Natural Splendors in Oregon: Rogue–Umpqua Scenic Byway

Route Details Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 190 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round; snow is frequent

Route Details

Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 190 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year-round; snow is frequent in winter above 3,000 ft.

Nearby attractions: Wildlife Safari, animal park with petting zoo and auto tour, Winston. Lithia Park, landscaped grounds adjacent to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland. Hellgate Canyon, east of Galice.

Further information: Southern Oregon Visitors Association, P.O. Box 1645, Medford, OR 97501; tel. 800-448-4856. Roseburg Visitors & Convention Bureau, 410 SE Spruce St., Roseburg, OR 97470; tel. 800-444-9584, www.visitroseburg.com

Star Route

Crater Lake National Park
Turn east on Rte. 62 to reach Crater Lake National Park. When an ancient volcano known as Mt. Mazama erupted 7,700 years ago, the pumice and ash it expelled covered much of the Northwest. After the discharge the mountain collapsed; today Crater Lake is filled with water, and the mirrored expanse, six miles wide, lies encircled by green forests and steep-sided mountains, which take on an extra sparkle—a profound contrast to the lake—when covered by the snows of winter. From the entrance station, follow the access road to 33-mile-long Rim drive, and circle the lake—it’s the deepest body of fresh water in the United States, with depths of more than 1,900 feet. Daybreak, when a remarkable shade of blue reflects from the water’s surface, is the best time to see the lake; no wonder Klamath Indians felt the lake was a sacred passageway to a world below.

Applegate Lake
For a detour within a detour, head south on Rte. 238 where the drive drops into a ravine and the roadside is lined with poplars and cottonwoods turning into an area of intermittent grasslands. From Ruch, follow Upper Applegate Road to Applegate Lake, passing at about the midway point the McKee Covered Bridge—a structure built in 1917. The lake, bordered by the steep, evergreen-clad slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains, forms a sparkling oasis. Visitors can swim in the lake or explore one of the many well-kept trails. Stop by Swayne Viewpoint for a glimpse of the region to the south. You’ll see the Red Buttes Wilderness, with thousands of acres of rich and varied terrain—old-growth forests, meadows, and sawtooth ridges marked by horns and arêtes.

The Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway arcs across the western slopes of the Cascade Range—a serene countryside where fingers of fog gather in fir-scented valleys, and ancient volcanoes brood overhead. Crowning this memorable drive, side trips climb through a pristine parkland to Crater Lake, one of the world’s most awesome scenic wonders and, further south, to beautiful Applegate Lake.

1. Colliding Rivers Viewpoint
Passing grass-covered hills, scrubland, and small stands of oaks and pines, Rte. 138 makes a leisurely ascent—about 18 miles in length—from Roseburg to Glide. Once in town, be sure to visit the Colliding Rivers Viewpoint, which overlooks the confluence of the North Umpqua and Little rivers. An exhilarating sight in the wetter months, their waters churn every which way before settling down as one. Across the road, the Colliding Rivers Information Center offers helpful information on local camping, hiking, and watersports.

For still more views of the North Umpqua River, as well as the kayakers and rafters who brave its currents, consider a walk along the North Umpqua Trail, which runs alongside the waterway for some 75 miles. Beginning about six miles east of Glide at the Swiftwater Trailhead, the path—often in the shade of maple, alder, and Douglas fir trees—can be accessed from many points along the drive.

2. Susan Creek Falls

Many of the numerous creeks that empty into the North Umpqua River finish their downhill courses as sparkling waterfalls. Susan Creek, one of them, can be reached by a short hike from mile marker 29. Although the terrain is challenging, the sound of the 50-foot falls—a steady rumble heard through the trees—is an added incentive to make the trek.

3. Fall Creek Falls
As the drive continues upriver toward the Umpqua National Forest, the vegetation grows markedly denser than in the foothills below. The vast woodland—nearly a million acres—is a medley of rivers, creeks, lakes, volcanic formations, and stands of Douglas fir mixed with many other hardwood species.

Of the many footpaths that wend through the area, the Fall Creek Falls Trail is especially dramatic. About a mile long, it begins two miles beyond the entrance sign for the national forest. The hike slips through a crevice, past numerous columns of volcanic rocks, and ends with theatrical flair at Fall Creek Falls and its punchbowl-shaped basin.

4. Steamboat
Hemmed in by cliffs and forested peaks, the scenic byway curves beside the North Umpqua River —icy cold and glassy clear—to the small community of Steamboat. The waterway here is famed for its summer runs of steelhead trout, a vigorous fish that can weigh up to 15 pounds. The area also serves as a gateway to the surrounding woodlands. One side trip, a six-mile drive on Steamboat Creek Road (Rte. 38), weaves through Black Gorge to Steamboat Falls.

