McKenzie River Trail

  • Date: May 13, 2017
  • Location: Willamette National Forest
  • Start: Upper McKenzie River Trailhead
  • Distance: 26.4 miles
  • Duration: 5 hours 49 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Type: Point-to-point
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Sisters & Redmond High Desert Trail Map
  • References:

With Spring in full swing, Mack and I are excited to start ticking off some trails we’ve been dying to hit since we started trading hikes for adventure trail runs. We decided to be bold this past weekend and shoot for one of the longest ones on our list: the McKenzie River Trail. In retrospect (since we didn’t realize these coincidences beforehand), it was actually quite a fitting adventure to have in celebration of Mack’s 27th birthday. The trail is just under 27 miles long, and then there’s the name itself, M[a]cKenzie. It was meant to be!

If I’m being completely honest though, I was actually hoping Mack would want to back out and save this run for another day for a few different reasons: 1) it would be our third ultramarathon distance run in the last five weeks, 2) it would be Cassie’s first ultramarathon distance (with her previous longest run being 16-18 miles), and 3) the earliest shuttle pick-up through McKenzie River Mountain Resort is 9:30 am (meaning we wouldn’t be able to start our run until at least 10 am)! The “no earlier than 10 am” factor is what really made me nervous. If we were just running the trail like a race (with no plans to stop), I wouldn’t have been worried, but on our adventure runs, I like to fit in longer breaks, take pictures, and explore side trip opportunities, which tends to add on quite a bit more time. Would we really be able to do that on this run with such a late start? Mack the birthday boy decided it was what he wanted to do though, so I did my best to set aside my worries.

We set off early Saturday morning in order to make our 9:30 am shuttle (which, by the way, is $30 per person and allows dogs). We were the only people hitching a ride that morning, so the 20 minute drive to the upper trailhead was pretty quiet, with the exception of the driver sharing a few tour guide-esque tidbits about the area and checking to see if we had a map. As soon as we were dropped off and got our packs situated, we crossed the footbridge at the trailhead, headed into the forest, and began the long trek back to the car.

Less than a mile in we came to the Clear Lake Trail junction, opting to stay on the MRT rather than taking the slightly shorter Clear Lake Trail (which does hook back up with the MRT at the south end of the lake) just to say we ran the trail in its entirety. According to our shuttle driver, there are numerous preserved trees standing underwater in Clear Lake due to the cold temperature of the water. The lake was created about 3,000 years ago when lava flow created a dam at the south end, allowing water to fill the area. Of course you can’t see these trees despite the clarity of the lake, but it’s an interesting anecdote about the area. We also got a small taste of the vibrant topaz colored water (which Tamolitch Blue Pool is known for) when we passed Great Spring on the eastern side of the lake.

Clear Lake
Cassie eyeing the ducks in the water
Great Spring

The MRT is known for sections of volcanic rock, and the eastern side of Clear Lake is one of those sections. Although it wasn’t very difficult for Mack and I to run on, I was a little nervous for Cassie since the rock is sharper. We didn’t bring any sort of paw protection for her, but she seemed to do fine and never showed any indication that she was bothered by the rough terrain. It was around this time that we started getting pelted with sleet, too. Less than three miles in and we were already soaked! Re-entering the forest near the southern end of the lake provided some shelter and relief.

Lava fields along Clear Lake

There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground before and after Clear Lake. I knew it would clear up eventually based on recent trip reports, but it did result in some pretty slow miles and even a little navigating to find the trail. It was hard to believe it was actually mid-May as we sunk into these ankle deep mounds of snow! Once we reached the junction with the Waterfalls Loop Trail and crossed the footbridge to stay on the MRT, the trail was clear. Now that we were running alongside the McKenzie again, we could admire the fiercely aqua blue tint of the water as it raged and tumbled downstream.

Crossing McKenzie River after passing the junction with the Waterfall Loops Trail

This next section between Clear Lake and Tamolitch Blue Pool encompasses the heart of the MRT. It’s also the most popular. Thankfully, due to the less-than-ideal weather and lack of sunshine, there were hardly any people on the trail (or maybe they were on the Waterfalls Trail on the opposite side of the river). Our first stop, and my absolute favorite part of the entire run, was Sahalie Falls. We scrambled down a short, steep side trail, traversing slick, rocky terrain and ducking under downed trees to reach the base of the 100-foot raging falls. We admired Sahalie for only a brief couple of minutes. The heavy mist blowing off the waterfall had us shivering almost instantly. Cassie didn’t seem to enjoy this part either.

Back on the trail, we came upon Koosah Falls soon after. We thought about finding a way to get down to the base like we had for Sahalie, but we still had many miles to run and it was already noon or so. We opted to admire the falls from a ledge above instead, then continued on to the next destination: Blue Pool.

Sahalie Falls

Koosah Falls

Now that we weren’t running on snow or volcanic rock, the next few miles passed quickly. We finally ran into some mountain bikers (just two) as well. Since the MRT is a well known MTB trail, we were worried that we’d spend most of our day dodging cyclists, but these two were the first we’d seen since we’d started! Maybe the weather kept many of them away? Whatever the reason, we were happy for the solitude. Of course, once the trail opens out above Blue Pool, that solitude immediately disappears.

Thankfully, the crowd wasn’t too ridiculous when we arrived. I imagine it’s an absolute nightmare in the summer or on any bluebird weekend. On this semi-gloomy day though, we managed to snag a rocky ledge overlooking the pool and enjoy the spot for a short time while we snacked and took pictures. The next mile or so took us over more volcanic rock. It was slow going again, and we were running into more people now because of our close proximity to the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool.

Tamolitch Blue Pool

McKenzie River

Eventually, the rock gave way to cushiony singletrack as we descended to the level of the river. Now that we had passed the main highlights of the trail (Clear Lake, Sahalie and Koosah Falls, and Tamolitch Pool), we quickened our pace and made fewer stops. For the remainder of the trail, we got to soak in the beauty of the Willamette National Forest, with its lush old growth areas and a forest floor blanketed in green.

After passing the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool and another trailhead at Trail Bridge Reservoir, we hit our longest stretch (somewhere between 7.5-8 miles I believe). I think there were even a couple of uphill sections through this stretch. Nothing that strenuous though. The sun had come out by this point, so we enjoyed being shaded by the trees while still absorbing the warmth of the sun.

Cassie about halfway through our run

About 10 miles left!

Once we made it to the Frissell Crossing Campground (with about six miles left to the car!), we took a slightly longer break (like 10-15 minutes) to eat some snacks, feed Cassie (who just wanted Goldfish as opposed to her own treats), and stretch out our legs before the final section. After that long of a pause, getting up to run again was difficult. It’s only when you stop that you start to notice the stiffness and soreness.

The snack break definitely gave us the boost we needed to push the last few miles. Crossing the river at Frissell put us on the same side as the highway, so peace and quiet weren’t as plentiful during this stretch. Our excitement grew though whenever we passed a landmark that we recognized on the map (Belknap Hot Springs first, then Paradise Campground). Once the guardrail (indicating the parking lot turnout) came into view through the trees, I knew we were done and our marathon day was complete. It had started to pour in the final half mile, so we’d made it back just in time to avoid getting completely soaked again. Cassie, needless to say, was exhausted and willingly hopped into her backseat hammock as soon as I opened the door. We quickly changed into some dry socks, shoes, and shirts and hit the road for the long drive home, stopping for some well deserved ice cream and candy at the nearest gas station. Maybe next year we’ll have to find 28 miles to run somewhere for Mack’s birthday?

Snack break at Frissell Crossing Campground

Last look at the McKenzie from the trailhead

Opal Pool-Cedar Flats

  • Date: November 26, 2016
  • Location: Willamette National Forest
  • Start: Opal Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 10.5 miles
  • Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 1240 feet
  • Type: Balloon
  • References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland by Paul Gerald; Oregon Hikers

Over the past two years, Mack and I have become pretty ecstatic about trail running. What started out as a way to deviate from our usual street runs slowly turned into a necessary part of our daily lives. Seriously though. Going a few days without hitting the single-track trails of Forest Park for some long, often muddy, miles leaves me feeling empty and lethargic. That constant desire to be out running through the woods has also led us to trail races and, most recently, ultramarathons. After running the 30.2 mile Wildwood Trail on a whim, we’ve become more and more fascinated by the idea of exploring new routes via running rather than hiking. Not only could we fit in more miles in less time, but we’d also be training for any upcoming races! Opal Creek was the first of these exploratory trail running adventures.

