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Cool off on the McKenzie River This Summer

Published: July 20, 2015


Recent trips on the water confirmed it — rafting season is alive and well on the McKenzie River. Find out more about these and other water adventures on the Eugene Cascades & Coast water activities page.

Rocks in the River
The McKenzie River, ready and waiting to play host to your summer retreat.

What's the beauty of a river that's both spring-fed AND aquifer-based? There's water to go around. As local hydrologist and Oregon State University researcher Gordon Grant put it, "Contrary to popular belief, most summer flow out of the high cascades is not due to snow melt. Instead, the high Cascades form a vast hydrologic sponge that stores water."

All that to say if you're feeling a bit too hot this summer, the McKenzie River has you covered. Boating, fishing, swimming (safely). There are many ways to experience this historic Oregon landmark. Here are a few of our recent favorites:

Rafting the Middle/Lower McKenzie with A Helfrich Outfitters

Ready to hop into the McKenzie!


On a trip with A Helfrich Outfitters, we explored one of the middle/lower parts of the McKenzie, their half-day trip.

As our van pulled up to the Hamlin boat ramp, we all caught the fever from inviting white caps on the river. This fun and exciting section of the river sprinkles in wild waves with stretches of calm and scenic sections to take in the Cascades.

Eagle Rest Rock towering over this serene section of the river.

Our guide explained early on that the well-known Marten rapids was waiting near the end of this section. We had the whole trip to contemplate how to tackle it.

After a couple of initial paddle-tests, and hitting a few big rapids, our group pulled off the river for a bite to eat. On their full-day trip rafters are offered a nice lunch, including Jonnie Helfrich's tasty homemade pasta salad, right next to Eagle Rock.

We noted an Osprey's nest and spotted a few just before heading back on the river, rejuvenated and ready to paddle on through the second half of this five hour journey.

Getting ready for the bigger rapids (the McKenzie has class II & III) is almost as exciting as running through them. Each challenge builds on the last while raft guides expertly prepare rafters before each one hits with instructions on how to paddle through. Then we hit the big one: Marten rapid.

Rafters getting ready to hit a few big rapids.

Bucking the raft through swirling currents, rafters hang on and paddle through this fantastic ride near the end of the full-day journey.

West Coast Action Photos captures the entire journey through Marten (see photos of our raft slugging through the rapid here), from the moment you're sucked into the rapid to the last pop out of the water.


As we docked our raft in the Helfrich boat landing, we all reflected on the scenic views, wild rides and fun rides we just experienced.

Our first thought as a wave of 40 degree water crashed over the boat: "what a way to get out of the heat!"

Tackling the Upper McKenzie with High Country Expeditions

High Country Bus
High Country Expedition's Bus pulling in for a group of eager rafters!
Fog at Belknap
Belknap Hot Springs is well-known for its extreme water temperatures coming right out of the ground.

After that, we joined High Country Expeditions on a trip through the upper McKenzie.

A stay at Belknap Hot Springs, High Country's base of operations, is perhaps the best way to experience this trip. Visitors are invited to soak in pools fed by the 185-195 degree water straight out of the natural springs and then hop on a bus to head for the put-in, just a few miles north.

It's evident just how picturesque the upper McKenzie is right as your vessel hits the water. Looking over the raft might allow a sight of a salmon or two. After all, they're known for spawning just off the river in one of the several creeks flowing in from the surrounding Cascade lakes.

Our guide reminded us of this throughout our journey. At one point, he spotted a particular species of lichen hanging off a nearby tree and explained the fresh green color notes the exceptionally clean air we were breathing.

On the Raft
One adventurer responding to the "Paddle forward!" command.

Along with the crisp, refreshing nature of the upper McKenzie River, another signature aspect is its quick pace.

Rapids often hit just as swiftly as they end. During our trip, we rafted 14 miles in just an hour and a half. Some of our rafters even took the chance to "ride the bull," as they sat on the nose of the boat, grabbed the ropes along the raft, and flew up and back down with our boat through flurries of rapids.

The vast amount of the upper McKenzie is designated as "wild and scenic," naming the wide variety of fish and wildlife rafters might see along the river.

Upper McK Water
A peek into the crystal clear water that awaits visitors in the McKenzie River.

By the time our boat came upon the last leg, we already found ourselves missing the beautiful creeks and rivers that feed into the upper McKenzie's flow.

What a way to experience this gorgeous river!

Check out a full list of our river guides and water adventure specialists here.

Author: Stephen Hoshaw

Stephen Hoshaw is the Senior Director of Tourism for Travel Lane County. A journalism graduate from the University of Oregon, Stephen has been working in PR and marketing for over six years, focusing in retail, technology, hospitality, and food & beverage industry sectors.

Stephen grew up in Lane County and was excited to bring his family back to the Eugene area after living in Portland. A major craft beer enthusiast, Stephen also enjoys woodworking, photography, tennis, and exploring the outdoors.