The McKenzie River.
Sometimes rural areas are not much more than that â€“ rural areas. The great thing about such places is, as long as you remember to get gas before you leave home (and maybe pack a picnic lunch), you can drive for hours without a care in the world.
If you live in or around the Eugene/Springfield area, or are visiting and want to escape the city, head east on 126 along the Mckenzie River. This scenic drive is known as the McKenzie Highway, beginning just past Springfield and ending in McKenzie Bridge, about 60 miles from Eugene, where the highway veers north of the river.
Walterville is the first town you’ll pass through on your way out east. If you are planning a picnic, stop for groceries in town. Walterville is the only "commercial" town you’ll pass along the river.
Just past Walterville is the McKenzie River Trout House. It looks like a very lovely bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, when I arrived to have a look around, the innkeeper was nowhere to be found. I did take a walk around the grounds, which are beautiful and peaceful. The building faces the river; there is a gazebo and other quiet places to sit and contemplate the water. The inn supposedly has five rooms, and there were no vacancies when I was there.
In Leaburg, the next town on 126, stop by the River Run Gallery. The shop displays (and sells) sculpture, paintings, jewelry and pottery made by local artists. The gallery itself is stylish and "artsy" (quite out of place in rural Leaburg).
Other than the gallery, Leaburg is home to a library, gas station, general store and repair service. Highway 126 runs right though the center of most towns in its path; if you want to check out the back roads, almost every town has a self- titled "drive" that breaks off from the highway and quickly leads back on. Leaburg Drive is only a couple of miles long and gives you a glimpse of the residential part of town.
Right past Leaburg, you can’t miss the Goodpasture Bridge, one of Oregon’s famous covered bridges. Built in 1938, Goodpasture is Lane County’s most-photographed covered bridge. If you want a photo, there is a vehicle pull-out just past it. The spot offers great views of the bridge and the river.
Mom’s Pie Shop.
Whatever you do along the McKenzie, don’t drive past Mom’s Pie Shop. The tiny cafÃ© is located near Nimrod on 126. A huge "Mom’s" sign will appear; if you pass it, turn around. My kayaking friends told me about Mom’s last summer, right after I moved here. I don’t know how I managed to avoid it for this long. Don’t even bother with lunch â€“ order two pieces of pie instead. (They’re all vegan, so that’s no excuse).
(Personal note: I am actually surprised, as you will be too, that Finn Rock is on the map).
Blue River is a small but interesting little town. I didn’t stop at all while driving through, but I did slow down a couple of times. To see "downtown," take a left at the big, "Blue River" sign at the side of the road. The owner of Mom’s says that Blue River used to be a happening place, before 126 became the main road. Blue River Drive was home to at least 10 or 15 shops. Now, however, the drive has been reduced to a general store, liquor store, market, gas station and library, none of which seemed particularly "happening."
Past Blue River, at mile marker 43, is a very peculiar store, but one that is well worth a visit. Christmas Treasures is, without a doubt, the most amazing Christmas store I have ever been inside of. Maybe it’s because the owner looks exactly like Santa Claus. I was sold on the frosted bulbs, hand-painted with images of Oregon landmarks.
The owner tells me that he hasn’t had too much business since September 11th. At the prospect of a paying customer, he turns on all the carols and the Christmas lights (of which there are MANY).
A few miles down the road, you will see signs for Cougar Reservoir, nestled in the Willamette National Forest. If you take the scenic Aufderheide Forest Drive for three miles, you’ll come to the reservoir overlook, a great photo spot when the water level is high. Even when the mountains are covered in fog, the view is worth the detour.
Mckenzie Bridge is not far from Cougar Reservoir. Take a right after Cougar onto the McKenzie River Drive for a more scenic route. The road follows right beside the river, winding from side to side and offering great photo opportunities.
The Belknap Bridge is located off of the Drive. Although not quite as historic as most bridges in Lane County (it was built in 1966), it’s still beautiful and worth a ride across the river and a photo.
McKenzie River Drive passes through Rainbow, a very quiet, residential town with no stores of any kind. There is, however, a community center, which offers bingo twice a month.
McKenzie River Gift Shop.
The smallest gift store in the world is located at the end of the Drive, right before you hit McKenzie Bridge. McKenzie River Gift Shop sells birdcages and knick-knacks, but I’m not exactly sure what the deal is. Like most areas of interest, the shop was closed when I attempted to open its little door. But standing next to it was entertaining in itself because it’s approximately the size of my bathroom.
In the wintertime, if you don’t have four-wheel drive, McKenzie Bridge is the last town easily accessible on Highway 126. Choose any of the pull-outs along the way to unpack your lunch and take a load off. If you kayak, the McKenzie Highway is a dream come true. If you’re just out for a drive, 126 is the closest you’ll get to "rural" by the I-5 corridor.
During winter remember to check road conditions before you set out. Some areas of rural Oregon may be completely impassable due to snow; some areas require chains or snow tires â€“ and believe me, you’ll want them. For current road conditions, call (800) 977 6368 (inside Oregon) or (503) 222 6721 (outside Oregon). Or click here for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Highways & Travel Information page.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.