The only major controversy surrounding the McKenzie River Trail (MRT) is whether it is the best mountain bike trail in Oregon or the whole country. When I worked in a bike shop years ago, I pitched it to customers as the state’s top trail, though my powers of description were less than scintillating.
“What makes the ride so good?” they’d ask.
“Just go do it. You’ll see,” I’d say.
In 2008 Bike Magazine picked it as the best trail in the U.S. Suddenly there were fewer people asking about it and more people just riding it. Back then, an all-day trip to the MRT had to happen on my one day off each week, so it always started with an early-morning mad dash to the trailhead, then a full-speed charge through the forest, followed by fast food on the late-night drive home. But now that I can sometimes take entire weekends off, my girlfriend, Katie, and I devoted two days to the trip, giving ourselves a chance to ride like we had nowhere else to be.
The MRT is best ridden in late summer and early fall, once the Forest Service has finished clearing trees blown down by winter storms and the river is low enough that you can access the trailside hot springs. The ride is a 26-mile (one-way) endurance test, so any attempt at the whole thing begins with a car shuttle from McKenzie Bridge. That’s three hours from Portland, so rather than get up at 4 a.m., we did our driving the day before, picking up wine, cheese, pasta and pesto for dinner from Marché Provisions and cheesecake from Sweet Life Patisserie in Eugene.
The MRT parallels the McKenzie River, which is lined with rustic, riverfront cabins. We booked two nights at Caddisfly Resort, one of a handful of family-owned vacation properties on the river, says owner Dick Lauer. The Caddisfly has three redwood cottages tucked into the forest with a stretch of sand leading to the water. Ours was cozy and felt like home before we’d even dropped our duffel bags. It’s the kind of vacation spot that’s a perfect base camp for outdoor adventure, but a place you’d happily pass a lazy day playing boardgames. The cabins are also located hardly a mile from the lower trailhead, so it doesn’t take much in the way of logistical gymnastics to end the ride at your front door.
If you don’t want to run your own shuttle, which means driving two cars (we didn’t), McKenzie River Mountain Resort near Caddisfly (another great lodging option) will drop you at the start and pick up at the finish. They also rent full-suspension bikes that seem like overkill on the first few miles of trail, which run smooth and fast toward the bright-blue water of Clear Lake. But then the trail splits, and the left fork wanders through an optional, experts-only lava field on the east side of the lake. The right fork, meanwhile, winds to the west, past the cabins at Clear Lake Resort. There it rejoins the other route, taking riders into a section of quick climbs and technical descents that make the full suspension seem very necessary.
Opinions vary on the MRT’s level of difficulty. Generally speaking, the trail gets easier as you go, and there is 1,500 feet of elevation loss over the length of the trail, so you’re rolling downhill even though it feels mostly flat. But the sheer length of the trip prohibits most beginners from completing the entire ride.
About nine miles down the trail, you’ll come to the Tamolitch Pool (aka the Blue Pool), a recommended lunch spot and where the McKenzie River resurfaces after several miles underground.
For two miles afterward, the trail is a momentum-killing squiggle through skin-hungry lava rocks, where even the macho often dismount to walk.
If you can manage this section, the rest of the trail feels almost simple. But even though the trail zooms flat and fast over spongy pine needles here — the section is called Speeder Bikes in homage to “Return of the Jedi” — this is where many riders start to run out of gas.
We cruised along to an alternating soundtrack of rushing water and the muted susurrus of shins against leafy underbrush — but most of all, we heard the sound of our own breathing.
This is how we arrived at Deer Creek (aka Bigelow) Hot Springs, a bathwater-warm pool mixing with the McKenzie River just a few hundred yards off the main trail.
With 10 miles to go, we took a soak, hopping between the cool river water and steaming hot springs. The only controversy was whether we were getting some therapeutic benefit from the mid-ride marination or whether it simply felt so good we didn’t care. So we sat, waiting for some spark to return to our legs. We stayed for a very long time.