The Upper McKenzie River Trail

The Wild and Scenic McKenzie

It’s been a cool, damp spring, but I didn’t let that deter me from hiking the upper section of the McKenzie River Trail. As the sunny days have been few, I choose Monday May 4, 2010 as it was supposed to be at least “partly cloudy”, for what ever that’s supposed to mean, to take my chances on a dry day. The plan was to park at Carmen Reservoir and hike up to Clear Lake on the McKenzie River Trail. I was surprised to see snow on the ridges just above the 3000 foot level and patches of white in the shadows under the trees. Brrr… Won’t the long winter or extended cool damp spring ever end?     

Carmen Reservoir is a beautiful, small lake that looks like it should be full of fat trout. The clear, cold water begs for you to try your luck. Along the easterly side of the lake are some alder thickets. With the trees just starting to leaf the contrasting white trunks with the bright, new, green leaves making an interesting environment. I parked my car near the restroom on the Northwest corner of the lake and walked back across the bridge to the trail on the east side of the river.     

Alder Thicket

Carmen Reservoir

Bridge at Carmen Reservoir

The McKenzie River is listed as a “Wild and Scenic River” under a federally mandated program established in 1968 to preserve and enhance the “Outstandingly Remarkable Values” unique to a river system. This Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was greatly expanded under the 1988 Omnibus Oregon Rivers Act, which added 40 Oregon rivers, including the McKenzie, to the list. The ORVs for the McKenzie include its distinct recreational attractions, geologic formations and wildlife.The McKenzie River Trail closely follows the McKenzie River, a scenic whitewater river originating in the high Cascade Mountains. The trail crosses over several tributaries of the McKenzie River via log bridges. The lower sections of the trail pass through 600 year old Douglas-fir forests, while upper sections of the trail pass spectacular waterfalls and lava flows.      

The McKenzie River Trail

 The section of this trail I chose is  especially beautiful  and  goes past Koosha and Sahalie Falls. As this section is once cascade after another, I left town early so I could take pictures of the falls before the sun hit them. Once the sun hits the white water, the deep shadows make it very difficult to keep from over exposing.   


Just below the dam, the river goes underground via a series of lava tubes and resurfaces about 3 mile later at Tamolitch Falls (when the water is high enough to create a surface flow) which is commonly known as Blue Hole. A quick peek over the dam told me that there wasn’t enough water for a surface flow so I skipped the lower section and headed up toward Clear Lake.  

I took the trail on the east side of the river trail (this is the Waterfall Loop section and has a trail on both sides) and within 50 yards the river is a roaring, white torrent. The pools where it gets a little sun, are a turquoise blue and so clear you could read the date on a penny on the bottom at 20 feet.  

Just Above the Bridge

The trail was in pretty good shape for the most part but mountain bikes had cut up wet spots and made some short muddy sections. The water is so incredible that you have to stop and take it all in about every 100 feet or so.  

Just Another Riffle

Koosha Falls is only about a half mile from where I left my car at Carmen reservoir. The word “Koosah” is a Chinook word meaning “sky”. Koosah Falls is a terrific waterfall appearing in two segments, dropping about 80 ft. along the McKenzie River. Earlier in the spring, these segments run together, so it is more of a single large waterfall.  As I expected, Koosha was full and the mist from the falls filled the valley and made it a bit touchy to get a shot. You have to be quick and have your camera ready, then pull off the lens cap and fire as the mist will fog your lens in seconds.  The sun was still a little ways up on the canyon sideslopes so I was able to get a few shots.  

Koosha Falls



Stairs Near Koosha Falls

Looking Over The Top of Koosha Falls

If you have never hiked this short section of the trail, I strongly urge you to take the time to do so. This has to be one of the most spectacular sections of “wild river”  you will find anywhere. If you make one mile an hour, you’re doing well, as you’ll what to stop and soak it up every few yards.  

Narrow Canyon

It’s probably only a quarter of a mile from Koosha to Shahalie Falls. Again it was full and the mist drifted down the canyon for more than 100 yards. The word “Sahalie” is a Chinook word meaning “high”.  Sahalie Falls is indeed a high, glorious waterfall. The McKenzie River crashes 100+ feet over a lava cliff to form this stunning display. Sahalie Falls (along with Koosah Falls) was formed thousands of years ago when lava flows buried parts of the river. The waterfall is easily accessible on a paved path from the parking lot leading to a great overlook. There is also a short dirt path leading right to the brink of the waterfall. This is highly recommended to give you a close-up view of the falls.  

