Giving Back to Cherished Places Through Travel

The McKenzie Regenerative Travel Project incorporates hiking, biking, rafting and volunteering into meaningful vacations.
June 7, 2021

As an Oregonian, I have a deep connection to many corners of our state, including a specific bend on the Santiam River, a backcountry campsite in the Mt. Hood National Forest and a spot at 3.8 miles on a trail outside of Ashland that opens to an unexpected vista. I adore some public lands so much that I would gladly spend my time making sure these places are cared for and ready to be adored by many generations beyond me.

This is the idea behind the new concept of “regenerative travel,” which is defined as leaving your vacation spot not as you found it but better than you found it. It’s the perfect type of travel for people like me to channel our love for public lands into action.

In partnership with Cascade Volunteers, First Nature Tours and Global Family Travels, Travel Oregon co-funded the McKenzie Regenerative Travel Project that invites guests to enjoy all the McKenzie River Corridor has to offer and give back to it in a meaningful way that goes beyond the baseline of Leave No Trace or Take Care Out There principles. These travel packages are available through the end of this summer as the McKenzie River Corridor recovers from the devastating wildfires of 2020.

In September of 2020, many Oregonians were hunkering down indoors for over a week as fire blazed through the Willamette National Forest and covered much of our state in a heavy, orange, blanket of smoke. Fires burned 176,000 acres and consumed 430 structures. The region was badly wounded, but not all was lost; some communities within it are now open and needing support to recover. These regenerative travel packages are a way for visitors to directly help these communities.

An aerial view of the edge of a wildfire burn in the McKenzie River Valley.
An aerial view of the edge of a wildfire burn in the McKenzie River Valley.

The Willamette National Forest is expecting high levels of summer visitation. Land managers must be diligent in directing people to safe, open trails. To fuel this perfect storm even more, public land agencies are experiencing severe staff shortages. Alyssa Archer, Executive Director of Cascade Volunteers recognized the importance of extra help in our forests: “volunteer support of annual routine maintenance reduces visitor impacts and frees up agency resources to tackle more specialized work in the 2020 fire closure areas.” As a bonus, Archer says volunteers “serve as ambassadors to visitors they encounter on the trail and eat and stay in gateway communities to contribute to economic recovery.”

I felt compelled to help and signed up for one of the four McKenzie Regenerative Travel tour weekends. Thankfully, around the same time, Oregon was rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations, communities were beginning to open-up and I, like many people, was craving adventure and an opportunity to safely meet new people again.

I departed Portland for the most social and eventful trip I’d taken since pre-pandemic. I drove into the beautiful McKenzie River corridor, where I was mesmerized by the lush canyon sides and overcome with endearment as we drove past small towns like Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge. There was a clear line on the landscape that delineated between burnt and thriving. Though the burn areas were a vast, tragic sight, there was already evidence of life reemerging – ambitious lime-green sprouts poking through the dark ash and tree trunks.

People smile next to their mountain bikes.
Taking a rest and taking it all in along the Lower McKenzie River Trail.

Getting Acquainted via Mountain Bike

I arrived at Horse Creek Lodge, our basecamp for the weekend, and was elated to meet eight other people who were equally as passionate about having fun and giving back to this region as me. What better way to get to know each other than mountain biking on a muddy trail? Our group (of varying skill levels) grabbed bikes from the Lodge’s gear shop and set out on the Lower McKenzie River Trail as rain began to drizzle and thunder rumbled in the distance. It shaped up to be a very-Oregon experience. The group was proud of the 5-mile stretch we conquered – weaving in and out of the old-growth and river views; stopping to admire the native flora; and savoring the cool mist (and some mud) that kissed our faces.

Sawing and removing a tree that had fallen over the trail at Sahalie Falls.
Volunteers sawed and removed a tree that had fallen over the trail at Sahalie Falls.

Becoming Trail Stewards

For the next two days, our mornings started with breakfast burritos, crafted perfectly by the Obsidian Grill Restaurant and trail work. Our mission on Clear Lake and Sahalie & Koosah Falls trails was to clear hazardous limbs, trees, rocks and roots. Each morning, Rodger Lee, McKenzie River Ranger District Trail Foreman, handed us each a lopper and a dutchie (these are not pastries, but trail tools) and the eye-opening work began.

We set out to a portion of the trail that was on the verge of being completely consumed by Vine Maple. Rodger stopped us here for an important learning moment. He explained how this seemingly natural Vine Maple take-over can lead to a heightened impact on this sensitive ecosystem. If volunteers or U.S. Forest Service staff don’t clear the trail, visitors will likely walk beyond the trail to avoid obstructions, making a “social trail.” Social trails can damage sensitive species like the lichen, moss and Calypso Orchids that make Oregon forests so, well, Oregon.

The more branches we trimmed and precarious obstacles we removed, the more the trail would offer a safe, effortless experience for all the characters who will visit in the coming months.

People wear life jackets in a raft.
We cooled off on the McKenzie River after a day of trail work.
The group rested after eating salmon tacos and before an acoustic sing-along.
The group rested after eating salmon tacos and before an acoustic sing-along.

Connections Over S’mores and Sing-Alongs

We didn’t come all this way to get down to business the entire time, First Nature Tours did an excellent job of adding fun to our weekend agenda. After our cold end-of-day showers, we gathered around the firepit to cheers to a job well-done and dive deeper into conversation with our group of acquaintances that was quickly becoming a group of friends. I heard stories that illustrated people’s love for Oregon, stories that almost made me believe in Sasquatch and stories about fascinating local characters (e.g., One-Shot Daloris). As the final logs smoldered, we closed out the night with Alyssa and Gary Brownlee, owners of Horse Creek Lodge, as they jammed on the guitar and invited us to sing along to a line-up of classics.

Helmeted volunteers walk down a trail.
Look for more volunteer opportunities in the McKenzie River Valley.

Make a Plan

I identify strongly as a public land enthusiast. I will squeeze a hike, bike or dip into any weekend agenda I can. However, until this trip I had been completely disconnected from the work that goes into maintaining and stewarding public lands. It was a backstage-pass that revealed how important it is to care for the shared places we love. I have a feeling this is the beginning of a regenerative travel trend for Oregon. Archer says Cascade Volunteers is working to make these events more accessible: “We’re working to add more weekend events, larger social volunteer days, and new programs to accommodate [varied] priorities.”

There are two more weekend trips available this summer to help the region recover. I hope you’ll join the movement and the fun with us.


About The

Jordan McCauley
Jordan is the Destination Development Coordinator for Travel Oregon and enjoys discovering Oregon's best slopes to ski and swimming holes to jump in.

Trip Ideas