Two Options: Clear Lake is circled by trails. The east side is part of the McKenzie River Trail (shown) while the west side is far more mellow and passes through the Clear Lake Resort before rejoining the McKenzie River Trail. Novice riders, head west.
When you think of Cannondale, you think of the tight, twisty, rooty riding of the Northeast—and rightfully so. That’s where the brand was born. So, it caught us by surprise when Cannondale invited us to ride on some of their favorite trails. These were not trails in Vermont, Pennsylvania or Connecticut, but in Oregon. In addition to showing us the McKenzie River Trail and surrounding trails in the Willamette National Forest, Cannondale supplied their all-new Trigger, a bike that turned out to be a perfect match for what we were about to experience and what we hope you will put on your must-ride list. They also enlisted the services of Cog Wild Bike Tours and Shuttle Service based out of Bend, Oregon.
Away from the spray: Rangers and local riders worked together to make the O’Leary Trail more welcoming to mountain bikers. This primitive trail is indeed the road less traveled.
If you are arriving by air, Portland International is the closest major airport. From there it makes sense to take a connecting flight to Eugene Airport (West of McKenzie Bridge) or Redmond Airport (outside of Bend, Oregon).
It is an hour drive to the town of McKenzie Bridge from Eugene in a rent-a-car, or you can hop on the Lane Transit District bus, put your bike on the rack and pay the $1.75 fare. The bus runs a few times a day and carries the interesting people that Eugene is famous for. If you are traveling from a foreign country, riding this bus is pure Americana and highly recommended.
The other way to access the McKenzie River experience is to start your trip in Bend, Oregon. It is approximately a two-hour drive from Bend to the upper McKenzie River trailhead, and that drive takes you through Sisters, Oregon, another Oregon gem filled with undiscovered trail-riding opportunities (we plan to go back), and the Sister’s Bakery (you will want to fuel up there on your way).
Driving distances to the town of McKenzie Bridge are:
41 miles from Sisters, Oregon
53 miles from Eugene, Oregon
64 miles from Bend, Oregon
159 miles from Portland, Oregon
331 miles from Seattle, Washington
578 miles from San Francisco, California
2893 miles from Cannondale in Bethel, Connecticut
Lodging and camping:
The McKenzie River doesn’t have the blight of huge resort developments or casinos. Instead, there are hundreds of vacation cabins that are easily found and booked online.
Our Cannondale/Cog Wild/Mountain Bike Action gang took another approach, but we are not going to call it “roughing it.” We camped at the Cold Water Cove campground on Clear Lake, very close to the upper McKenzie River trailhead. Cog Wild’s service sup- plied the tents, sleeping bags, food and shuttle service (no guides are licensed on the McKenzie River Trail).
Bring food with you, because there are no 7-Elevens anywhere along the McKenzie River Trail. Once you get to McKenzie Bridge, try the Rustic Skillet for giant portions of country-style breakfasts, lunches and dinners (and they have a pretty decent toy dinosaur collection). Harbrick’s Country Store is a slice of truckstop Americana that is known for their chicken strips (if you are into fried foods). Next door to Harbrick’s is Takoda’s, which is a more upscale restaurant.
Take care of your bike needs in Bend or Eugene, because once you are in the Willamette National Forest, there is nothing. Cog Wild can help you rent a bike from a Bend bike shop if you plan your trip with them.
Go with the flow:
The bridges and slight incline of the trail encourage riders to stay in
the saddle and keep moving. Don’t do it. You need to soak in your
surroundings. Bombing the Mac-K is missing the point.
You can get a map of the McKenzie River Trail and all its campgrounds at the McKenzie River Ranger Station just outside of McKenzie Bridge. If you are headed in from the Bend area, get your map from a bike shop or Cog Wild before you leave.
Don’t forget your rain jacket: Even if you ride the Mac-K on a sunny day, chances are you are going to get wet. A close-up view of the Sahalie Falls left riders soaked to the bone.
The McKenzie River Trail is normally rideable from the middle to the end of May until November. Every year is different, though, so if traveling from a distance, plan your trip during the summer. The top section of the trail is covered in snow all winter, and then the forest service is responsible for cutting fallen trees, which they sell. Unfortunately mountain bikers can’t help cut the trail out faster, so we have to wait for the forest service to finish.
We rode in the middle of summer; the temperatures were in the mid-70s and felt cooler. It can get hotter, but the tree cover helps keep riders out of direct sunlight.
Expect to get wet. Just the mist from the river will keep you damp in many places. We rode during a short downpour, but the tree cover is so
thick in most places that you won’t get soaked. Still, plan to be damp.
Walk the line: More adventurous riders can scrape their grips along bridges’ railings or you can unicycle the bike across and enjoy a break from the action. Please don’t Strava this place. It is not that kind of trail.
As we mentioned, you need to be prepared to get wet. A rain jacket, long-fingered gloves, a hydration-pack cover and a visor on your helmet are the minimum requirements.
