Bridges and waterfalls - exploring the Colombia River Gorge in Oregon.
Oregon: Exploring the McKenzie River along Oregon Highway 126
The McKenzie River is a picturesque river that runs through Central Oregon – where you can enjoy beautiful trails, waterfalls and hot springs.
Oregon Highway 126 joins the University City of Eugene to Highway 20 about two-thirds of the way between Oregon’s capital city Salem and the Central Oregon city of Bend – our home town.
It departs Highway 20 just west of Santiam Pass and heads southwest through some beautiful National Forest land, filled with a dense growth of tall pine trees. Often during the winter much of this land is filled with snow and people in search of adventure.
This highway follows the path of the small, but energetic McKenzie River, with its bubbling rapids, gushing waterfalls and calming pools.
On what was probably one of the last nice days of late fall we decided to head out and explore what this seeming incongruous road had to offer those with a bit more time to explore its hidden attractions.
We explored four places during our journey – the longest time taken was on the trail to the Blue Pool. Our stops were:
- Koosah & Sahalie Falls
- Tamolicah Falls (Blue Pool)
- Belknap Springs
- Terwilliger (Cougar) Hot Springs
Koosah & Sahalie Falls
Our first stop of the day was to see these two easy-to-see, popular roadside waterfalls that are spectacular year-round, though parking may be limited depending on the season.
An easy family-friendly 2.6 mile (4.2 km) loop trail connects Koosah and Sahalie Falls. The hike borders the McKenzie River through the towering forest. The trail is not wheelchair accessible due to stairs. We were on a bit of a mission on the day we visited so we settled with just admiring the spectacular Sahalie Falls
Koosah Falls drops approximately 70 feet (21 m) into a deep pool, whilst the Sahalie Falls is a mass of foaming white water plunging 100 feet (30 m) over a natural lava dam. This famous falls can be spotted in Disney’s movie “Homeward Bound”.
The Sahalie Falls viewing platform is less than 100 feet (30 m) from the parking lot and is wheelchair accessible.
Tamolitch Falls (Blue Pool)
Our next stop was planned to be the main event for the day, a hike to the well known Tamolitch Falls – more commonly referred to by locals as the Blue Pool. There are falls there but the most distinguishing feature is the amazing pool that collects at their base.
The trailhead is close to the highway and is clearly marked. It is about 10 miles or so past Sahalie Falls. Coming East from Highway 20 if you see a reservoir on your right you have just missed the turning.
This is a popular hiking trail and the parking lot is not huge so you can find yourself parked some distance from the trailhead, especially at weekends, during holidays etc. This is also a very popular trail so you will see a lot people along the way – especially at the weekends.
The trail is about 6km (3.7m). It is not a circular trail so you have to go there and back. Along the trail, you will follow the McKenzie River, and on a sunny day, it is totally wonderful, with the dappled sunlight coming through the tree canopy and twinkling on the bubbling waters.
This area sees plenty of rain and general dampness – resulting in lush undergrowth and a thick coat of lichen on the tree trunks and draped over the branches. Truly stunning.
The first part of the trail, around a mile, is relatively flat and even. After this, the trail starts to climb and becomes a lot more uneven and at times becomes a scramble over lava rocks. For older folks like us, we had to pay more attention to where we were putting our feet.
It took us a good hour and thirty minutes to reach Tamolitch Falls and the effort was totally worth it. The falls are lovely, albeit a little gentle in the late fall (they would be a lot more spectacular in the Spring!). But the main event is the pool, which is perfectly calm and a wonderful deep blue colour. It is jaw-dropping. If you are very brave you can jump into the waters, but it is by all accounts freezing cold, even on a hot day. It can also be dangerous to do this and could result in someone having a cardiac arrest due to the shock of cold on the body.
After a few minutes enjoying the natural beauty of the Blue Pool we turned around and headed back. It was a little quicker on the way back, but the total round trip was around three hours.
After the exertion of hiking the trail, we needed something a little gentler so we decided to stop at Belknap Hotsprings and check it out. We had driven past this quite a few times but had never stopped to look in.
After walking through the main lodge and passing on to deck we found the main hot pool which is essentially a swimming pool filled by water from the hot springs. To be honest we didn’t fancy mingling with the families in the pool so we took the bridge across the river to take the short trail to the “secret garden”.
The secret garden is a little hard to find – even with the map provided at the lodge. But once you find the wall that surrounds the garden you enter a magical world of peace and natural energy. Although in late fall the garden is not at its most verdant and colourful it is nonetheless a joy to spend a few minutes wandering through.
Terwilliger (Cougar) Hotsprings
For our final stop of the day, before the sun finally headed over the horizon, we headed for the natural hot springs at Terwilliger Falls, which sits on National Forest land. These hot springs had been closed due to a forest fire but recently opened to the public again.
Located deep beneath the canopy of a primaeval forest, clothing-optional Terwilliger Hot Springs features a chain of stair-stepped pools fed by a small cave in a wooded ravine. Each of the 5 rock-walled pools is slightly cooler than the other starting from 112 and ending near 90 degrees.
The turning off Highway 126 to get to Terwilliger Hotsprings is around the small hamlet of Blue River, Oregon. The turnoff road is called Cougar Dam Road. Directions are available on the Willamette National Forest website.
Once you reach the site it is worth stopping at the Ranger booth and buying your day-use pass, which costs about $6.00. If you don’t do this you will have to walk back from the parking lot and then back again to put the ticket on the dashboard. The parking lot is small and gets full quickly so you might have to wait around to find a spot. Don’t be tempted to park on the road as there is a patrol that comes by regularly and will give you a ticket for $250.
From the Ranger booth, it is about 1/4 mile uphill. There are no changing rooms – there are toilets but they are small and pretty disgusting. So, you’ll probably end up getting changed out in the open. Don’t be shy! These pools are clothing optional so you will see naked and partially naked people around. Having said that when we were there a majority of the people were covered – so there is no pressure to get naked. This is also a consideration if you are thinking about taking young children who are easily shocked. It is also slippery by the pools so take your time and perhaps consider taking water shoes.
As said above there are five pools which get progressively cooler as you go down the hill. The top pool is hot – but we didn’t find it overbearing. The pools and area around it are clean. The forestry department does regularly clean them, which is nice.
Another thing – these pools are extremely popular so on the weekends especially in the afternoons the pools get super crowded. So, if you want a bit more of a relaxing experience consider getting there earlier in the day and if possible during the week.
So ended our little sojourn along Highway 126. I am very sorry that I had left it so long to actually stop and enjoy the natural beauty that lines this 100 miles of highway. But in future, I will make sure I leave more time to travel when I head from Bend to Eugene and stop and revisit these beautiful places.