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: http://www.mckenzierivertrail.com/

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
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Smith Rock State Park

The second adventure of our weekend in Central Oregon commenced with me missing our alarm (or it failing to go off). Thank goodness we were camped at Tumalo State Park, located a mere 30 minutes from Smith Rock. We packed up and hit the road in under an hour, arriving at the Smith Rock parking lot just after 9 am. We were only one of two cars there. The sky was a dark, moody gray and a mixture of snow and rain was falling. I’d anticipated this since I’d checked the National Weather Service forecast just before we left the previous morning and kept my fingers crossed that the “mostly sunny after 10 am” part came through. We decided to wait it out and use the time to prepare our running packs, don our trail shoes, and get in our bathroom breaks. When I emerged from the restroom just a few minutes into our decision to wait out the weather, I was greeted with a complete cease in the snowy-rainy precipitation and a little bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds! What a turnaround from the previous day at Tumalo Falls! We slipped on our microspikes and headed down Canyon Trail.

After crossing the bridge over Crooked River we came to our first endeavor: the notoriously steep Misery Ridge Trail. I’m still amazed that we decided to start with this, especially since our legs weren’t warmed up at all yet. It was definitely more of an alternating slow jog/power hike than an actual run as we gained 700+ feet in 0.7 miles. The combination of loose rock, ice, and snow didn’t make it any easier. However, the views we gained as we rose higher and higher helped to ease the struggle. We could see across the way to the other big hill we’d eventually tackle: Burma Road Trail.

Heading up Misery Ridge Trail; you can see Burma Road Trail in the upper left corner
Final section of elevation gain on Misery Ridge Trail

We stopped for a few minutes at the top to take in a glorious view of the park, including the iconic Monkey Face. (Guess it was a good thing that I’d missed my alarm or we might have been up at the top while it was still snowing/raining!) During the summer I came here a few times to attend some climbing seminars, but we’d never ventured up this way. I’ve got to say it’s definitely a spot you don’t want to miss if you visit Smith Rock. Totally worth the elevation gain! And, since it was still early in the day and the weather hadn’t completely cleared up yet, we had this incredible spot all to ourselves.

View at the top of Misery Ridge

Monkey Face

Seeing as we were barely a mile into our run, we decided to get a move on after snapping a few pictures. Now, it’s easy to assume that running downhill will be a lot faster than the uphill. Unfortunately, our descent of Mesa Verde Trail was just the opposite. The deep snow and patches of ice made it impossible to move quickly. At least we got a more complete view of Monkey Face (see cover photo)!

After getting to the base, we headed back to the Misery Ridge Trail junction on the River Trail. Finally some relatively flat terrain! My legs already felt like jelly and we weren’t even a quarter of the way into our run. Now that we weren’t hugging any steep drop-offs, I thought it would be nice to let Cassie off-leash for a short while. I should mention that the rule at Smith Rock is that dogs need to be kept on leash. I knew this, but I figured a few minutes wouldn’t be harmful, especially since 1) she’s been very good about staying on trail and close to us on past adventure runs, 2) there was no one on the trail yet, and 3) we planned on putting her back on leash as we neared the bridge or if we saw hikers up ahead on the trail. Big mistake. At first, Cassie was behaved and jogged close in front of me. Then, after barely a minute or two, she just took off down the trail at breakneck speed! Crap. As we rounded the bend up head, we saw her run straight into the river after a duck. (Maybe that stuffed duck toy we bought her a few weeks back wasn’t such a good idea?) Ugh. She wasn’t caught in the river’s current yet, but she was still trying to make it out to that damn duck! Mack quickly removed his pack and went in after her, picking her up by her pack’s handle and carrying her out while she flailed her legs in the air. We breathed sighs of relief and put her right back on leash. Lesson learned. Needless to say, she stayed on that leash the rest of our run. And I think it’s time we invested in some obedience training.

Fishing Cassie out of the river

The rest of our run on the River Trail went smoothly. We passed the Misery Ridge Trail junction and continued on the Wolf Tree Trail on the east side of the park. Like the River Trail, this Wolf Tree is mostly flat and continues along Crooked River. After a mile though, we started uphill again to the junction with Burma Road Trail on BLM land. The clouds were starting to part at this point, revealing blue skies and sunshine behind them.

Running on the Wolf Tree Trail
Heading up to Burma Road Trail

Although not as steep as Misery Ridge, Burma Road ended up being far more difficult because of the trail conditions. Not only was there a lot of snow, but the quality of the snow was unpredictable all the way up! Sometimes it was firm enough that you could run over it without sinking. Other times you’d end up post holing a good 7-10 inches. Little did we know that this wouldn’t be the end of our battle with the snow conditions. It wouldn’t even be the worst part. At least the skies were clear now. We could see several Cascade volcanoes in addition to Smith Rock!

View from Burma Road

At the top of Burma Road, we took another short break before starting down the Summit Trail, which would wind its way through the north end of the park and eventually drop us back down on the River Trail on the west side.

View from the top of Burma Road

The trail switchbacks down nearly 1.3 miles before reaching a junction with the Summit Trail viewpoint. Of course, the entire trail was under deep snow. We spent most of this section tip toeing through post holes or side stepping across angled snow slopes. Not sure we got much running in until we made it past the viewpoint junction. Even then the conditions didn’t improve all that much, but the likelihood of slipping and sliding down a long, steep hill had decreased at least. The view at the junction wasn’t half bad either.