The toughest decision we faced was which sunglasses to wear. You are in and out of the trees a lot, so trail lighting goes from dark to bleached in a matter of feet. Using a light-tinted lens is probably your best option.
Much of the McKenzie River Trail is carved out of razor-sharp volcanic rock. Knee and elbow pads are an option for riders with a shaky skill set or a penchant for brain-fading.
Follow the flow: The most adventurous riders will make the McKenzie River Trail an out-and-back ride. That is the tough way to go and could easily end up being an eight-plus-hour day.
Passing through: The McKenzie River Ranger District does an exceptional job of keeping the McKenzie River Trail full of flow. Fallen trees are sliced and diced so you can stay in the saddle.
You will have the most fun on a trailbike. A short-travel, cross-country bike will leave you wanting more travel and traction, while anything over 5 inches of travel will be a lot of extra bike to lug around. Our Cannondale Triggers were made for this trail.
While the volcanic rock is nasty on skin, it actually offers great traction. None of our merry band of riders suffered sidewall damage, which surprised us. Still, this is a trail that is best ridden on fatter tires.
For a shuttle pick-up from the bottom of the trail to the top trailhead, contact the McKenzie River Mountain Resort at (541) 822-6272. They charge a minimum of $30 per person for a shuttle from the rangers’ station or nearby campground at the bottom of the trail. If you want to shuttle from the Bend side of the mountain, use Cog Wild Bike Tours (more info on them below).
Trigger-happy: The Cannondale Trigger (click here for our test) proved to be the perfect choice for navigating both the fast and tight sections of the trail.
The fun’s just beginning: So much for a shuttle ride to the top of O’Leary Mountain. A six-mile warm-up never hurt anybody.
McKenzie River Trail:
The McKenzie River Trail is 26 miles long, only loses 1500 feet of elevation and is very technical in many places. Because there is little loss of elevation, you will be pedaling most of the way. We are not trying to scare you, but only certain sections of the Mac-K are well suited for beginners. This isn’t a shuttle joyride.
The forest service recently added 50 signs on the McKenzie River Trail, so formerly confusing spots are now well marked. Seasoned riders will find this trail pure bliss if they are riding the right bike. Endless sights, river crossings and waterfalls punctuate this long singletrack with everything from cushy, pine-needle-covered trails to sections where rocks and roots combine in a battle to force you to dismount. There are no extended steep sections, but there are plenty of obstacles to keep you on your toes and out of the saddle.
Give yourself at least five hours for a one-way ride of the trail.
On trail: The O’Leary Trail above McKenzie Bridge is the most unridden trail in the area, and that makes for a unique experience. It is slow going and terrain that few people will ever see up-close. Many sections are best described as riding by Braille.
King-Castle and Castle Rock area:
It would be a giant mistake to visit the McKenzie River Trail and not spend another day exploring the trails in the King-Castle and Castle Rock areas just below McKenzie River Bridge. The mountains in this area include O’Leary Mountain, McLennan Mountain and Macduff Mountain, and they are traversed by the O’Leary Trail. The Civilian Conservation Corps built this trail during the Great Depression, but the almost-forgotten route has been revitalized by mountain bikers and the McKenzie River Ranger District. (They wanted to encourage riders to make the McKenzie River area more than a day trip.)
Cog Wild shuttled us just six miles shy of the O’Leary trailhead (funny how landslides can close a road pretty quickly). Once on the O’Leary Trail, you have plenty of work cut out for you. We don’t remember being so exhausted after any other ride that lost around 3000 feet of altitude. The trail is narrow, steep in sections (up and down) and as primitive as we have ever ridden. We do not recommend this trail without a guide (Cog Wild at your service), and we can only recommend it for advanced trail riders or those looking for a survival adventure. Do not try this on your own.
The O’Leary Trail intersects with the King-Castle trail net- work, which might have been the most fun part of the trip if we hadn’t been so exhausted from the O’Leary adventure. If you are tired from riding the McKenzie River Trail, take our advice and stick to the lower trail network of the King-Castle area.
Follow me: Melanie Fisher and Lev Stryker of Cog Wild.
While the McKenzie River Trail can be ridden as an out-and-back (by advanced riders in good physical condition), most riders will find it a lot more doable as a shuttle ride. Cog Wild Bicycle Tours and Shuttles (www.cogwild.com or (800) 610-4822) offers a $60 shuttle service from Bend with optional pick-up in Sisters and Black Butte Ranch. Riders can also meet Cog Wild at the top trailhead for a ride back to their vehicles.
Shuttles from Bend leave the Cog Wild office at 8 in the morning, stop at the Sisters Bakery and reach the trailhead at 9:30 a.m. The driver gives riders five hours to reach the bottom meeting location (you’ll need it).
Cog Wild can also guide you around the King-Castle region.