We arrived at the trailhead just before 11 am. I’d usually consider this a late start, but we were running instead of hiking. (Sleeping in, another perk of swapping hikes with runs) The drive up on FR 2209 was winding and rough, so we couldn’t wait to get moving. There were only a few other cars there in contrast to the usual congestion, so we could look forward to a relatively peaceful run and Cassie could be off-leash for most of it. The first couple of miles are on a gravel road that runs through the forest along the Little North Santiam River. It’s no soft-surface trail, but it was still pretty easy to run on, especially since the incline was very gradual. Mack was still in recovery mode from his 50k race a couple weeks back, so we kept a pretty leisurely pace. Sawmill Falls was our first scenic reward of the day, and we’d only been running for 20 minutes! The viewpoint is kind of hidden behind the abandoned Merten Mill, about two miles into the route. After taking in our first expansive view of the Little North Santiam, we returned to the road, continued up another quarter mile or so, and crossed the footbridge leading to the Kopetski Trail. Finally some single-track to really sink our feet into!

Sawmill Falls

Running on the Kopetski Trail

I wasn’t kidding about the “sink our feet into” aspect. The tread was fantastic for the most part, but some portions were incredibly boggy. We were only on the trail for about a mile and half when we arrived at the highlight of the route: Opal Pool. The water here is some of the most pristine in all of Oregon. During the summer months, it gets ridiculously crowded because it’s a popular swimming hole. We were fortunate enough to have it all to ourselves on this chilly November day. The emerald water had us spellbound for quite some time. Looking south, we could see the footbridge leading to the east bank (where we’d be heading next), as well as Opal Pool Falls cascading down and feeding into the pool. Once we felt like we’d taken in it all in, we scrambled back up to the trail and crossed the bridge, getting one last glimpse of the enchanted pool and the roaring falls.

Opal Pool Falls

A short ways up from the bridge, we reached the gravel road again. Turning left here takes you through Jawbone Flats, then back to the parking area. We decided to go right to add in one final destination before heading back. At a curve in the road, there’s a side trail leading up into the forest. This is the new alignment of the Kopetski Trail; the trail used to continue on the west bank but was rerouted onto the east bank after the footbridge further up the creek collapsed. We took this trail up, running for part of it, but also scrambling over rocks, massive tree roots, and deadfall. We also ended up submerging our feet in water while making our way across two small creeks.

Flume Creek Falls

After about a mile and a half of all this technical terrain, the trail dropped down into Cedar Flats, aptly named for the handful of towering old growth trees, the oldest ones being 1000 years old! Standing among these giants felt like going back in time. 1000 years old. I could barely wrap my head around the concept. Even now as I write this I keep mouthing that number. Just. Wow. Anyways, it’s possible to cross Beachie Creek at this point and continue another half mile to the Franklin Grove, another collection of ancient cedars. The water was pretty high though, and all of our breaks were starting to add up, so we decided to turn around to make sure we could get back to the car before dark. We made our way back down to the road and headed toward Jawbone Flats.

The most beautiful old growth tree in Cedar Flats
Cedar Flats old growth

The road enters an open meadow shortly after you pass the junction leading to Opal Pool. A small picnic shelters welcomes you to Jawbone Flats. Continuing down the road, we passed by rusting cars and machinery, remnants of the old mining town that used to be here. After crossing Battle Axe Creek Bridge, we passed through “downtown” Jawbone Flats, lined with beautiful rustic cabins (that you can rent!) and an information/educational center. All of this is owned and operated by the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.

Rusting cars at Jawbone Flats

Crossing Battle Axe Creek Bridge

We snapped a few photos and continued on down the road another 3 miles or so to the parking area. It had just started to rain in the last half mile, so I’d say we timed our finish pretty well.

Mack and I have only scratched the surface of all this area has to offer, including Whetstone Mountain, Battle Axe Mountain, and, of course, Franklin Grove. We can’t wait to return for another adventure!