ON THE MCKENZIE’S SIXTY-EIGHT MILE journey from just west of Sisters to Springfield, the river tumbles 2,561 raucous feet over waterfalls, past hot springs, and through six-hundred-year-old stands of Douglas fir—but the most intriguing section may well be the three miles that contain no water at all. West of the river’s headwaters at Clear Lake, the McKenzie, once an angry torrent draining the Cascades, dips suddenly below ground, leaving in its place a rocky, meandering depression cluttered with leafy alder trees. Three miles later, it reemerges as Tamolitch Pool, a pristine one-acre aquamarine basin that spills westward for another fifty-eight miles to meet the Willamette. Rivergoers can thank the likes of Pele for this geological game of hide-and-seek. About 1,500 years ago, the nearby Belknap volcano spewed lava into the river, covering the McKenzie and sending it underground. A similar eruption 3,000 years ago dammed the river to create Clear Lake, 200 feet deep. Between these two fire-forged water features lie thirteen miles of Wild and Scenic river punctuated by two towering waterfalls—the 140-foot Sahalie and the 70-foot Koosah—and more than enough adventure to make up for those three waterless miles.
HIKE/BIKE For those who prefer to witness the river’s beauty from dry land, the McKenzie River Trail is one of the best mountain-bike rides in Oregon. It descends nearly 1,750 feet down the lava flows of Clear Lake, past the high-rise falls of Sahalie and Koosah and the dry riverbed above Tamolitch Pool, and finally through the towering old-growth forest near the town of McKenzie Bridge. The path has plenty of easier, upright pedaling between all the sharp rocks that line the track. Fraught with steep, rock-choked descents and slippery bridge crossings, the twenty-six-mile trail may be too technical for some riders, so in that case, ditch the bike, lace up your boots, pick a section, and start hiking. For the most scenic payoff, take the Clear Lake Loop Trail, where you’ll find an eerie array of coral-like lava that bubbled right up to the water’s edge, and three-thousand-year-old petrified tree trunks poking up from the lake’s depths like the posts of an ancient abandoned pier.
FISH Although not as famed for fishing as the Deschutes or the North Umpqua, the McKenzie has a bonus neither of those rivers share: it’s legal to fish from a boat. That means you can cover more water and, if the fish aren’t biting in one spot, cast your line elsewhere. Near Eugene, the river flattens and spreads out, meandering swift and clear over riffles that make it ideal for trout fishing. Although the McKenzie contains salmon and steelhead, anglers covet its famous redband, a variety of native rainbow trout (although you can’t keep these). Your best bet for catching them might lie with guide Aaron Helfrich (helfrich.com; $275/half day), whose family has been guiding on the McKenzie for more than eighty years.
PADDLE While Sahalie and Koosah Falls remain experts-only paddling turf, 17.5 miles downstream, near McKenzie Bridge, the river offers a fine beginner’s sampler with long, placid stretches of water interrupted by exhilarating Class II and III wake-up calls. Oregon Whitewater Adventures’ full-day trip (oregonwhitewater.com; $90) covers twelve miles of river, riding past the majestic Eagle Rock Spire and the occasional picturesque cottage, and culminating in the Marten Rapid—a pulse-racing Class III section that white-water guidebook Soggy Sneakers describes as a scuba-diving treasure trove: so bouncy is the ride that unwary boaters sometimes lose their sunglasses, wallets, and watches. But better your belongings go overboard than you, for the springs that feed the river pump in bracing 48-degree water. Of course, getting dunked can have its own rewards, too—like an excuse to warm up in one of the three pools at Belknap Hot Springs ($7 per hour).