Ornament Hunting in Willamette National Forest’s McKenzie River Ranger District

By Matt Wastradowski

The Willamette Valley Ornament Contest is back for another year! This Nov. 25-Dec. 31, you have a chance to find ornaments along beloved trails in the Willamette National Forest’s McKenzie Ranger District.

The McKenzie River Ranger District is in the heart of the Willamette National Forest. (And if you’re wondering what a ranger district is, it’s basically a way of noting a specific region within a larger national forest.) In this case, the ranger district comprises crystal-clear lakes, towering waterfalls, whitewater rapids, dramatic lava flows, and other natural features within its expansive boundaries. In summer, the McKenzie River Ranger District sees thousands of campers, hikers, cyclists, and paddlers daily; in winter, however, it’s a far quieter experience—though the views are no less scenic.

So if you’re circling the McKenzie River Ranger District for your ornament, we’ve put together a guide to enjoy an overnight outing or weekend experience in the area—where to stay, where to play, and where to eat and drink after taking part in the annual ornament contest.

What to Know About the Willamette Valley Ornament Contest

Trail difficulty

We’ve hidden trails on wheelchair-accessible trails, family-friendly footpaths, and strenuous hikes all over the Willamette Valley. Please check to make sure your chosen trail is suitable for your experience level and abilities; if it sounds easier or tougher than you’d like, we have another 20 or so trails you can choose from throughout the Willamette and Umpqua national forests.

Weather forecasts

Snow isn’t unheard of in late November and December throughout the West Cascades. Before setting out, check the latest forecast via the National Weather Service, and keep updated on road conditions through the Oregon Department of Transportation’s TripCheck website (which features traffic webcams, road closures, and alerts on an easy-to-use map). Bonus points for calling the Cottage Grove Ranger District a day or two before leaving—just to make sure your chosen trail is passable and in good condition.

One ornament per household

We hate to be a wet blanket, especially because we understand the joyous moment that comes with finding ornaments along your chosen trail. But please only take one ornament per household so other families can enjoy the same thrill. Every ornament on a given trail features the same design, so you’re not missing much by grabbing just one.

Where to Eat, Drink and Stay Around the McKenzie River Ranger District

If you’re coming out to the McKenzie River area for the ornament contest, why not make the most of it? Enjoy a few eats after your hike, and if you’re making a night of it you’ll find plenty of fun places to rest up and recharge after a day of outdoor adventure. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Belknap Hot Springs

Sitting just off Highway 126, Belknap Hot Springs hosts eight cabins—some sleek and updated, others a touch more rustic—and a lodge with 18 comfortable guest rooms. Away from the rooms, you'll enjoy access to the resort’s pair of mineral hot spring pools (one of which is for overnight guests only).

Horse Creek Lodge

Enjoy a quiet winter weekend at the bucolic Horse Creek Lodge, a wooded resort in the community of McKenzie Bridge. Clean, alpine-inspired cabins sleep four to six—all with power, heating, and comfortable beds. All four even come with wood-burning fireplaces to round out the winter experience.

McKenzie Riverside Cottages

Going by the name alone, you know exactly what to expect at McKenzie Riverside Cottages: 15 restored cabins (and one spacious lodge) along the banks of the McKenzie River. Large picture windows afford excellent river views if it's too cold to head outside, and large decks get you right on the river when the sun comes out. Most come with kitchens or kitchenettes, and many boast multiple bedrooms if you're bringing a group.

Clear Lake, Oregon

Clear Lake Resort

The popular summertime destination doesn't see the same crowds in winter—giving you the chance to enjoy some off-season solitude. The rustic Clear Lake Resort hosts 14 comfortable cabins with propane heaters, power, and lights—all a short walk from the teal-hued waters of the namesake lake.

McKenzie General Store and Obsidian Grill

If you need a quick bite, McKenzie General Store and Obsidian Grill dishes fresh, organic pub grub for lunch and dinner, as well as breakfast fare on weekends including  a full espresso bar.

Takoda’s Rainbow

The always popular Takoda’s Rainbow serves something for everyone—burgers, sandwiches, a decadent baked macaroni-and-cheese dish, and more—but is also known for a variety of creative, filling pizzas.

McKenzie Station Pub

Traditional pub dishes get some love at McKenzie Station Pub, where every dish is thoughtfully prepared; burgers are crafted with fresh-ground brisket, for instance, while tri-tip steak is smoked in-house for the restaurant's French dip sandwich.

Where to Play Around the McKenzie River Ranger District

Once you’ve found your ornament, you’ll find enough fun along the McKenzie River to fill multiple weekends; we’ve rounded up a few highlights.

Admire Clear Lake

Even if you’re not staying at Clear Lake Resort, make time to admire the awe-inspiring Clear Lake at the headwaters of the McKenzie River. A 5.3-mile hiking trail circles Clear Lake (just watch for snow) while heading through a forest of Douglas fir and striking lava flows. Even if you’re not hiking, the views (especially when the sun comes out) are striking from the lake’s day-use area.

Clear Lake, Oregon

Enjoy a soak in one of our hot springs

The West Cascades are rich with volcanic activity, which has fed multiple hot spring pools. For a family-friendly experience (where bathing suits are required), enjoy a soak in the mineral pools at Belknap Hot Springs—open to the general public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For a more natural experience, Terwilliger (Cougar) Hot Springs hosts four soaking pools in the midst of a lush forest; the pools are arranged in a stepladder-like fashion, with temperatures rising the higher up you are. (Just note that bathing suits are optional at Terwilliger Hot Springs.)

A woman soaks in Terwiliger Hot Springs

Cut your own Christmas tree

You need somewhere to put that snazzy new ornament, so why not harvest your own Christmas tree in a national forest? We've put together a guide to planning your trip, snagging the appropriate permit, and having fun while searching out this year's perfect tree.

A man and a dog stand in a snowy forest with a Christmas tree permit in the foreground of the image.