Biking Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail – Willamette National Forest

The post-workday drive north from Ashland, Oregon is painless, and the miles drift by in a mildly caffeinated blur. Between work and school, it has been a while since I have been out of town, and I am glad to be in motion, headed somewhere new. The conversation in the Subaru flows from bikes to work and then back to bikes, appropriate topics for this journey.

We are heading north to ride our mountain bikes along what is hailed as one of the finest trails in the Pacific Northwest, the McKenzie River Trail. This trail, #3507, twists and turns continuously for 26 miles. It drops from an elevation of 3,200 feet to 1,450 feet as it follows the course of its namesake, the McKenzie River. I had heard tales of this epic ride since I moved to Oregon two years ago but had yet to experience it myself.

Thom out of the car, onto the bike, over a bridge

Thom, driver of the Subaru and designer of this weekend’s outing, maneuvers the car through Springfield and onto Highway 126 heading east. After four-hours of driving, we are fast approaching our goal. We pass the little towns of Vida, Nimrod, McKenzie Bridge, each a fleeting island of light along the dark road.

Soon we pull into the parking lot of the McKenzie Ranger Station and quickly find the note left by a couple riders from Ashland who drove up earlier. The air is cold, wet-river canyon cold, and I can smell the dampness. Back into the car, we crank the heater and pull back onto 126. We find the camp around midnight, and our arrival wakes the guys who had arrived earlier. After brief hellos and rapid tent-pitching, we call it a day.

Waking in the outdoors has to be one of my favorite things. I am the first one up and decide to walk to combat the chill. I meander down the road, stopping occasionally to examine vivid green moss or to observe the activities of a bird. When I return Thom is up rustling around in the back of the Subaru. He has found what he is looking for.

The morning ritual begins. All energy is concentrated on achieving a singular goal: The little gas stove is primed, the water is boiled, poured, filtered and a cup is passed up to its owner. Coffee. The cornerstone of any successful cycling adventure. The crashing of pots, more than the aroma of the brew, draws people from their tents and soon the group is talking animatedly about various topics not at all related to cycling.

A group ride is often about as far from a well-oiled machine as you can get. This group, however, is an exception. We all arrive at the ranger station within minutes of our 10am meeting time. After a few minutes of shuffling bikes and bodies from the car that is staying to the ones that are going, we pull onto 126 and head east, giddy with expectation.

Passing through lava fields at Clear Lake

Our arrival at the trailhead above Clear Lake sets off a bustle of activity as riders change and perform last-minute adjustments to their bikes. Cars are locked, helmets strapped, and all at once we’re off racing across the first of 15 bridges we will cross today.

The trail forks at Great Spring a shockingly clear spring that feeds the McKenzie. Two of our group split to the right, a less technical choice. The rest of us take to the left and immediately encounter rough trail. The trail wraps tightly along the contour of Clear Lake and is hewn right out of a field of lava. I am bumped and knocked about and come close enough to scrape the lava, leaving a jagged gash on my shin.

We meet the others where the trails intersect at the west end of the lake and continue on our way. The trail continues through moss-covered lava, but now it is interspersed with pines and fir trees, and is not nearly as difficult, though still twisty and demanding attention. We stop along this section to take in the 78-foot Sahalie Falls. The view from the trail side of the river is spectacular. The mist feels great.

Rolling on we pass Koosah Falls but only enjoy them with furtive glances,as this portion of the trail is smooth and we let our bikes run. Carmen Reservoir slips past as we continue to lose elevation. It seems whenever we drop a bit we regain the lost feet by climbing again.

We begin to run across day hikers at the Ollalie Trailhead. We slow and allow them to pass – rules of the trail: horses, hikers, then us. The trail is very near river level now. The forest is dark and the trail surface is damp. I expect to see a hobbit or a troll peering out from behind the huge, ancient trees along this middle-earth section of trail.

After passing Paradise Campground, the questioning begins, how much further? Thom says it is not long now. The trail is still amazing, but my body won’t let me enjoy it to the fullest. My eyes have become heavy and tired from following the surface of the trail as it twists and rolls over roots and around logs. My arms are clumsy from wrenching the bars back and forth. I want it to end yet continue forever at the same time.

At Koosah Falls

End it does. We pop out on highway 126 a mile east of the ranger station where we met in the morning. The spin back is leisurely and contemplative. When I arrive people are already sprawled in the parking lot. An ice chest appears; chilled brews are passed around. I am very happy to be stationary. Nearly five hours have passed since we began. The trail has induced in me a sensation similar to spending a day in the ocean. I feel as if I am still moving, twisting and turning along the trail.

Aside from the sensation of motion, the only thing on my mind is food. The Clif Bars and Double Stuff Oreos I consumed along the trail are gone. I need real food. We retrieve the cars, set-up camp for the night and head into McKenzie Bridge for dinner. The only game in town is the Log Cabin Inn. We can’t afford the restaurant, but the waiter directs us to the adjoining bar which has its own menu, where we order giant burgers with lots of fries and marvel over the day and our luck to be living so close to such a treasure.

Back at camp I fall asleep, convinced I have ridden the finest the Pacific Northwest has to offer – so far.

For trail maps and information, please visit the following links: