McKenzie River National Recreation Trail is spectacular scenic challenge to cyclists.

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MCKENZIE BRIDGE, Ore. — It’s been described as “ ‘Return of the Jedi’ meets mountain biking.” Remember the incredibly green “forest moon” of Endor?

The McKenzie River Trail, a damp path through a heavy canopy of mossy old-growth trees and one of the most heralded ribbons of single-track mountain-biking trail in the country, is a welcome trade-off to dusty east-of-the-Cascades trails in this drought-stricken year.

In 2008, Bike Magazine declared the McKenzie River Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail, to be the best mountain-biking trail in the United States.

On its north end, the trail starts out easy around the shore of Clear Lake and becomes extremely technical over the rugged lava rock near Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls all the way to Trail Bridge Reservoir.

Then, just when you are totally cooked and can’t go on, the trail turns into a smooth, easy ride along flowy single-track all the way down to the McKenzie River Ranger Station, at the town of McKenzie Bridge.

Stunning scenery

From the start near Clear Lake, about 30 miles west of Sisters, Ore., along state Highway 126, to the finish 26 miles south near McKenzie River Ranger Station at McKenzie Bridge, 53 miles east of Eugene, riders are treated to some of the most stunning scenery in the state.

But that view comes with a price for the fat-tire set: They must tackle some challenging portions of trail, negotiating jagged rocks and steep cliff-side portions with nothing but the rushing water below. The north-to-south ride includes an elevation loss of 1,600 feet, but it nevertheless remains an aerobic challenge.

To skip the more difficult portion of the trail, I opted to ride the trail recently as an out-and-back from the south end of the trail near Paradise Campground. Sure, I would miss out on the waterfalls and Clear Lake, but I was more interested in riding the easier section of the single-track. I have ridden the entire trail several times, and each time the extensive lava-rock section became excessively tiring.

Technical rock sections are dispersed throughout the McKenzie River Trail, but generally, the path is less technical from Trail Bridge Reservoir to the south end of the trail near the ranger station.

As I started from Paradise Campground, the trail climbed gradually through the lush, green forest. The river provided cool air as I continued along the single-track, which cuts through Belknap Springs and crisscrosses the river.

The McKenzie River is crystal clear and ever-changing, from calm, rocky pools to churning whitewater. The trail undulates along the river, at times rising hundreds of feet above the water.

Although the southern half of the trail is considered the easier portion, it does include lots of rocky areas that make a full-suspension bike worthwhile on some of the more technical sections.

One constant along the trail — and what makes it so different from any trail in Central Oregon — is the lush greenery of the Willamette National Forest. Bright-green ferns, moss-covered Douglas firs and endless deciduous trees line the trail and provide a nearly constant canopy. Fall colors are plentiful in season.

Numerous narrow bridge crossings are required along the McKenzie River Trail. Most of the bridges are so narrow that cyclists must pop their bikes up on the back wheel and push the bikes in front of them as they walk across.

Murky forest

One striking characteristic of the trail is how dark it can be in the middle of a bright, sunny day. The forest is so thick in spots that heavy shade is almost constant. The endless vegetation makes for prolific bug life, and at one point alongside the trail I noticed a spider nearly the size of a golf ball in the middle of a perfectly spun web.

I rode north along the trail for nearly two hours before tiring to the point that I felt compelled to turn around near Olallie Campground, just a few miles south of Trail Bridge Reservoir.

When I did turn around and begin riding back, I realized how much I had actually been climbing. The return ride was deceptively fast as I cruised through the quiet, dense forest, the only sound the rushing of the river. I encountered a few other bikers and hikers, but otherwise I enjoyed lots of solitude.

By the time I arrived back at Paradise, I had ridden about 21 miles in just short of four hours, and I was spent. A few years ago, I rode the entire trail and it required about six hours.

The out-and-back ride from the south end offered a memorable experience, providing plenty of scenery along one of the country’s most renowned mountain-biking trails.

If you go

McKenzie River National Recreation Trail

Length: 26.5 miles, four to eight hours by bike.

Rating: Aerobically strenuous, technically advanced

Trail features: Incredible scenery along the McKenzie River, including waterfalls, old-growth trees and rugged lava flows. The trail descends 1,600 feet but is extremely demanding if ridden in its entirety.

Trail shuttle

Cascade Bike Tours, based at McKenzie River Mountain Resort in Finn Rock, Ore., offers a shuttle van (with bike rack) from the McKenzie River Trail’s south trailhead to the north trailhead; $30 per person: 541-822-6272 or

Rider tips

• The south trailhead is about one mile east of the town of McKenzie Bridge off Highway 126, near the McKenzie River Ranger Station. Look for a turnout and parking area behind a guardrail, with a sign that says “McKenzie River National Recreation Trail.” This is where the trail shuttle picks up riders and takes them to the north trailhead two miles north of Clear Lake.

• There are 11 parking areas scattered along the length of the trail.

• The trail begins at an elevation of 3,200 feet above Clear Lake and ends at an elevation of 1,450 feet near the town of McKenzie Bridge.

More information

• Willamette National