About an hour east of Eugene begins the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail, 26 1/2 miles blazed through an old, diverse forest along untamed whitewater. In one 7-mile stretch, hikers and mountain bikers pass two large waterfalls, a stunning turquoise pool, lava fields and stands of hundreds-year-old Douglas firs to the sound of rushing waters. And this time of year, vine maples add a splash of fall color.
Chandra LeGue of Oregon Wild recently led a five-hour hike along that popular stretch as part of the 39-year-old conservation group’s effort to highlight places they’re working to protect.
LeGue considers the Upper McKenzie watershed vital not only because of its reputation as “Eugene’s wilderness playground,” but also because it’s the sole source of drinking water for nearly 200,000 people in metro Eugene, and generates electricity to power 16,000 homes.
The 7-mile, one-way hike organized by Oregon Wild began at thundering Sahalie Falls, just steps from the trailhead parking lot on Highway 126, about 70 miles east of Eugene and a few miles downstream from where the McKenzie River begins at Clear Lake.
After taking in views of the 100-foot plunge, a short downhill march along the riverbank takes hikers past a 70-foot-tall cascade, Koosah Falls.
Less than a half-mile later, the trail empties onto a road that crosses the Carmen Diversion Reservoir, part of a hydroelectric power system owned by Eugene Water & Electric Board that diverts water before returning it to the river several miles downstream. Hikers cross a bridge and turn right into the forest to regain the trail.
The next few miles meander along the McKenzie’s dry riverbed, through a diverse forest filled with fir, maple, hemlock, cedar and yew, before arriving at a cliff overlooking a sparkling turquoise pool. Tamolitch Pool, also known as Blue Pool, is where the McKenzie re-emerges above ground. In late spring, it’s possible to see water cascading into the pool’s clear waters.
From here the terrain changes as the trail slices through ancient lava flows. Moss-covered lava rocks are strewn among old-growth fir and cedar along these final two miles to Trail Bridge Campground.
The entire hike is moderately easy and relatively flat, descending about 600 feet in elevation. There are two loop options as well: a 2.6-mile route that circles the first two waterfalls, and another 4.6-mile circle around Clear Lake. Both loop hikes are “very popular,” according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Tyson Cross, “with much higher use than other parts of the trail.”
The one-way hiking option requires multiple vehicles. From Eugene, follow Highway 126 east and turn left into the Trailbridge Campground area, about 14 miles beyond McKenzie Bridge. Cross the bridge, turn right and proceed about 1/3 mile to the trailhead. Leave one vehicle here, then continue driving about 5.5 miles east on Highway 126 to the parking lot for Sahalie Falls to begin the hike.
If you’ve got only one vehicle, LeGue recommends starting at the Trailbridge Campground and hiking the two miles to Tamolitch Pool.
Stay tuned to Oregon Field Guide for their story about the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail, airing next spring.