Sahalie Falls

Stairs Near Sahalie Falls

Looking Off The Top of Sahalie Falls

Shortly below Sahalie Falls, you will see another small but very interesting 30-40 ft. cascade along the river.  I’ve nick-named that one “Logjam Falls” for the big logs that jam the bottom of it. Notice that the water in the river here is very blue-looking, as though the river is glacier fed.  

Blue Water Below Logjam Falls

Blue Water Bubbles

From Sahalie the trail does not always hug the river and it’s about a half mile up to a bridge crossing to the west side of the river. There are a lot of interesting sites along the way with the mossy banks, the lava flow and the ruggedness of the terrain. Check out this cedar tree sitting on a rock!  

Bridge Above Sahalie Falls

Mossy Banks

Cedar Sitting On a Rock

Tree Mushroom

It isn’t far before the trail crosses the highway at the South access to Clear Lake. The trail gets away from the river at that point and you don’t see it again until you are at the lake. Clear Lake certainly lives up to it’s name and the water is so clear that the depth is deceiving. A mile or so around the east side of the lake there is a place called Big Springs where the clear mountain water emerges in a spring near the edge of the lake. A mile around the west side bring you to the resort and boat launch.  Today it was pretty quiet and just a few people preparing for Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of the camping season. Next weekend fishermen will be plying the clear cold water  for trout.  

Bridge at Clear Lake

Green Water at Outlet of Clear Lake

Clear Lake

My stomach was beginning to growl so I retraced my route back to the car. On the way, the sun had hit the canyon and I got a couple of shots of both falls with a rainbow in the mist.  

Rainbow at Sahalie Falls

Rainbow at Koosha Falls

I still had some time, so on the way back I made a few stops. The first one was at the edge of an old lava flow. The spring rain had nourished the moss and it was in bloom. There were also some Sierra Sedum growing on some of the rocks and it was very colorful at this time of the year. I also saw some very tiny fern and had a little fun doing some macro shots.  

Old Mossy Lava Flow

Sierra Sedum

Sierra Sedum Close-up

Moss in Bloom

Tiny Fern

  It had been a long time since I had visited Deer Creek hot springs so I stopped off for a quick look. As I suspected, the water in the river was high, so the water was pretty diluted and only lukewarm. This small, hot springs, right on the rivers edge, is a small fern grotto.  Later in the spring and someone soaking in the cave like opening can hardly be seen from the river. There was anther hot springs a little further down the river but as the river has changed course it is now in the river.  

Deer Creek Hot Springs

The next stop was Belknap Hot Springs. This historic hot springs resort has cabins, RV hook-up and traditional camping sites. This historic hot and two large swimming pools fed with geothermal hot water. More information on this resort can be found at: The owners have developed some very nice gardens and I wanted to check them out.  

Belknap Lodge

Belknap Art

Belknap Wood Carvings

As next weekend is Memorial Day weekend, the resort was a bustle of preparations. There were landscapers at work planting new bedding plants and cleaning up existing gardens. There were carpenters working on some lodge renovation  and it should be looking nice by next weekend.  

Belknap Main Lodge Pool

Belknap Lodge From Across the River

It was a little early for the Gardens to have a lot blooming as it is close to 2000 feet elevation. I did walk around to get a few shots to give you a taste of what you will would see.  

Path to the Gardens

Interesting Structures

A Hidden Garden

One of the Water Features

Reflections of Blooms

Mirror Reflection

Here are a few of the flowers I saw but it was really too early for most to be in full bloom. The combination of the cool spring and the elevation had made the season a little late.  


  After an hour or so of shooting the gardens, I went back to the lodge and soaked in the public pool for a while. About the time I was ready to get out it started to rain. I chucked it at that point and headed for the dressing room and dry clothes.  

It had been a very nice day and was time to head back to Eugene. I do hope that you too will get a chance to spend the day here someday soon .  





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