: Joey Hamilton / WVVA

The Ultimate Oakridge Getaway

With awesome rafting, biking and hiking, this small town in the Willamette Valley goes big on nature.
May 17, 2024

It’s a golden summer morning in Oakridge, and five paddlers and I are preparing to float 6 miles down the Middle Fork of the Willamette River, a main tributary to Oregon’s iconic Willamette River that flows frothy and clear out of the deep Cascades southeast of Eugene. We settle into our places along the rim of a 14-foot-long rubber whitewater raft, holding our paddles as instructed. Noah Sunflower, our guide, sits in the rear, ready to lead us downstream.

“Are the rapids big?” asks a visitor from Quebec. 

“Big enough,” he replies. 

Sunflower serves as the lead guide at the Cascades Outdoor Center, an outdoor-adventure company that he owns with his wife, Tracey. The mission: to showcase the fun you can have hiking, biking and rafting around Oakridge, population 3,200, a community about 40 miles southeast of Eugene. Sunflower explains all rapids deserve respect, but this run contains mostly small ones, or Class II, which is one step up in difficulty from no rapids at all. We should expect some splashes but nothing too rowdy. 

That is, until the end. 

There near the town of Westfir, another tributary — the North Fork of the Middle Fork — joins the river, and together they continue on their way out of the mountains and onto more waterways in Springfield and Eugene. This one is guarded by a Class III rapid called Hell’s Gate. It’s easy to run, but mess it up and you’ll drop down the back of a rock and into the bottom of a standing wave called a hole. Guides call it the “Basket of Kittens,” but something tells me it’s neither warm nor fuzzy. 

Mountain biking in Oakridge (Photo by SpringFed Media / Eugene, Cascades & Coast)

Mountain Bike Trails Not to Miss in Oakridge

I’d first heard of Oakridge decades ago, and not through rafting but as an obsessed mountain biker living in Bend, a place that makes the magazines for its own mountain biking. Even then, after wrapping up a ride at Phil’s Trail or getting a tune-up at Hutch’s Bicycles, you’d overhear talk of it. 

Oakridge, like Bend, is a relatively new city, first founded in 1912 with the arrival of the railroad that fueled a voracious logging industry until the last mill vanished in the 1980s. As a modern recreation hub, the town is ideal. The old mill grounds now host the 18-hole Old Mill Disc Golf Course. A gorgeous, nine-room inn with natural tones and updated spaces, the Westfir Lodge, also owned by the Sunflowers, sits in what was once a lumber company’s offices. The mountain biking word is out. 

Today the Oakridge area has upward of 1,700 miles of trails, a staggering amount, and they’ve matured enough to have some tried-and-true classics. There’s Alpine, a 12-mile downhill backcountry romp, and a 24-mile-long loop locals call the ATCA. The rides feature swooping single-track, rollicking descents and thrilling curves, and are best done by skipping the 4,500-vertical-foot climb with a 45-minute van shuttle to the start near a fork in a Forest Road. (Call Cascade Outdoor Center for shuttles.) Once you arrive, the only other people you’ll see are those who shared the shuttle with you.

The company has a fleet of specialized bikes for rent and can arrange a guide if you want one, but typically most folks do the ride on their own. 

Meanwhile, the trails keep getting better. The Oakridge Trails Alliance announced in March 2024 that work will soon begin on a half-million-dollar project that includes building new trails that connect to existing ones to create an unrivaled single-track destination known for world-class signature trails.

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Willamette River (Photo by Joey Hamilton / Eugene, Cascases & Coast)

Camping Along the Middle Fork of the Willamette

Back on the river, things are going great. Sunflower is telling jokes; the Quebec visitor is relaxed; I spy an osprey circling overhead. The forest rises around us and then parts as the water works its way around gravel bars. Mostly the rapids come as small waves and busy patches, but this is no lazy-river tube float either. By giving us paddle commands like “right side forward” and “left side back,” Sunflower expertly pilots us around logs and rocks that could trip us up. 

Today is just a day float, but this river makes for some great car camping. Places like Sacandaga Campground, Secret Campground and Campers Flat Campground offer ways to sleep under the trees near the rushing water. The Black Canyon Campground has a mile-long interpretive trail with access to more paths in the Winberry Trail Area for riding and hiking.  

We bounce through a few more rapids before Sunflower starts calling out a different set of commands. It’s lunchtime, and he knows just the spot. He has us row backward against the current while he uses his paddle like a rudder to keep the bow of the boat at a slight angle to the flow. Our work, his angle and the rushing water all conspire to ferry the boat gently and laterally across the river to a small, leafy park. 

The guide hands out turkey sandwiches and cookies and opens a cooler filled with soft drinks and water. I take a quick stroll to stretch my legs for a bit and find the Osprey Park disc golf course, this one with six holes. The Oakridge Bike Shop & Willamette Mountain Mercantile is the place to go for discs.

Sunflower beckons me back into the boat. Time to see the kittens.

Mountain Market Cafe and Salt Creek Falls (Photo by Katie Schrock / WVVA and Joey Hamilton / ECC)

A Long Weekend in Oakridge

The Hell’s Gate rapids and the Basket of Kittens begin to pop and gurgle ahead. The river gathers speed as the guide keeps the bow straight into the waves. “Forward!” he commands, and our six paddles dig into the current like the legs of a watery bug. The hole appears but I’m too focused to gawk. Within seconds we’re through. 

“Great job, everybody,” Sunflower says. We ferry again to the side of the river, this time to the Confluence City Park in Oakridge’s sister town, Westfir. We tie up, get out and make our way to the Westfir Lodge to regroup and celebrate with fresh scones and house-made ice cream cookies at the Mountain Market Cafe, a bakery and market that uses ingredients from its own farm just a few miles away. We sit outside with pints of local beer and linger. 

Tonight we might head to Stewart’s 58 Drive-In for juicy 1/3-pound burgers and malted milkshakes or take in the scene at The 3 Legged Crane, a brewery that does cask ales and live music on weekends. Nearby, in the area locals call Uptown Oakridge, you can wander around on First Friday and hit art stops like Flying Dog Gallery and Diamond Peak Wine Bar, which doubles as a gallery featuring the work of local artists. Instead of biking, tomorrow I’ll head out to hike the Salt Creek Falls and Diamond Creek Falls Loop to the 286-foot-high Salt Creek Falls. The overlook there is paved and suited for visitors of all mobilities. 

For now, though, I do what I always do when I’m happy: nothing. I sit in the sun and begin to plot a long weekend here with my wife at the inn. Maybe it’s the adrenaline that’s wearing off or the IPA that’s setting in, but this place has left me rather warm and fuzzy. 

About The

Tim Neville
Tim Neville is a writer based in Bend where he writes about the outdoors, travel and the business of both. His work has been included in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing, and earned various awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the Society of Professional Journalists. Tim has reported from all seven continents and spends his free time skiing, running and spending time with his family.

Trip Ideas