Post holing on the Summit Trail
Beautiful view along the Summit Trail

After the top of Misery Ridge Trail, my next favorite spot (particularly now that the sun was shining high in the sky) was the final descent to the junction with the River Trail. Monkey Face, Christian Brothers, and Crooked River all in a single view? Absolutely perfect.

Summit Trail/River Trail junction

We had a little over 2 miles left on the River Trail before reaching the bridge again. It felt so good to actually run again now that we were out of the deep snow. It’s incredible how different the area seemed now that the weather was completely different than when we’d run on the River Trail earlier that day! I hardly recognized it! We didn’t see a lot of climbers, but there were definitely an increased number of people hiking the trail now.

Heading back to the parking lot on the River Trail

After crossing the bridge we had one final hill left: Canyon Trail up to the parking lot. My legs were spent by the time I was half way up (especially after a few days of being sick and not running at all). Mack and Cassie pushed on while I stayed behind and fast hiked up the last section to the parking lot. Not the strong finish I was hoping for. We decided to continue on the Rim Rock Trail for about a half mile to cool down our legs and get one final view of the park. As an added bonus, I got to finish strong since we didn’t end on a hill.

View of the park from the Rim Rock Trail
Running the Rim Rock Trail

Mack, Cassie, and I had such an amazing time exploring this geological masterpiece. Not only was it fun to see it in a different season, but I love that we got to explore so much of it via trail running! It was the perfect end to our Central Oregon weekend adventure. Now we are even more stoked to return in March to do some actual climbing.

Tumalo Falls

  • Date: January 21, 2017
  • Location: Central Oregon (Bend)
  • Start: Skyliner Sno Park
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Duration: 3 hours (breaks included)
  • Elevation gain: 500 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Outdoor Project

Although only a day trip, Tumalo Falls was our first of two adventures during a weekend in Central Oregon. Our original plan was actually to backpack past Tumalo Falls along Tumalo Creek and snow camp somewhere in/near Happy Valley. However, after coming down with a cold a few days prior and realizing we’d be in for two straight days of heavy snow according to the forecast, we decided to turn it into a day hike, then camp at Tumalo State Park before heading to Smith Rock (which will be covered in a separate post) the following day. I was a little bummed at first, but, ultimately, it ended up being a far better idea since we got to explore more of Central Oregon.

We started out from Portland somewhere between 6:30 and 7 am. It usually takes about 3 hours to drive to Bend, but winter road conditions on Hwy 22 slowed us down immensely. We didn’t reach Skyliner Sno Park until 11:30 am. Snow was already falling pretty heavily and the breeze kept blowing it into our faces. We didn’t have our goggles. Of course, the one time we needed them we forgot to pack them. We used our hoods and Buffs to cover up as much as we could and started out.

From Skyliner Sno Park you have two options for getting to the falls: you can continue about 0.4 miles down Skyliner Road to Tumalo Falls Road, which you’ll follow 2.5 miles to the Tumalo Falls Day Use Area, or you can follow the less crowded Tumalo Creek Trail, which begins at the sno park. Usually, we opt for the less crowded trail, but since we were starting much later than anticipated (and the trail option was a little longer), we decided to continue to Tumalo Falls Road.

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The hike to Tumalo Falls was, in all honesty, nothing special. Don’t get me wrong, it looked beautiful! In the end though, it still felt like a plain road walk. Maybe I was just grumpy from the long drive. Or maybe it was because the snowy, cloudy weather was basically obscuring the surrounding landscape save the trees on either side of the road. The 2.5 miles were turning into somewhat of a slog. And, unless you’ve got special running snowshoes, it’s kind of difficult to move very fast. I kept wondering if we should’ve just taken the trail instead. At least Cassie seemed to be enjoying herself. Seeing her face light up and her tongue hang out as she charged and plowed through the snow made seemingly dull moments so much more fun.

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The snow covered footbridge crossing Tumalo Creek indicated that we were just around the corner from the iconic viewpoint of Tumalo Falls. Despite my less-than-enthusiastic attitude about Tumalo Falls Road, I was completely entranced by the dark blue water of the creek flowing through marshamallowy mounds of snow. A perfect prelude to the viewing of the majestic falls just ahead.

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Although we’d seen tons of people along the way, there wasn’t a single person at the viewpoint when we got there! For a few short minutes, we had a magical view of Tumalo Falls all to ourselves. It definitely made the semi-boring walk much more worthwhile.

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We continued a short ways uphill to reach the viewing platform at the top of the falls. It wasn’t nearly as spectacular as actually seeing the falls, but it did offer more space to relax, sit down, and (if I hadn’t been snapping pictures the entire time) enjoy a snack or lunch. It was still snowing though and Cassie started to shiver after a few minutes, so we didn’t break long before we headed back down. Tumalo Creek Trail continues up past this point though, and Mack and I are already making plans to come back after the snow melts to get in some long trail running miles while exploring the numerous other waterfalls along the creek!

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After getting dinner and snacks at a nearby Market of Choice, we drove back out to Tumalo State Park to set up camp. Our plans to backpack in the snow may have fallen through, but we did get to do a less strenuous form of snow camping at the park campground! The spot was already dug out for us, so all we had to do was set up the tent and make sure everything was staked down firmly in the snow. At least we didn’t have to bust out the shovels. We capped off our evening with a mini boysenberry pie from MOC and a steaming cup of cocoa.

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