficked 4 mile trail is filled with what I think of as typical Oregon scenery – fallen moss covered trees perfect for clamoring over. Absolutely gorgeous in typically with perfect hiking weather.
While it’s not against the rules to jump in, the sheer fall and rocky ledges make me say no way. If you do go for it.. be careful! The pool is 30 feet deep with no gradual edges which make it difficult to claw your way out when you are tired.
As this is a busy trail, make sure to arrive early to get a parking spot. The easiest way to get here is from the McKenzie Bridge, take highway 126 to the Trail Bridge Reservoir. Go west on this road (Forest Road 732) crossing the McKenzie River. Continue on to Forest Road 655 to the Tamolitch trailhead (also noted as McKenzie River Trailhead)
5 | Explore Lava Fields at 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. 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, there is a helpful bronze mountain peak finder with the names and elevations of the surrounding mountains. The observatory offers 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!
Tip: On your way to the Dee Wight Observatory, stop on the side of the road and have fun exploring the massive fields of lava rock. It’s a kids climbing heaven! But beware – lava rocks are sharp!
6 | Cool off on the 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 with 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. However it is beautiful and well worth the time to get here. While hiking around, keep your eyes open for small snakes and other creatures of the forest!
7 | Explore the Scenic Drives with Hikes, Cute Towns & More
There are two main scenic drives that you will find yourself on during your visit. If you have time, venture around a bit more to see what you can discover. There are numerous hikes along these different roads that are worth exploring more.
,The McKenzie River Scenic Byway (Highway 126) winds through the Cascade Range offering some beautiful highlights all along the way. At the end of this road you can venture off to 242 towards the quirky town of Sisters for even more incredible natural beauty.
Spots to check out:
- Koosah & Sahali Falls: A short trail along the river between these two waterfalls makes for a quick stop off, or find yourself on the 3 mile loop going deep into the forest.
- The McKenzie Falls General Store which is one of the area’s best known secrets for great food, beer and entertainment.
- Walterville is a cute little town with spring fed aquifers full of rainbow trout, spring chinook and more – perfect for fishing. The Hendricks Bridge County Park illustrates the way prospectors, trappers and homesteaders utilized different ways of crossing the powerful river. In July the region hosts the McKenzie River Lavender Festival, with U-cut fields, a lavender labyrinth, a craft bazaar and other festivities.
- Old McKenzie Fish Hatchery is a 1907 hatchery complex with 17 buildings and ponds that appear as they did a century ago. Now a park, it includes a visitor kiosk, trails and interpretive signs explaining the hatchery’s legacy. The famed McKenzie drift boat originated here in the 1930s, specifically designed to deftly navigate the river.
- Onward towards Vida, you will happen across the Goodpasture Bridge which is the state’s second-longest covered bridge and one of the prettiest with arched and louvered windows. Perfect instagram spot if I ever saw one!
Best Places to Stay in the McKenzie River Oregon
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 resorts 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.
Some options to explore include:
- Belknap Hot Springs Lodge – Hot springs with a resort feel
- Eagle Rock Lodge
- For more options on where to stay, check out the Eugene Cascades Coast for a variety of rental options in the area.
There are a ton of great campgrounds in the area as well. Two that we have been recommended include Paradise Campground and Cougar Campgrounds. Ideally, being close to the river would be nice even though much of the McKenzie river runs too fast for swimming, it’s always nice to be near water in my opinion!
Amazing Places to Eat in the McKenzie River Area
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?
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