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Split Personality: The two faces of the McKenzie River Trail 

Mountain biking on the McKenzie River trail provides a wide range of trails in all skill levels for a refreshing day of riding.

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It might be Oregon's most famous trail, well, aside from the one that used to give your computer character malaria and cost you a wagon axle in the process. The McKenzie River Trail is in almost every mountain biking and hiking guidebook, yet you're not likely to run into all that much traffic while riding it. The Forest Service classifies its usage as "heavy," but because of its length (26.5 miles) and the tendency of riders to shuttle the trail, riding only in one direction, you'll likely disagree with the classification.

Gearing up for a ride on a recent Saturday, we saw a shuttle van drop off six riders from British Columbia. They set out on the trail ahead of us along with one other pair of riders. We gave them a 15-minute head start and never saw most of them again, save the last two riders when we briefly passed them. On the entire 24-mile, roughly five-hour, stretch that we rode, we only crossed paths with two pairs of riders who were headed up the trail.

While you probably know of it or may have ridden parts of it, as we get further into summer and the trails around Bend get busier and dustier, the thick old growth canopies of the scenic McKenzie River valley are worth revisiting. With the trailhead just an hour outside of Bend, on Santiam Pass, it's a relatively close alternative, but also far enough from both Bend and Eugene to avoid the masses. Forest Service representatives say the traffic is also substantially lower during the week. Some hikers do pop up closer to some of the campgrounds and highway pullouts along the trail, but even on a sunny Saturday that traffic was minimal.

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While malaria is not a danger, the trail definitely has a Jekyll and Hyde quality. Segments of the trail are not for everyone. But with the right plan, a ride can be tailored to any skill level.

"Most people go from the top down; it's a lot easier," says Sandy Ratliff, a Forest Service recreational specialist. But make no mistake, "easier" is by no means easy. Though the trail starts off smoothly from the trailhead and around the highway side of Clear Lake, it becomes very technical after crossing Highway 126 near Cold Water Cove campground.

For biking purposes, you can forget the alternate trail on the far side of Clear Lake; it has a long stretch of lava gravel trail that's not really fun for any ability level. It cost me a nice scrape on my shoulder, courtesy of a rock outcrop I passed a little too closely. If you really want to see the other side of Clear Lake, run an out-and-back from the Cold Water Cove campground, that portion is paved.

Much of the upper half of the trail, after Clear Lake and before the Trail Bridge Reservoir, is definitely for advanced riders only. While an intermediate rider could handle it, there's a good chance they may not enjoy it. Most of the upper half of the trail is very technical with some tight maneuvering, steep drop offs and a lot of lava rock protrusions. The upper segment may only be 11 miles, but after finishing, you may feel more like you've ridden at least twice the distance, leaving you spent for the smooth, fast, and scenic lower section.

Unfortunately, if you aren't up for the difficult upper half, you'll miss striking views of the far side of Sahalie Falls and Blue Pool (where the McKenzie resurfaces after an underground stretch). However, both are accessible by short hikes.

The lower half of the trail, from the Trail Bridge Reservoir down, is good for all skill levels. At that point the descent is generally more gradual and the trail is much straighter and smoother. This is the most scenic stretch of the trail. It passes through some of the valley's largest old-growth trees. An intermediate rider can rip through there and feel like they are riding through a scene from Return of the Jedi, Ewoks and Stormtroopers not included. There are a few short climbs and descents at the beginning of this 15-mile stretch and just upriver from Paradise campground near the McKenzie River Ranger Station, but as a whole the lower stretch isn't too demanding. It is a great stretch to run as a shuttle or as an out-and-back from any of a number of access points.

Après Bike

Belknap Hot Springs ($7 hr or $12 for the day) offers riders the chance to soak in a shallow manmade swimming pool fed from a hot spring right along the McKenzie River. The ambiance can be an odd combination of mountain bikers, hikers, motor bikers, families with small children, old folks. I wouldn't recommend the campground for those seeking a peaceful outdoor experience. However, it's still a nice way to wind down after a long ride, even if it at times feels a little like a scene from a Hunter S. Thompson novel.

Where to Stay:

While there are a number of other camping options in the area, these are some of the valley's best:

Paradise Campground: (Near the McKenzie River Ranger Station) At $18 a night it is not the cheapest option, but located right on the McKenzie river under the thick canopy of old-growth trees, it's easily the most scenic. While it is a fairly large campground (64 sites), the campsites are good sized, well spaced, and not overwhelmed by RVs.

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Ollalie Campground: A few miles upriver at $14 a night, Ollalie is a smaller cheaper alternative to Paradise with the same great riverside appeal and old-growth canopy. This site only has 17 spaces, seven or eight of which are riverside, the others are on a second tier directly above and within sight of the river. Rated by the Forest Service as "medium usage," this site also receives a little less traffic than Paradise. Both Ollalie and Paradise also have boat launches where tours embark for some of the river's best whitewater stretches.

Or you could rough it: Forest service camping policy allows for camping anywhere in the forest as long as it is 100 feet from trail, water access and other developed campgrounds. If you don't mind driving to get to a toilet or digging a hole, there are a number of rustic camp spots near the river all along the McKenzie River Trail, some of which have fire circles from previous tenants.

Riding Suggestions:

Option 1: Shuttle the full trail (advanced riders, 26.5 miles)

For a reasonable charge, a few companies, including Bend's own Cog Wild ( operate shuttle services that can run you to the trailhead so you can bike back to your car.

Option 2: Stick to the lower half of the trail. Shuttle or ride an out-and-back (intermediate to beginner riders, 15 miles one way)

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