From I-5 near Eugene, reach the scenic McKenzie River Highway by taking Highway 126 east. Just past Springfield, where the four lanes become two, the McKenzie River Recreation Area begins. For the next 60 miles, you’ll see beautiful views of the blue-green McKenzie River with heavily forested mountains, waterfalls, jet-black lava beds, and snowcapped peaks as a backdrop. If this sounds like the perfect place to set up camp or book a room for a few nights, here are the best options for camping and accommodations.
The following campgrounds ($12-22) are under the jurisdiction of the Willamette National Forest’s McKenzie Ranger District (541/822-3381, reservations 877/444-6777, www.recreation.gov). Many are along the beautiful McKenzie River National Recreation Trail, a prime location halfway between Eugene and Bend that helps make the area a popular vacation spot during the summer; reservations should be made at least five days in advance. All of these campgrounds have drinking water, vault toilets, and picnic tables.
Several choice campgrounds are south of the McKenzie Highway, off the Aufderheide Highway; these places are convenient to Cougar Reservoir and Terwilliger Hot Springs. Delta campground is closest to the McKenzie Highway, less than a mile south and about a mile north of the Aufderheide, alongside the river amid old-growth trees. Busy Slide Creek campground is on the east bank of Cougar Reservoir and has a boat ramp and swimming area. A few miles south of the reservoir along the South Fork of the McKenzie, French Pete and Frissell Crossing campgrounds are both quiet.
A half mile west of McKenzie Bridge on Highway 126 is the 20-site riverside McKenzie Bridge Campground, with a boat launch. About three miles east of McKenzie Bridge on Highway 126 is Paradise Campground. Although there are 64 tent and RV (up to 40 feet) campsites, only half of the sites are in premium riverside locations. The summer trout fishing here can be good. Olallie Campground is on the banks of the McKenzie River, 11 miles east of McKenzie Bridge on Highway 126; boating, fishing, and hiking are some of the nearby attractions.
On the south shore of lovely Clear Lake, 19 miles northeast of McKenzie Bridge on Highway 126, is Coldwater Cove Campground (mid-May-mid-Oct.). A county-run cabin resort, Clear Lake Resort (541/967-3917) is adjacent to the campground and has a store, a summer-only café, and rustic cabins (bring cooking utensils and bedding, $70-135), as well as boat docks, launches, and rowboat rentals. No powerboats are permitted on the lake. The road to the resort closes at the end of September; guests can hike in to rustic cabins during the winter.
A handful of small campgrounds dot Highway 242, the old McKenzie Pass road, but none have piped water.
A great place for families (including pets) and those who want to get away from the noise of the McKenzie Highway is the Wayfarer Resort (46725 Goodpasture Rd., Vida, 541/896-3613, $115-355), featuring over a dozen cabins on the McKenzie and glacier-fed Marten Creek, east of Vida. Accommodating up to eight, the cabins have porches with barbecues overlooking the water, full kitchens, and lots of wood paneling. Two larger units that sleep eight are equipped with all major amenities. Children can enjoy fishing privileges in the resort’s private trout pond, while the folks play on the resort’s tennis court. In the summer, advance reservations are a must for this popular retreat.
The riverside Eagle Rock Lodge (49198 McKenzie Hwy., Vida, 541/822-3630, $130-240) is one of the more elegant places to stay along the McKenzie. The large 1947 house has five very comfortable rooms, and there are three suites in the carriage house, with beautiful gardens and places to lounge outside. Guests can order dinner in advance from the lodge’s personal chef ($45), a nice option, since there aren’t many restaurants in the area.
Heaven’s Gate Cottages (50055 McKenzie Hwy., Vida, 541/896-3855) offers housekeeping cabins ($160) and a six-bedroom lodge ($500) right on the McKenzie River; the cabins are sandwiched between the highway and the river. One cabin is right over a good fishing hole, and night lights illuminate the rapids. These cabins may be old, small, and semi-rustic, but their riverside location helps overcome these issues. Note that although the address for Heaven’s Gate is in Vida, the cabins are much closer to Blue River
The former Blue River ranger station, which sits above the highway away from the river, has been repurposed as the lodge for the McKenzie River Mountain Resort (51668 Blue River Dr., Blue River, 541/822-6272, $100–170). The vacation cabins used to house the rangers. This is a popular base for mountain bikers riding the McKenzie River Trail; the resort offers shuttle service. It’s common for groups to rent the entire lodge.
Although Harbick’s Country Inn (54791 Hwy. 126, Blue River, 541/822-3805, $75-115) may not be as charming as some of the other lodgings along the McKenzie—it’s basically a motel—it’s a friendly place and within walking distance of one of the finest public golf courses in the country, Tokatee, and has a good restaurant next door. It’s also popular—reserve in advance.
Belknap Lodge and Hot Springs (59296 Belknap Springs Rd., McKenzie Bridge, 541/822-3512, $25-425) offers lodge rooms ($110-185 d), cabins (some pet-friendly, $135-425), camping ($30-40), and access to two hot-spring swimming pools. The lodge rooms have bathtubs plumbed with hot-spring water. The main attraction on the property is Belknap Springs: The piping-hot water runs into a swimming pool on the south bank of the McKenzie. Nonguests can use the pool for an hour ($8) or all day ($15). The pool closes at 9pm. If you forget your towel, you can rent one.
The Cedarwood Lodge (56535 McKenzie Hwy./Hwy. 126, McKenzie Bridge, 541/822-3351, Apr.-Oct., $130-185) is tucked away in a grove of old cedars just outside the town of McKenzie Bridge. The lodge has nine vacation housekeeping cottages with fully equipped kitchens, baths (with showers), fireplaces (wood provided), and portable barbecues. This is a sweet place to spend a couple of nights, particularly in those units with decks on the river.
The spacious and attractive cabins at Inn at the Bridge (56393 McKenzie Hwy., McKenzie Bridge, 541/822-6006, year-round, $199) look like they are part of the landscape but were built in 2006 and are fully modern, with two bedrooms, full kitchens, river-rock fireplaces, two baths, and a back porch overlooking the river.