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NW Life | Water | Oregon Field Guide Summer Series

Trekking The Majestic McKenzie River Trail


When two groups who rarely get along — mountain bikers and hikers —both nickname it “America’s No. 1 Trail,” you know it must be something special. The 26-mile McKenzie River Trail travels along some of the clearest water, most dramatic waterfalls and majestic old-growth forests in all of Oregon.

The source of this extraordinary river corridor starts high above in the Cascade mountains just west of the Three Sisters. Years of rain and snow melt percolate down through the region’s porous lava beds and fill Clear Lake with some of the coldest, purest water anywhere.

The water is so cold that very few lifeforms can exist in it, resulting in both the lake’s stunning blue color as well as the remarkable preservation of an ancient, submerged forest still visible beneath the water’s surface.

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As the McKenzie River spills from Clear Lake, the landscape’s volcanic origins make for rocky and difficult terrain. Mountain bikers sometimes pop a tube on the trail’s sharp edges, but the stunning views of Sahalie and Koosah Falls along the way make it all worth it. 

A few miles downstream, the rushing water disappears underground and the forest gets quiet. The river re-emerges at Tamolitch Pool, an achingly blue pond so cold that some people have actually gone into cardiac arrest after diving in. Forest managers help reduce the usual hazards common to other multi-use trails by keeping the forest vistas open so that slow-moving hikers and faster bikers can see and move past each other instead of tangling.

If all that natural beauty and harmonious coexistence aren’t attractive enough, the trail boasts one more feature that makes it eminently accessible: You can take the public bus there from Eugene.

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