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NPSO 2016 Annual Meeting

Natural History and Points of Interest

Three Sisters from Horsepasture Mountain. Photo: Tanya Harvey

The McKenzie Watershed

Encompassing 1,248 square miles, the McKenzie Watershed lies within Linn and Lane counties. Ecoregions include High Cascades, Western Cascades and the Willamette Valley with elevations from 10,358 feet at South Sister to 373 feet at the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers. Maps of the Watershed’s boundaries, elevations, and drainage patterns are provided courtesy of the McKenzie Watershed Council (2000).

Elevation Map of McKenzie Watershed

McKenzie River Origins

The McKenzie River flows westward from the high Cascades. The river’s primary source is snow melt from direct runoff and from porous lava, which can retain water for several years.

Clear Lake
Clear Lake. Photo: Charlene Simpson
About 3,000 years ago, lava flows from the Sand Mountain volcanic chain dammed the ancestral McKenzie River forming Clear Lake. Cold, clear 38⁰ water wells up at Clear Lake Great Springs emerging from a system of lava tubes underneath the surface.

The water in Clear Lake is so clear that a prehistoric forest of snags can still be seen on the bottom (Sullivan, 2000). Clear Lake is recognized as the McKenzie River’s source, but actually it is the place where we start to name it the McKenzie River.

One and a half miles south of Clear Lake the river surges over a cataract that drops 73 feet. Natives called the falls Sahalie, a Chinook jargon word meaning “high.”

Clear Lake
Sahalie Falls. Photo: Charlene Simpson
William Sullivan (2000) wrote that below Sahalie Falls “the river goes underground for three miles to re-emerge at turquoise Tamolitch Pool, at the foot of an eerily dry, phantom ‘waterfall’.”

Expect to see spectacular views, lava fields, roaring waterfalls, white water, cathedral forests, and the scars of past forest fires.

Fires in the Western Oregon Cascades are regular occurrences. Charred rings in old trees remind us that fire visits on average every 70 years on the wetter west side of the Cascades. Recently it seems wildfires are more frequent. Lightning strike fire is a major natural disturbance.

Fire scars


Herm Fitz (1983), McKenzie valley resident, ecologist, and former NPSO State President, has said that unusual plant adaptations occur in the McKenzie River Valley. Some plants are more typical of adjacent regions to the north, south, east, and west and many are disjunct from their main populations. Gentiana newberryi is a plant more typically found in flora to the south.

Gentiana newberryi
Gentiana newberryi. Photo: Charlene Simpson
Cornus unalaschkensis
Cornus unalaschkensis. Photo: Tanya Harvey

Points of Interest and Side Trips – from West to East

If you plan to extend your stay in the area or have family members who are interested in side trips during the Board meeting, the McKenzie River area has plenty to offer. The list below is far from exhaustive. The Resources link lists additional points of interest and side trips with mileposts and Landmarks.

Highway 126

Cougar Hot Springs (aka Terwilliger Hot Springs) – Public natural hot springs; day use fee.

Tokatee Golf Course - 54947 McKenzie Hwy, Blue River, OR - Just east of the NPSO meeting facility.

McKenzie River National Recreation Trail – Hiking and mountain biking.

McKenzie River Ranger Station – 57600 McKenzie Hwy. Maps, books, interpretive displays, information specialists. Hours: 8 am – 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday.

Belknap Hot Springs – On the McKenzie River; two mineral hot spring pools. Day use visitors welcome. Privately operated lodge, gardens and pools.

Tamolitch Falls – A large waterfall plunges from a dry ledge into a turquoise plunge pool.

Sahalie and Koosah Falls – Spectacular cataracts a short walk from parking areas. Bring your camera. Restrooms.

Clear Lake – Crystal clear and icy cold; “Source”of the McKenzie River; restaurant, cabins, picnic tables, restrooms, boat ramp.

Highway 242

Highway 242 is a National Scenic Highway (narrow and curvy – not suitable for trailers or long recreational vehicles.

Proxy Falls – 6 ½ mi. from junction of Hwy. 126 and Hwy. 242. 2/3 mi. easy walking. Photographed by renowned photographer Ansel Adams. <

Dee Wright Observatory – Top of McKenzie Pass; panoramic views of central Cascade peaks and fields of lava viewed from observatory.


Fitz, Herm. May 14, 1983. “The McKenzie River Valley: A floral ecotone punctuated with a relict archipelago of xeric islands in a sea of coniferous forest.” NPSO Annual Meeting presentation. Eugene, Oregon.

McKenzie Watershed Council, et al. 2000. McKenzie River Subbasin Assessment. http://www.mckenziewc.org/assessment.pdf

Sullivan, William. October 15, 2000. “Secrets of the McKenzie.” The Eugene Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon.

If you have questions that aren't answered here, send email to annualmeeting@npsoregon.org.