The steely blue McKenzie River sets the course for this 34-mile/55-kilometer riverside route, which links the fruitful Willamette Valley to the fragrant fir forests of the Cascade Mountains.
One of Oregon’s most beloved fly-fishing rivers, the clear blue McKenzie tumbles and surges over waterworn rocks on its scenic run from forest to farmland, where it joins the Willamette River near Eugene. This byway zigzags along its bank, where a string of riverside communities provides welcoming gateways to the river valley’s attractions.
Spring-fed from wilderness aquifers, the McKenzie River provides outstanding habitat for native redside rainbow trout and cutthroat trout, ample hatchery trout, spring chinook salmon and summer steelhead. A display at the Hendricks Bridge County Park illustrates the way prospectors, trappers and homesteaders utilized different ways of crossing the powerful river. Here in the 1800s, the Hendricks Ferryboat provided a vital link for people, livestock and goods to safely make their way from bank to bank just upstream from the current bridge.
Family farms thrive on the broad plains of the western McKenzie. Near Walterville, farm stands open in spring with baskets of plump local strawberries and end the season with holiday wreaths made from local holly and Christmas trees. In July the region hosts the McKenzie River Lavender Festival, with U-cut fields, a lavender labyrinth, a craft bazaar and other festivities.
Continuing east, the Leaburg-Walterville Hydroelectric Project is a complex that earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Renowned sculptor Harry Camden Poole created the bas-relief panels on the powerhouse, considered among the state’s finest examples of art deco architecture. The complex is also notable for its innovative 1920s engineering design, including the dam’s 100-foot-long roller gates.
The structure slows the river flow here, creating Leaburg Lake. For access to the water, visit Lloyd Knox Park, which offers a lakeside trail, boat ramps and some picnic areas with free electric stovetops. At the adjacent Leaburg Hatchery, you can check out sturgeon and trout in show ponds or watch for spawning salmon through a viewing window.
Across the river, the Old McKenzie Fish Hatchery is also on the National Register of Historic Places, preserving a 1907 hatchery complex with 17 buildings and ponds that appear as they did a century ago. Now a county park, it includes an outdoor visitor kiosk, trails and interpretive signs explaining the hatchery’s legacy. In addition, plans are now moving forward to construct a new state-of-the-art McKenzie River Interpretive Center to tell the story of the area’s unique geology, fisheries and guiding heritage.
The famed McKenzie drift boat originated here in the 1930s, a dory specifically designed to deftly navigate the river’s rocky runs and provide a stable casting platform. River guides run the McKenzie in these time-tested boats. (Contact the McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce or Travel Lane County for a list of professional guides and outfitters.) Anglers will also find plenty of public river access at boat ramps and parks all along the byway.
Onward into Vida, the 1938 Goodpasture Bridge stretches 165 feet/50 meters across the river. The state’s second-longest covered bridge is also one of the prettiest with arched and louvered windows. At the site of Gate Creek Ranch, a prominent red barn marks a historic stage stop.
The river runs wilder here, tumbling through boulder fields and Class III rapids. The Ben and Kay Dorris County Park offers excellent riverside access with picnic sites, a boat landing and a half-mile trail to Marten Rapids, one of the river’s best-known rapids. The rugged trail rewards hikers with exciting views of boaters navigating challenging waters.
In Nimrod, Eagle Rock Lodge is one of several fishing lodges offering signature McKenzie River hospitality. The lodge hosts the Wooden Boat Festival each April. Neighboring McKenzie River Inn features art workshops with instruction from internationally renowned artists. Moving along Forest Road 15 is a gateway to the recreational wonderland around Blue River Lake, with camping, boating and hiking as well as access to Wolf Rock, Oregon’s largest and the world’s third-largest monolith.
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