A Runner's Guide to Willamalane Paths
by Kenny Weigandt

I guess you can technically call me a runner, but that’s pretty generous. In reality, I’m a past my prime “athlete” with two young kids that I love to blame for my being out of shape. This year I faced a painful reality check when my six year old challenged me to a footrace and it was an all-out struggle. I won the race (there was an alleged shove, which I adamantly deny) but I was so exhausted at the finish line that I almost blacked out. That was the “get yourself in shape” red flag that I desperately needed. 
While I’m more of a slogger (slow jogger) these days, I genuinely enjoy running. I’ll occasionally train for a long race, but I’m usually looking for runs in the 3-7 mile range to punish my legs and give my brain an escape. At this stage of life my biggest challenge is balancing my slogging time with family life. Turns out, these kids that I’m so fond of are a gigantic time suck! That means that convenience and quick access to safe trails is essential when I’m picking running routes. Since I’m lucky enough to live and work in Springfield, I have easy access to a series of parks, paths and trails that are maintained by Willamalane. With more than 30 miles of Willamalane running paths at my disposal, I’m all out of excuses. It’s time to run!

Over the last month, I ran almost every available mile of Willamalane paths and trails and kept a running journal (see what I did there?) of my experiences. Depending on what I was looking for on the day of, Willamalane checked just about every box. I found flat trails, hills, different types of running surfaces, and a fantastic variety of scenery. While it was hard to narrow the list, I put together my top five favorite Willamalane running spots.

5. Mill Race Path
Spirit of the Mill Race (58) - Copy
307 S 5th St, Springfield OR 3202 Jasper Rd, Springfield, OR
HIGHLIGHTS: Flat, no traffic, provides a mix of natural, urban and industrial scenery
IDEAL MUSICAL PAIRING: “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen

If you’re on the hunt for a super convenient 2-5 miler, the Mill Race Path is stellar. It’s a flat, paved path that runs from downtown Springfield all the way to the Middle Fork path system. I hopped on the trail at the Jasper Road Trailhead and ran an out and back to the Booth-Kelly Trailhead near downtown.

The path is unique because it offers a natural landscape on one side and working saw mills on the other. While it might sound strange, running through the steam of a saw mill is awesome, as you’ll definitely feel some Springfield pride. Plus, for any Stallone fans out there, you’ll catch some very real Rocky training scene vibes when you’re passing the mills. The Springsteen was banging in the headphones and I threw up a single fist during this run. 

4. Thurston Hills Natural Area

WHERE YOU CAN ACCESS THIS TRAIL: 7575 McKenzie Hwy, Springfield, OR
HIGHLIGHTS: Beautiful scenery, tree cover, winding hills (if you’re into that kind of thing) IDEAL MUSICAL PAIRING: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

If you love running hills, Thurston Hills Natural Area is your best pal. I’m not a huge fan of running hills because I’m a weakling that doesn’t enjoy pain. That said, it’s great for the lungs and on the rare occurrence where I’m struggling upward, I’d better be rewarded with a gorgeous trail. In that respect, Thurston Hills Natural Area absolutely delivers. This sucker offers a beautifully manicured trail that winds through miles of tree-covered hills. Best of all, there are separate trails for runners/hikers and mountain bikers. That means you can get all the benefits of a stellar trail run without the fear of becoming road kill.

What’s most impressive about Thurston Natural Hills Area is how easy it is to access. Usually when I’m craving a mountain-style trail run it means I need to take a long drive. With the main trailhead being at the edge of the Thurston community, it’s incredibly convenient to access.

3. Middle Fork Path

WHERE YOU CAN ACCESS THIS PATH: Clearwater Park 2400 Clearwater Lane, Springfield,
OR Dorris Ranch Park 205 Dorris Street, Springfield, OR
HIGHLIGHTS: Flat, no traffic, river views, provides plenty of viewpoints, and wildlife
IDEAL MUSICAL PAIRING: “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty

The Middle Fork Path and the Mill Race Path are part of the same paved path system, but they offer wildly different running experiences. While the Mill Race Path offers some urban and industrial appeal, the Middle Fork Path is more of a nature lover’s paradise. Most of the path runs along the Middle Fork of the Willamette River and there’s no shortage of breathtaking views along the way.

