Outdoor Recreation Looks Different Along McKenzie River Corridor in 2021

By Matt Wastradowski

In September and October 2020, the Holiday Farm Fire ripped through the McKenzie River region in the West Cascades, torching nearly 175,000 acres of old-growth and second-growth forest—and displacing countless residents. Even from the community of Rainbow, scarred snags can be viewed just a few hundred feet to the west along Highway 126. 

Even with the devastation, and as communities work to rebuild, large swaths of the McKenzie River region remain open and ready to accommodate the wide variety of outdoor recreation for which the region is known.

The popular trail to Tamolitch (Blue Pool) might feel a bit less crowded this summer, thanks to a newly installed mountain-bike bypass designed to alleviate congestion. (Just be sure to stay safe; in response to ongoing hazards and accidents, the U.S. Forest Service is considering steps that would ban jumping and swimming in the pool.) The Blue River Reservoir is open and ready to welcome anglers, paddlers, swimmers, and boaters, as well. And the McKenzie River itself remains relatively unscathed—and is already hosting paddlers enchanted by its clear waters and thrilling whitewater rapids.

“A lot of the areas that people go to recreate at, especially in the Upper McKenzie region—like Blue Pool and Sahalie and Koosah Falls—those areas were not impacted by wildfires,” says Elizabeth Goward, volunteer coordinator with the nonprofit McKenzie River Trust. “There’s still a ton for people to see and do.”

And best of all, your summertime visit can have a positive impact on that rebuilding process. “When you’re coming to the McKenzie region this summer, you’re not coming just to enjoy this recreation experience,” says Al Archer, executive director of the nonprofit Cascade Volunteers. “You’re coming to support this local economy and get this place back on its feet.”

So as you make plans this summer, here’s a look at what to expect—and how you can have a safe, fun, and memorable outing along the McKenzie River corridor in 2021 and beyond.

What to Expect Along the McKenzie River Corridor in Summer 2021

In some ways, recreation along the McKenzie River Corridor will look no different in 2021 than in past years; several of the region’s most popular hikes remain accessible and unscathed, and some of the best whitewater rafting and mountain biking opportunities are once again open to adrenaline junkies. But visitors should prepare for a different experience in other ways. Those include:

Highway delays: Speed limits along Highway 126 have been reduced in wildfire-affected areas, and hazard crews are working tirelessly to remove trees and create a safer corridor. Give yourself up to 45 extra minutes to account for these changes.

Longer wait times: Restaurants and stores all over are facing staffing shortages as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and businesses along the McKenzie River are no exception. Give yourself plenty of time to get gas and order your meal—and be sure to thank the hard-working clerks who make it all possible.

Limited services and recreation opportunities: Some businesses were destroyed in the 2020 wildfires or faced losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, while several trails and boat launches remain closed due to wildfire damage. Have an itinerary in mind before setting out, and check in with businesses, land managers, and (if taking a tour) your preferred outfitter to ensure everything is open and accessible. (Even still, signs of recovery abound: The McKenzie General Store and Obsidian Grill is installing an on-site bike repair station this season for cyclists.)

How to Plan an Epic Outdoor Adventure Along the McKenzie River Corridor in Summer 2021

Whether you’re looking to hike through the McKenzie River area’s towering forests, paddle its quiet waters, or raft its thrilling rapids, you’ll want to know a few things to help plan an epic adventure this summer. Here are a few tips for making the most of your time.

Plan ahead: Whether due to staffing shortages or wildfire, several hiking and mountain biking trails, along with boat ramps, remain closed. Check in with the Willamette National Forest’s McKenzie River Ranger District (online or by phone at 541-822-3381) to see whether your preferred trail is currently open, and visit the Oregon State Marine Board’s interactive map to see whether your preferred boat launch is closed. If you run into closures, contact that specific land manager (usually the Willamette National Forest or Oregon State Marine Board) for recommendations on what’s open; these helpful employees are generally happy to provide insider tips and ideas for making the most of your experience.

Browse an all-new visitor guide: Cascade Volunteers has partnered with the Willamette National Forest to create a visitor guide that helps make the most of your time in the forest—with information on required fees and passes, trail suggestions, campground information, and more; look for copies throughout the Willamette Valley, or browse the digital visitor guide, for tips and recommendations for your next trip.

Try to visit during “off” times: The McKenzie River area saw record crowds before the wildfires hit in 2020—and with fewer boat launches and trails to serve those visitors, existing infrastructure might be a bit more crowded this summer. So try to hit the trail on weekdays, if possible; even on weekends, you’ll have a quieter experience if you start hiking or riding before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.

Sign up with an outfitter: If you’re new to whitewater rafting, paddling, or mountain biking, consider signing up with an outfitter to lead the way in a small-group setting. These experienced outfitters and guides know the terrain, can tailor outings to your skill level and timeframe, and are happy to offer recommendations for enjoying the rest of your time in the region. Not just that, but you’re supporting the local economy and helping small businesses grow with every trip booked. Horse Creek Lodge, for instance, partners with local companies and offers mountain bike shuttles and rentals, stand-up paddleboard rentals, and guided McKenzie River rafting trips.

Be respectful: We understand: It’s human nature to want to see the damage wrought by the 2020 wildfires. But please do so from a distance, as safely as possible, and without entering neighborhoods where residents and businesses are actively working to rebuild their homes and communities. 

Get involved: If you’d like to give back and get involved, consider reaching out to Cascade Volunteers, the nonprofit partner of the Willamette National Forest. The organization accepts donations and offers a wide range of volunteer opportunities—such as surveying trails for invasive weeds, maintaining trails, planting trees in fire-affected areas, and more. Similarly, McKenzie River Trust regularly offers volunteer opportunities and accepts donations to aid in its mission to protect and care for the McKenzie River and lands throughout western Oregon.