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36 Hours Along the Cascades’ McKenzie Highway

Published: February 23, 2022

 

Snow or no snow, a family trip along Highway 126 and the McKenzie River east of Eugene - Springfield can brighten up any fall, spring, or winter.

Why head toward the Cascades during fall, spring, and winter?

Highway 126 doesn’t just connect the southern Willamette Valley to Central Oregon. It gives you and your kids ways to get outside, enjoy Oregon’s natural beauty together, and become more connected as a family.

Running parallel to the scenic, 90 mile stretch of the McKenzie River, Highway 126 takes you through tall trees that make you feel like you’re in a canyon. Or, go around a bend, and you can catch a glimpse of snowy Cascade peaks. A jaunt into the foothills gets you and your kids some fresh air—maybe with a bonus, welcome dose of winter sunshine.

Even better? From the Eugene-Springfield area, water, forest, and mountain recreation is all less than two hours away (or approximately one listen of the entire Encanto soundtrack). For a full refresh, even a 36-hour overnighter can brighten up your family with everything from fish to hikes, waterfalls to hot springs.

Some quick notes about wildfire recovery and winter travel safety

Sadly, parts of this area suffered from the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire. However, your drive is a reminder of the resilience of both people and nature. You’ll see communities helping each other and rebuilding. And, among the fire-scarred hillsides, look for patches of green where the forest is starting to recover.

Logistically speaking, ongoing wildfire recovery can cause delays. Build in extra time, and before you leave, visit TripCheck.com for current conditions.

(Delays can be opportunities too: At one work zone, we got to watch a helicopter carry logs from a hillside to a loading area, and our kids are still talking about how cool that was.)

Especially when traveling during winter, keep in mind some winter travel tips and this helpful adventure checklist:

  • Some areas are snow zones, and require you to carry tire chains or have traction tires.
  • If visiting a Sno-Park, such as Ikenick Sno-Park near Clear Lake, you’ll need to get a permit in advance.
  • Highway 126 is a priority for snow and ice clearing, but be mindful of conditions and safe driving.

Pack a winter car emergency kit, along with snacks, warm clothes, and waterproof layers.

Your road trip storytelling companion

Want to listen to something other than Encanto? Break up the drive with suggested stops and other interesting notes on area attractions with the Together Anywhere Audio Tour. This free app for Apple and Android devices comes with a McKenzie River & Cascades Tour.

Day 1: Eugene - Springfield to Belknap Hot Springs

A morning start, such as hitting the road around 8 or 9 a.m., gets you along the McKenzie as the sun is rising over the forest and river. Your winding way includes a fish hatchery, one of Oregon’s most iconic survivors of the Holiday Farm fire, and various parks, picnic stops, and small towns.

Leaburg Fish Hatchery

For your first stop, the Leaburg Fish Hatchery, you’ll also get to drive across the top of the Leaburg Dam. Especially during winter and spring, don’t be surprised if you see huge torrents of foaming, white water spilling out below the dam.

Leaburg Fish Hatchery is also the West Coast’s largest trout hatchery. Nearby, neat rows of water tanks hold thousands of wiggly fish. When the time is right, these trout will be released into the river. Short paths take you to a show pond. Huge white sturgeon lurk along the bottom of the waters. Can the kids spot the biggest sturgeon?

Closer to the McKenzie, an accessible paved path slopes down to a viewing platform by the river’s edge. Want a longer break from the road? Nearby picnic tables and open fields give you a chance to snack, relax, and romp.

Goodpasture Bridge

Built in 1938, Oregon’s second-longest covered bridge is so iconic, firefighters worked hard to save the Goodpasture Bridge during the devastating 2020 Holiday Farm Fire.

Cross this iconic bridge for street-side parking. A sign explains the bridge’s history, and a set of steps leads down to the water. Up top, snap a family photo: The Goodpasture Bridge is one of Oregon’s most photographed landmarks.

Lunch at the Obsidian Grill in McKenzie Bridge

Thursday through Monday, the Obsidian Grill and McKenzie General Store doesn’t just offer specialty camping supplies, snacks, and beverages, but tasty seasonal sandwiches and entrees during lunch and dinner. Don’t miss the bookshelf with titles from local authors—you just might find the perfect reading entertainment for downtime. 

Stop by the Ranger Station

Oregon’s ranger stations are worthy destinations in and of themselves. The big timbers and bold lines of the McKenzie River Ranger Station captivate, creating an attractive building that both catches the eye while nestling into the surrounding forest.

Informational kiosks tell you about the area’s history and geology, and suggest places to check out. Or, call the station to check conditions and availability for areas you want to visit, especially during winter.

