Boating the McKenzie River
The headwaters of the McKenzie River begin with the Great Springs at Clear Lake, about 18 miles east of McKenzie Bridge. The navigable reach of the river begins at Olallie Boat Launch, located east of McKenzie Bridge at Olallie Campground.
Several campgrounds that include day use picnic areas are located along the river corridor. The 26.5-mile long McKenzie River National Recreation Trail closely follows the river. Sanitation facilities are located at all boat launches; however, river users are asked to pack out all their trash.
The upper portion of the river between Paradise Campground and Blue River is more technical, requiring some skill to navigate between boulders and Class II-III rapids. The lower McKenzie, below Leaburg Dam, is calmer, with mostly Class II riffles and one exciting Class III run.
It is state law that each person carry a life preserver for use when floating the river; a noncompliance fine might otherwise be levied by the Oregon State Police.
Floating and fishing the river can be a fun adventure for those prepared for the challenges whitewater can bring. Class 2 and 3 rapids, combined with natural obstacles such as fallen trees and stumps, require river users to anticipate and scout hazards and dynamic conditions. Visitors who want to learn more about the classification of the river should talk to local guides or read one of the many publications available that describe the navigable portions of the McKenzie River, as well as other rivers in Oregon.
Water levels change throughout the summer season. Current river flow information is posted daily at the McKenzie River Ranger Station, or can be obtained by calling the Call Eugene Water and Electric Board’s 24-hour information line at (541) 341-1860.
Classification of Rapids
When navigating a river with whitewater rapids, it is important to have an idea of what to anticipate. To clarify this process, all whitewater rapids are rated on a scale of Class I to Class VI. A Class I rapid is considered the easiest and safest to navigate, where as Class VI rapids are the most difficult and dangerous. Classification of whitewater rivers is not an exact science, and may vary with fluctuating water levels. The upper portion of the McKenzie River, for example, is more difficult to navigate later in the summer from Olallie to Paradise, because rocks and boulders have less water flowing over them, making them more difficult to maneuver over or around. Some rapids may be more difficult for kayaks than rafts, and vice versa. Therefore, classification systems should be used as a guide only. The upper McKenzie River, as with most navigable rivers is a combination of the classifications and has varying degrees of difficulty and challenge on different segments.
Moving water with few riffles and small waves. There are generally few obstructions or obstacles to maneuver around.
Rapids with smaller waves, usually with a defined channel that is obvious without scouting. Some maneuvering may be required.
Rapids with higher, and irregular waves, often with narrow passages that require precise maneuvering. Some scouting may be required to determine best passage and changed conditions due to fluctuations in water level or natural hazards such as downed trees.
Only permitted river outfitters and guides are authorized to operate commercially on the upper McKenzie River, under special use permit with the Willamette National Forest.