When I tackled this run, I was in the mood for a longer, slower run. I started my journey at Clearwater Park and meandered all the way to Dorris Ranch and back. All told, I logged about 8 miles and every inch of it was peaceful. Bonus points for the Middle Fork Path: despite a rainy day, everyone I encountered seemed to be in a great mood!

I’m a waver when I run, and I went 14 for 15 on return waves. I’m pretty sure the only non-waver was just overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the river that they forgot to wave back (at least that’s what I told myself). Regardless, it was a gorgeous jaunt and it came complete with a restroom and water stop at my Dorris Ranch turnaround. For somebody who hadn’t run that far in a few years, those benefits were very welcome.

2. Island Park to Pre's Trail

WHERE YOU CAN ACCESS THIS PATH: 200 West B Street, Springfield, OR
HIGHLIGHTS: Flat, minimal traffic, bark paths, the Steve Prefontaine factor
IDEAL MUSICAL PAIRING: “Don’t Bring Me Down” by Electric Light Orchestra

Pre’s trail is a nationally renowned running trail, and for good reason. Not only is it impeccably maintained and offers miles of bark paths that make your knees go, “ahhhhh,” but it was built as a lasting tribute to one of the greatest Oregon athletes to ever live, Steve Prefontaine. For a running nerd like me, goosebumps hit me every time I run his trail.

Another fantastic thing about Pre’s trail; you can access it from multiple locations in Eugene and Springfield. Since I live in Springfield, I started my run at Island Park and ran along the river toward the West D Greenway (another Willamalane jogging path). The Willamette River was in full view at Island Park and the West D Greenway and they connected me directly to Pre’s Trail. Once I was running with Pre, I enjoyed the glorious joint-forgiving bark path until I reached Autzen Stadium. I threw my O, wheezed out a “Go Ducks!” and jogged the same route back to Island Park.

For any Duck or track fan, this is no doubt a bucket list run.

1. Dorris Ranch
Dorris Ranch-Jodie Delsere (7) - Copy
WHERE YOU CAN ACCESS THESE PATHS: 205 Dorris Street, Springfield, OR 
HIGHLIGHTS: Flat, river views, historic, variety of trail options, tree cover, absolutely gorgeous
IDEAL MUSICAL PAIRING: “In the Woods” by Lee Fields & The Expressions

I’ll admit that I’m biased, but I sincerely believe that Dorris Ranch is one of the greatest parks on the planet. When you arrive, you’re instantly met with the historic Tomseth House and the Dorris Ranch Barn that set the stage for a quaint, serene setting. Once inside the park you have two main options to start your run; the Middle Fork Path (see above) or you can head past the barn and explore on the Dorris Ranch trail system. Within Dorris Ranch, there are 10 different loops, all of which offering something unique. It’s essentially the running version of a “choose your own adventure” novel, which is amazing for anyone who battles running boredom (aka this guy).

When I ran at Dorris Ranch, I started with the main loop which netted about 2.5 miles. I ran past an old pump house, the Willamette River, through filbert orchards, and into a short, forested stretch before I popped out on the Middle Fork Path which took me back to the park entrance. The running surfaces went from packed gravel to manicured trail, both of which felt great on these old knees. Since I needed to log about four miles for the day, I hopped on another trail that took me through more filbert orchards and into a deeper, wooded section before I ended up by the river. On this loop I also had a monumental footrace with a massive gray squirrel that was surely the talk of all Dorris Ranch wildlife. I got smoked by that speedy beast, but after I get myself in better shape I’m coming back to avenge my honor.

I can’t say enough good things about Dorris Ranch. Whether you’re looking to run long or short, it’s an incredible escape for runners or walkers of all abilities. Thanks for reading, friends. If you see me struggling along out there, I always love a wave!
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