Oregon's outdoor wonders boggle the mind: Crater Lake, Oregon Caves, Cascades, Columbia River, the Rogue River, the coast, the high desert and a staggering 49 wilderness areas. This amazing geography affords diverse adventures: backpacking, hunting, cycling, salmon and steelhead fishing, white-water kayaking, surfing, hiking and mountain biking. It is the reason I live in Oregon.
Mountain biking is one of my passions, and I do it whenever I can, usually in the State of Jefferson, but the best trails are farther afield, mostly in Oakridge and Bend; however, the McKenzie River Trail is rated the Best Mountain Bike Trail by Singletracks, an online mountain bike magazine.
Located along the scenic McKenzie River east of Eugene, the trail is a 26-mile ride through paradise. It starts at Clear Lake campground and descends 2,500 feet to the McKenzie Ranger Station. The trail traverses verdant, old-growth forests, carpets of lush, emerald-green sword ferns, passes plunging waterfalls, crosses narrow wooden bridges and circles around crystal-clear pools. The trail also can be hiked, as there are Forest Service roads that bisect it every few miles, so hikers can do out-and-back trips or a shuttle for a straight-through hike.
My son, Michael, and I took one look at the trail description and immediately decided to do this legendary ride. The upper 8 miles is very technical, twisting through lava rocks, and was beyond our skill level, so we started below this section. Before setting off we hiked up to Tamolitch Pool, also called Blue Pool, a 2.1-mile hike through old-growth forest and lava rocks.
This pool is a geographic sapphire, unique in the state of Oregon because of its vivid turquoise-blue color, and is so clear the bottom appears shallow, but it's actually more than 30 feet deep. The color has a mesmerizing Caribbean hue, and the sunlight creates geometric patterns as it ripples across the rocks on the bottom, creating a never-ending light show. The Blue Pool is where the McKenzie River emerges from underground and is a bone-chilling 40 degrees. We sat spellbound gazing at the surreal color of the water. Then we hiked back to the trailhead and started our ride.
Although the trail descends as it follows the river, there's more than 800 feet of climbing up and down the contour along the slopes of the river. We started above the river and rode along the singletrack through Douglas firs, then dropped down to the banks of the river and listened to the symphony of its rushing waters as we rode a serpentine path through giant, old-growth trees.
Every few miles, narrow, wooden, rough-hewn footbridges cross the river, and we had to walk our bikes across because they were only two feet wide. There were enough roots and rocks on the trail to make it challenging, especially on the descents, where the exposure was severe and a mishap would have meant a 200-foot, screaming fall into the river.
About halfway through the ride, we ran into an afternoon thunderstorm. It started out as a light rain, and then peals of thunder suddenly shattered the forest. We saw one bolt of lightening in our peripheral vision and felt the shockwave from a deafening clap of thunder. The rain intensified to a downpour, and we considered abandoning our ride, but there was no place to retreat, so we donned our rain gear and rode on. The wet trail and puddles made for hazardous conditions and slowed our progress, especially over rock surfaces. After about 30 minutes we rode out of the storm and the trail gradually became flatter, coursing through vast copses of Kelly-green sword ferns.
It took us 21/2 hours to ride the 18-mile trail, and we never saw another person. This is the most beautiful trail I've ever ridden and is one of Oregon's crown jewels. Put this on your list and you will feel like royalty as you journey through a realm of Oregon's Pacific wonderland.
Carlyle Stout lives in Ashland.