Soak and stay at Belknap Hot Springs Resort and Gardens

Since the 1800s, enterprising American settlers have been channeling the hot spring, and the first official development was in 1869. Today, Belknap Hot Springs Lodge and Gardens provide relaxing soaks in your choice of two hot pools, which are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Before you warm up in the hot spring pool, the gardens are like a fantasy world come to life.

From an arcing bridge that crosses the McKenzie, standing at the center can give you a thrill of rushing water and, on the right day, the warmth and sparkle of winter sunshine. At the other end of the bridge, a beginning awaits: Behind a safety fence, a 220ºF hot pool boils and bubbles, the source of Belknap’s hot springs.

The kids can run around (and maybe play in some snow) in vast, open Bigelow Lawn. Surprises abound in the grounds. The columns, platforms, and flowing waters of the Secret Gardens feel like a fantastical land. From the kids, expect wide eyes and a wish to explore—and don’t be surprised if you’re right there with them.

Once settled into your room, you can get ready to head straight down to the hot soaking pool. Along the way, enjoy some history. Photos line the walls: Drift boats on the water, a former bridge, early automobiles. For a long, long time, people have been coming from all over to visit Belknap and soak in its soothing waters.

Now it’s your turn.

Dinner at Takoda’s in Rainbow

For lunch or dinner, Takoda’s in nearby Rainbow is a classic area spot for pizza, burgers, and more. The Blue Sky Market next door is also ideal for stocking up on supplies, groceries, or road snacks and beverages.

Day 2: head North to waterfalls, lakes, and snowy adventures

Start your day with breakfast (and one last soak)

It’s timed so well.

Belknap’s complementary breakfast is served from 7:45-8:45 a.m. This gives you enough time to digest and change before heading down to the pool when it opens at 9am sharp. Take in another soak before checking out by 11 a.m. and getting back on the road. Within less than thirty minutes, you can find yourself surrounded by opportunities for a day in nature.

Gush over the gushing Koosah Falls and Sahalie Falls

Western Oregon’s iconic Koosah Falls and Sahalie Falls are right off Highway 126. Connected by the same segment of the McKenzie River Trail, the popular falls are about half a mile apart, and each has its own parking lot.

Viewpoint platforms for 70-foot Koosah and 100-foot Sahalie are short hikes from each parking lot—a great way to get everyone out of the car and moving. A trail connects both falls, so you can hike to one or both.

During winter, sometimes the falls may be inaccessible, due to snow blocking the turn-offs for the parking lots: Call the ranger station to check conditions in advance.

Slide, cross-country ski, snow hike, or play at Ikenick Sno-Park

Sure, it’s nice to hike to waterfalls. But you can do that any time of year.

Right off Highway 126, and still inside the Willamette National Forest, Ikenick Sno-Park is an easy-access way to play in the snow (but make sure you’ve gotten a required Sno-Park permit in advance).

Enjoy the silence (and the view to the bottom) at Clear Lake

Open year-round, Clear Lake is renowned for its frigid, clear waters. In many spots along the lake, including from the end of the dock, you can see all the way down to the bottom, where the remnants of a drowned forest remain visible.

The access road to the Clear Lake Lodge is kept plowed, and non-motorized boats are welcome: Bring your own or rent a drift boat or kayak at the dock. (Available facilities and services are limited, but restrooms inside the main building near the dock are usually open.) 

Clear Lake in the winter is especially worthwhile. Sure, summer is warm, glorious, and full of people enjoying the lake and the forest. Yet winter—and plenty of snow on the ground—brings a pure, unmatched, restorative silence. Head down to the dock. Look deep into the bright blues and greens of the water. Take in the snow frosting the trees.

For an easy loop walk around the cabins, enjoy a quiet, not quite half-mile walk around the paved cabin loop road. There may even be little bonus snow caves for the kids to discover. Or, the 4.6 mile Clear Lake Loop Trail circles the waters and takes in forest and lava alike.

Follow the river by hiking sections of the McKenzie River Trail

The 26.5 miles of the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail (MRT) also begin at the Clear Lake area. Along with Koosah and Sahalie Falls, and an access point at Belknap Hot Springs, you can find trail access throughout your drive.

Come home from Cascades’ McKenzie Highway 126 with calm and wonder

However you wind your way back home, time along the McKenzie River, in any season, restores you and reconnects you with your family. The chill in the air, the rush of the water, the quiet comfort of the trees: It’s enough to top up your sense of wonder and calm for whatever the rest of the season brings.

Editor's Note: This trip was sponsored by Travel Lane County and Belknap Hot Springs. All opinions are the author's own.

Author: Learners and Makers

Some people say that when you have kids, you put your dreams on hold. We decided that having kids meant helping them learn how you make your dreams come true, big and small, every day. We are Learners and Makers: an amputee mom (Jodie), an involved dad (Anthony), and two curious children (Connor and Aster). Follow our everyday adventures at home and around the world at LearnersandMakers.com.