McKenzie River District

Eugene is located in the Willamette Valley near both the Oregon Coast and the Cascade mountains. Each is about an hour from Eugene. I decided on going to the McKenzie River District of the Cascades because  this particularly scenic road was only accessible from Eugene and I could do the entire Oregon Coast as its own road trip.

I headed out early in the morning along the Oregon 126 towards McKenzie Bridge. Fairly quickly, the landscape changed from a wide open valley to a narrow canyon lined with tall conifers. 30 minutes in, the road swept along a bend in the river with a covered bridge.

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One of over 15 covered bridges in Lane County

Soon after cell coverage disappeared. Another 15 minutes took me to the Belknap Hot Springs, where the day’s adventures would begin. Although it was 70 degrees in Eugene, it was a balmy 50 degrees here with humidity that rips through warm layers. I definitely did not bring warm enough clothing.

I signed up for a half-day rafting trip down the McKenzie River. The trip began at the offices next to the hot springs. These hot springs were developed- so they looked and felt like any normal swimming pool…except they were 98 degrees. After checking in, I stood in front of the adjacent lodge with about 15 other rafters- mostly couples and families.

At 9:30, a yellow school bus pulled up and we got in and headed 5 minutes up to the put-in spot. There, we were given a comedy-laden safety briefing before splitting up into groups. I was paired with a family of 3: mom, dad, and 8 year old kid named Brolin.

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Ready to raft!

We got in the 46 degree water and started paddling down the swift river. I was in front and the two parents paddled in the back. Brolin sat in the middle of the raft without a paddle. There was a fear that he might fall into the water since he was small for an 8 year old. That said, he totally did not carry his weight- not cool Brolin. 2 minutes in, we hit our first series of rapids. They were Class 3. Nothing major. Brolin looked pretty happy and sort of barked in joy.

Over the next hour we went over a few more class 3 rapids. Our guide had no trouble whatsoever navigating them. While the rapids were fun, the definite best part of the day was the scenery- pine trees lining the swift river. We also saw an occasional stream or cabin. The family I was rafting with had spent the last week in this area and had an intimate knowledge of every bend in the river. They stayed with a friend named Lisa who apparently lived somewhere along the path of the river.

After the first hour, Brolin was totally over gliding down 40 degree water in 50 degree weather. He kept asking when the rafting was done. Unfortunately for him, we had another 2 ½ hours of river to go.

Two hours in, we rowed by the family’s friend Lisa’s house. Lisa was outside and waved to us. Lisa’s dog looked confused seeing his friends on a raft. Brolin asked for his parents to throw him in the water so he could swim to Lisa. He had good parents so his wish was not granted.

At the three hour mark, we hit the final large rapid. The rafting company had a photographer on the riverbank taking pictures of us, surely so we could buy it later. I was having a blast at this point that I probably would buy it if it’s a reasonable price to remember the trip.

Without the rapids, we stopped paddling, since the guide was able to steer us with his two oars. I started to get cold. Brolin was downright miserable.

Finally, we made it to the put out. Brolin hopped out and sprinted towards the bus while me and everyone else dragged the raft out of the water and over to the bus. We then all changed out of our wetsuits and got into the heated bus. With the exception of Brolin, everyone had a lot of fun.

The bus took us back to the Belknap Hot Springs where said goodbye and decided not to buy the pictures for $60. I then took off to see the rest of the area.

My next stop was McKenzie Pass. While only 20 miles from the Hot Springs, the drive took over an hour as it wound through thick forests. The road climbed steeply with many sharp turns. At 5,000 feet above sea level, the road leveled off. Eventually the forests gave way to a 65 square-mile lava flow!! So unexpected!!!

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Lava field at the top of the Cascades

The glaciers of the high Cascade peaks including the Three Sisters came into view. Wow!! The McKenzie Pass is at 5,335 ft above sea level and serves as the boundary between Willamette and Deschutes National Forests as well as the triple boundary between Lane (home of Eugene), Linn (home of Corvalis) and Deschutes (home of Bend) counties. Needless to say, the McKenzie Pass is the edge of the western Oregon and is an important landmark in the state.

At the top of the McKenzie Pass, there is a large castle-like structure made of lava called the Dee Wright Observatory. While there are no astronomical observations going on, the Observatory provides a great spot to view the volcanic plateau at the top of the Cascades. Numerous plaques point to the different mountain peaks. The weather was about 45 degrees with a strong wind, so I didn’t stay long.

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Dee Wright Observatory

After returning to the car, I drove down for about 30 minutes until I reached the trailhead for Proxy Falls. This was rated as a top waterfall in the state. The hike was about an hour roundtrip, but well worth it to see an incredibly beautiful waterfall.

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Lower Proxy Falls

The time was now 4:30 pm and the sun was going to set in just a few hours. The guides on the rafting trip suggested I check out the Cougar Hot Springs. They were about a 45 minute drive from the waterfall.

I pulled up to the parking lot and an official-looking heavily bearded man told me the lot was full and I had to park a mile away or wait for people to leave. He also said that the springs were closing in an hour. Given the short time, I opted to park the mile away and run since I had no idea when/if people would leave within the hour. After a quick mile run, I got to the entrance station where another heavily bearded man told me that I had to pay $8. Unfortunately, I left my wallet in the car (didn’t want it getting stolen) and had to sprint back another mile. Not wanting to run a third mile to complete the 5k, I drove down. Unfortunately, the lot was still full. A spot was about to open up and some old guy in a Subaru cut me off and sternly warned me that the spot was his. I honked for about a minute at him, but it did not good as he got the spot. About 3 minutes later, another spot opened up. I then walked back over to the guard and paid the $8. The bearded man then warned me that the springs were clothing optional and smiled at me as a group of 5 college-aged girls walked up behind me to pay.

I then started on the hike to the springs. Along the way, I met up with the Subaru guy- a 60 year old hippie named Paul. I apologized for my rude behavior and explained how I had to run 2 miles to no avail. Paul was very nice and said he thought I was just an intense person. We then became friends.

After a 5-minute walk, we reached the springs- a series of 5 pools cascading down a hillside. There were about 80 people there and they were all completely naked. Adhering to code, I too stripped down.

While I was certainly nervous while on the walk over- what if I get an awkwardly excited?- I can say from experience that being naked in front of 80 people is not weird/sexual in any way because everyone is naked. In fact, it’s kind of liberating. It also helps that the nudists of Oregon aren’t particularly good looking.

There were naked people of all ages- young children and teenagers all the way up to people in their 60’s and 70’s. It was also a surprisingly racially diverse place given the overall whiteness of Eugene and Oregon as a whole. I started at the top pool that was a steamy 110 degrees. This was probably a bit too hot for comfort and quickly moved systematically down to the lower and cooler pools. In the third pool, I got to stand underneath a hot waterfall. The fourth pool was the social pool. There were about 15 people in their 20’s having a conversation about Marxism.

After about an hour, the sun began to set. I was both dehydrated and eager to get back to the car before the trail got dark. I put on my clothes, headed back to the parking lot and drove the hour back into Eugene.

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View of the Cougar Reservoir from the road near the Cougar Hot Springs
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