Oregon is a vast and diverse state — from the coastal cliffs to the eastern high desert, you could spend a lifetime in this state and still miss something. Along the McKenzie River, deep in the Willamette National Forest, lies a road that is home to beautiful waterfalls, hidden hot springs, and incredibly scenic views the entire way.
With so much to offer, it can be hard to know where you should go to spend your valuable time. So, we chose to focus on the McKenzie Highway during our trip this past May.
We picked up a campervan from Escape Campervans in Portland, made a pit stop in Bend for some much-needed coffee, then headed west around the Three Sisters Wilderness and into the Willamette National Forest.
As soon as you’ve entered the Willamette National Forest, you know it. Being one of the largest of its kind, the forest is filled with plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, swim and more.
Our first stop? Sahalie Falls. You can hike the Waterfalls Loop Trail, leading to Sahalie and Koosah falls, in just 2.6 miles. But if you feel this is too much or you’re just pressed on time, each waterfall has its own parking lot. The McKenzie River connects the two falls and is the bluest and clearest water I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to Iceland).
A well-maintained path leads you down to a lookout, while also offering to take you up close and personal to Sahalie to stare up at the 100 ft roaring falls. I recommend bringing both a waterproof jacket and pants, as I found out very quickly that it’s very misty near the falls, even at the lookout point. Be careful as you approach the falls as the area is mostly filled with slippery rocks.
Less than a mile down the road (or a short hike), is Koosah Falls. The waterfall itself drops over 70 feet into the blue river. The lookout point is just a few hundred feet from the parking lot, but I recommend passing it up and hiking the trail down to the lower end of the falls. Here, you get an amazing view of the falls and can see how blue this water really is. If you plan on posing for pictures, keep in mind that everything in this area is wet from the mist. Be safe!
Neither Koosah nor Sahalie require permits so enjoy them both at no cost.
Bigelow Hot Springs
After visiting the waterfalls, we had to backtrack a few miles to find a hidden gem: Bigelow Hot Springs, also known as Deer Creek Hot Springs. The spring sits quietly along the Mckenzie River, literally on the river. If you’re not careful, you’ll accidentally step into the freezing cold river (as I did).
This hot spring is easily found using Google Maps. The parking lot is a little pull-out across the road from the 5-minute hike it takes to reach the springs. After soaking for about an hour, we were able to head back to our van and head to Olallie Campground. At our campsite we cooked and made camp for the night. I highly recommend hanging out in this particular area for sunset like we did. The campsite is basically a pull off on the side of the road, but you can also walk a little deeper into the forest to find a few more sweet spots to pitch a tent. We parked the van, cooked some great food and drank some great beer. It was almost too easy.
Oregon will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ve spent time traveling and photographing in a wide array of places, but this state has always been the one place that makes me want to put down roots. My highest recommendation when visiting the Beaver State is to visit the McKenzie Highway and if you have time, the coastline. And if you’re planning on visiting, I highly recommend renting a campervan. It’s convenient and super efficient for traveling. In fact, it is my favorite way to travel.