Paul Andrews

Bike Intelligencer Ride Classics: The McKenzie River Trail

In Mountain Bike Trail Reviews, Mountain Biking, Multi-Day Trips on December 30, 2009 at 9:18 am

[Note: Continuing our holiday series of Bike Intelligencer’s past Classic Epics, we hearken back to a memorable triptych in 2003 covering Mt. St. Helens, Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail and the North Umpqua River Trail.]

Anthony, Mire, Gonzz and I had talked about doing Oregon’s legendary McKenzie River Trail after — not before — Umpqua. But life is uncertain. Better carpe limitem — to seize the trail, as Jim Lyon says. Better yet if I could cram the McKenzie in on Monday, do Umpqua Tuesday, then skeedaddle back to Seattle on Wednesday for a Microsoft briefing.

During my post-Juniper Ridge sleepover in Eugene, I talked with Mire by cell phone, and was glad I did. She suggested that I drive upriver from Eugene/Springfield about 60 miles to the Smith Reservoir, and do an out-and-back on the McKenzie’s more tech upper section. Usually you shuttle and ride the McKenzie top to bottom, around 26 miles. But I hate shuttles and in any case, with only myself on the ride…well, you do the math.

McKenzie River lava trail

Where ripping and shredding have a whole new meaning

Never having done the McKenzie before, I figured it to be a pretty tame river trail from all the publicity and tourbook talk I’d encountered over the years. But I was surprised: It’s got a lot of technical stuff, including a lava field unlike anything I’d encountered since riding the Haleakala volcano on Maui several years ago. And the sights are spectacular: a truly remarkable, glass-clear-to-the-bottom, crystalline pool that, Anthony later told me, is 60 feet deep despite looking about 3 feet shallow; a series of crashing waterfalls, and the recreational flair of Clear Lake on top. There’s also old-growth forest along the way.

At the reservoir a pickup parked alongside my van with a guy and three young women. Trail runners! They flew off before I could even say hi, but I ran into them on the way back. It was in the 90s and they were running in short shorts and jog bras, which were the only part of them working really hard. Glistening with sweat, bodies rippling, they looked like forest nymphs flitting through the Oregon grape. Maybe they were distance runners, maybe they were supermodels. Maybe I was just hallucinating from heat stroke. At the top a tourist asked me if, in my Oregon travels, I’d seen The Three Sisters yet. “Certainly,” I said. “They’re running down the trail as we speak.”

This is a well-used trail. There were scads of tourist types at the waterfalls and hardly any section felt really isolated. But I had to watch myself. My long-suffering wife and bike widow permitted me to undertake this exercise in self-infliction only on condition that I ride with others. So out there alone I took it easy, particularly on the lava fields. With no margin for error, lava is intimidating. It shreds skin like soft fruit and gouges knees and elbows like an ax blade. It can rip a sidewall to ribbons. Much of the McKenzie lava is rideable (there’s even a paved path along some sections), and maybe all of it would be with some sort of protection. I’d love to go back with light armor, especially shin pads. As it was, bare-legged and wearing only lycra, I had no interest in jeopardizing Umpqua — or my marriage — for the sake of trying to clean sections of lava. I cruised back uneventfully, and can understand why shuttlers do top to bottom. It’s a real joy ride headed down.

What did impress me was the primo condition of the trail and the hordes of mountain bikers. For a Monday afternoon, at least. I ran into couples, trios and even a quartet, all zooming down the trail while I was meandering up. [Note: McKenzie later was named Trail of the Year by BIKE magazine.]This trail is a real multi-use gem, and people seemed inordinately friendly. Even a couple Sierra Club types, two ”senior” women (heck they were probably my age) with graying hair and walking sticks, struck up a conversation as I pedaled by. “You must be having a grand time,” one noted generously. In Cali odds are they would’ve been more grim, especially in Marin. But the mtb-ers were polite and cheerful and dispensed much positive PR.

Tamolitch Pool aka Blue Pool or Blue Hole

Tamolitch Pool: How deep did you say?

After three epics in a row that included a lot of hike-a-bike, I really appreciated the rideability of the McKenzie. This is what got me into mountain biking (from road riding) in the first place, after all. But in the quest for ever more remote and challenging routes, I’ve found myself pushing as often as riding. With the McKenzie it was all one swooshy, rollicking rail down. Highly recommended.

I’d like to return and do the whole out and back, even if, as Mire pointed out, the lower side is undistinguished buff trail. One thing is for certain, I see little appeal in shuttling and riding down — even in mid-90-degree heat. The trail is wonderful both ways.

As it was, I got back to the trailhead around 2:30 p.m., an hour later than I would’ve preferred. The BBTC Three were waiting for me in the 98-degree swelterama of Roseburg. It was time to scoot. North Umpqua was calling out our names.

Abbreviated McKenzie elev: 3,210. Elapsed time: 3:47.

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