Trail Love Letter: The McKenzie River Trail

AJW writes a trail love letter to the McKenzie River Trail in Oregon.

By on September 10, 2021 | Leave a reply

[Author’s Note: This is the ninth installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not AJW's Taproom trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States.]

In central Oregon, about 50 miles east of Eugene, the McKenzie River Trail winds through lava flows and old growth forests for 26.5 blissful, singletrack miles. The home of Oregon’s oldest ultramarathon, the McKenzie River Trail Run, founded in 1988, the McKenzie River Trail is known as one of the most beautiful trails in America.

From the race website, “Tracing a route along the beautiful McKenzie River: with two spectacular waterfalls, a lake so pristine it’s called Clear Lake, lava flows, old growth forest, numerous log bridges, and the aquamarine-colored Tamolitch Pool where the the river flows from an underground lava tube, the McKenzie River Trail is one of the prettiest trails in America.”

I had my first encounter with the McKenzie River Trail in the early 1990s when I worked as a camp counselor in the Cascades and led backpack trips on the trail. Featuring the classic, pine-straw surface of the Pacific Northwest, the McKenzie is one of those trails that one could seemingly run for days. Running downstream beginning at the eastern end in the midst of a massive lava flow and ending a marathon’s distance later at the Paradise Campground and McKenzie River Ranger Station, the trail descends a gradual 1,750 feet over its entire length and provides an excellent trail experience for all ages.

Craig Thornley McKenzie River Trail Run

Craig Thornley racing the McKenzie River Trail Run. Photo: Michael Lebowitz

If you talk to any of the local trail runners in Oregon, just about all of them have fond things to say about the trail. Veteran ultrarunner Scott Wolfe, who lived in Eugene for a decade says, “The flow of the singletrack mirrors the river, the pools, and the waterfalls. It’s the consummate Pacific Northwest trail.”

Meghan Laws, who was previously a long-time resident of Corvallis, Oregon and who spent countless hours on the trail over the years, explains, “The majesty of the old growth forest is endless, every turn in the trail is another gift of beauty. Your feet fall almost silently at times on soft turf. The gradual downhill keeps your wheels rolling and your exuberance high.”

Finally, Craig Thornley, the current race director of the Western States 100, who also lived in Eugene for years and who is a veteran of many marathons and road races from the early 1980s, discovered the wonder of trail running on the McKenzie River Trail. “Big trees, a beautiful river, a pristine lake, waterfalls, and winding singletrack, the McKenzie River Trail is an Oregon gem. It holds a special place in my heart as it is where I first started racing on trails, way back in 1997.”

Tomorrow, after a year’s hiatus, the McKenzie River Trail Run will host 200 eager ultraunners to an absolute treat as the 33rd edition takes place. The winding river, raging waterfalls, and old growth trees will once again strut their stuff and showcase the wonder of one of the Pacific Northwest’s finest places.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week Twisted Meniscus Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from McKenzie Brewing in Eugene, Oregon. Their Twisted Meniscus IPA is a classic unfiltered IPA brewed in the old school Northwest Style. A little darker than your typical IPA, Twisted Meniscus is a malty, bitter treat.

Call for Comments

  • Have you ever run along this trail, or better yet, the McKenzie River Trail Run?
  • What are some of your other favorite trails in central Oregon?
McKenzie River Trail Run Jared Hass

A runner crossing the bridge during the McKenzie River Trail Run. Photo: Jared Hass

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.