Sometimes, trails are better ridden in sections than in their entirety.
The 26½-mile McKenzie River National Recreation Trail can certainly be completed in one day by a motivated mountain biker. But in my experience, the ride is much more enjoyable when the technically demanding upper portion is skipped.
The McKenzie River Trail (MRT), which straddles the border of Lane and Linn counties on the western flank of the Cascade Range, is known for the clear, rushing water of the river, spectacular waterfalls and towering old-growth Douglas fir trees.
It starts out easy around the west side of Clear Lake and becomes extremely technical over the rugged lava rock near the Sahalie and Koosah waterfalls all the way to Trail Bridge Reservoir. From the reservoir, the trail becomes a smooth path of flowing singletrack down to the McKenzie Bridge Ranger Station at its south end.
With that in mind, I set out last week with Bend’s Mark Johnson and Andrew Williams and Portland’s Rich Ferguson to ride the tamer lower section of the renowned trail.
The last time I rode the entire McKenzie River Trail, I needed six hours to complete the route. A three-hour ride on the lower section would be much less grueling. Also, Williams and Ferguson are relatively new to mountain biking, so staying on the easier section of trail seemed like the best option.
The trail is located pretty much halfway between Bend and Eugene along state Highway 126.
The plan was to do a shuttled ride from Trail Bridge Reservoir, the midpoint of the trail, down to the ranger station, thereby avoiding the difficult lava rock section. The problem was that we did not have two cars that could carry four bikes — a necessity for a shuttle of four cyclists.
So we opted for an out-and-back ride, starting from near the south end of the trail at Paradise Campground.
After the 1½-hour drive from Bend to the campground last Friday, we parked and unloaded the bikes.
The ride started with smooth, fast singletrack, then transitioned to several cliff-side corners where we had to ride slowly and with extra caution.
Most of the trail stays along the river, but some portions took us away from the water. One constant along the trail — and what makes it so different from any trail in Central Oregon — is the lush greenery of the Willamette National Forest. Bright green ferns, moss-covered Douglas firs and endless deciduous trees line the trail and provide a nearly constant canopy. The forest is so thick in spots that heavy shade is almost constant.
The McKenzie River is crystal clear and ever-changing, from calm, rocky pools to churning whitewater. The trail undulates along the river, at times rising hundreds of feet above the water.
Although the southern half of the MRT is considered the easier portion, it does include a few rocky areas that make a full-suspension bike worthwhile on some of the more technical sections. (Bikers should be sure to take along extra food and water and a bicycle repair kit.)
While we were technically riding uphill from Paradise Campground, it never really seemed that way. There were a few challenging climbs but nothing too sustained or demanding.
Numerous narrow bridge crossings are required along the MRT. Most of the bridges are so narrow that cyclists must pop their bikes up on the back wheel and push the bikes in front of them as they walk across.
About 8 1/2 miles into the ride, we decided to turn around, still a few miles from Trail Bridge Reservoir. Once we headed back, we realized we really had been climbing. The ride back was fast and flowing along the raging river and past the towering old-growth trees.
By the time we made it back to the car at Paradise Campground, we had ridden 17 miles in just over three hours, climbing about 900 feet before turning around to descend that same amount. (The entire north-to-south ride along the MRT includes an elevation loss of 1,600 feet.)
Afterward, we all agreed that the lower section of the MRT is an ideal ride for beginners and still a thrill for more advanced riders.
“It was nice and smooth for the most part,” said Ferguson, the senior member of our group at 66. “A few rocky spots, but overall it was a very pleasant trail, and nothing too extreme. I’m considered a novice rider at this point, so I had to get off and walk a few places, but other than that, it’s a pretty doable ride.”
Johnson, 62, is a more experienced mountain biker, but this was his first time riding the MRT after living in Central Oregon for three years.
“What I like about it is the contrast from what I’ve been riding for the last three years or so, the ferns and the massive trees, the greenery and the river,” Johnson said. “And the trail is so tacky with all the organic material on the ground.
“As far as the beauty goes, it’s everything I expected and more.”