Once back in Steamboat, the drive continues east on Rte. 138, arriving some 10 miles later at Weeping Rocks (near Marsters Bridge), one of several places to stop and observe spawning chinook salmon. Fighting the often powerful current, the fish swim upriver in late summer and early fall. After finding suitable spots, they make their nests—depressions in the riverbed called redds—with thrusts of their tails, a motion that displaces sand and gravel.

5. Toketee Falls
Thousands of years ago, a massive volcano called Mt. Mazama rained a thick layer of fiery debris across much of this region. Many centuries of erosion, however, have worked their magic, washing away and reforming the volcanic deposits. Several of these rock formations are likely to catch your eye on the way to Toketee Falls.

Large outcrops of porous, sand-colored pumice shine at intervals on the riverbanks, and Eagle Rock, composed of tightly packed pillars of basalt, stands just past Eagle Rock Campground. Also visible from the road are Old Man and Old Woman rocks—two stony peaks that rise above the surroundings.

Farther on, follow Rte. 34, a forest road that leads to the parking lot at the start of the Toketee Falls Trail. Tracing the North Umpqua River through a narrow chasm, the hike ends at an observation platform. The view overlooks the two-tiered waterfall. The first cascade plummets 40 feet into a pool, and the second makes an 80-foot drop to the North Umpqua River Canyon below.

Farther east, the Toketee Reservoir makes an ideal camping spot, with some waterside sites. For those who fish, the catch might include brook, rainbow, and brown trout—tempting campfire fare.

6. Watson Falls

Not far from the highway, Watson Falls plunges 272 feet, making it one of the tallest waterfalls in Oregon. A half-mile trail leads to the thunderous marvel. Still more cascades, Clearwater and Whitehorse falls, lie to the east.

7. Lemolo Lake
Rte. 2610, a side trip to the north, traverses the forest to Lemolo Lake, a picturesque locale with deep coves and sandy beaches. Located some 4,000 feet above sea level, the lake is usually chilly, but water-skiers are undeterred, chancing a frigid dip in its waters for an exhilarating ride behind a speeding boat. Those unwilling to brave getting wet might try fishing; landlocked kokanee salmon and German brown trout are among the potential prizes for anglers. In winter the area becomes a sports haven for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers, who follow trails through the snowy pines.

8. Diamond Lake
After swinging to the south, Rte. 138 passes fragrant fields of summer wildflowers on the way to Diamond Lake. Filling part of a glacial basin, the watery jewel is flanked by mountains. To the west is 8,363-foot Mt. Bailey, its icy face sometimes shimmering in the morning sun. Mt. Thielsen—a steep, narrow peak cresting nearly a thousand feet higher in the east—has earned the nickname Lightning Rod of the Cascades.

9. Hamaker Campground
South of Diamond Lake, the drive forks west onto Rte. 230, descending past now-hardened lava flows and a forest of lodgepole pines. The byway then meets the Wild and Scenic Upper Rogue River, which carves a 200-mile course on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Two excellent trails let visitors explore the waterway. The Upper Rogue River National Recreation Trail, easily accessed from Hamaker Campground, shadows the river for 48 miles, passing old-growth Douglas firs, some 500 years old and 200 feet tall. Leading from Rte. 6560 to the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness, the Hummingbird Meadow Trail guides hikers across aromatic fields of wildflowers—and may offer a glimpse of a hummingbird sipping nectar.

10. Rabbit Ears
These massive twin peaks—once part of a volcano’s interior—seem to some wondrously alive, as if cocked to the murmurings of the wilderness. For a close-up view, secondary routes loop around the ears and lead to Hershberger Lookout. Mts. Bailey and Thielsen dominate the northern skyline, and to the south the Cascades roll like waves toward California.

11. Rogue Gorge
After exploring the national park, backtrack on Rte. 62 to the town of Union Creek, which was once a base camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Like the government workers before them, today’s sightseers are bound to be impressed by the local landscape.

While in the area, visit the Rogue Gorge Viewpoint, where it is easy to see why the Rogue River is so aptly named. Churning wildly—unbridled and uncontrolled—the Rogue roars through a narrow basalt cut. Farther south at Natural Bridge Viewpoint, the waterway ducks out of sight, flowing through an underground channel; still tumultuous, it reappears from the ground about 200 yards farther downstream. The route follows the river south and west, crossing the stream repeatedly on numerous bridges.

12. Stewart State Park

A popular spot for camping, an easy day hike, or a picnic beneath the comforting shade of pines, Stewart State Park makes an inviting stop. While away an afternoon fishing for trout and bass, or sunbathe on the park’s lawn, which slopes gently to the shores of Lost Creek Reservoir.

13. Table Rocks
This pair of volcanic remnants, while shadows of their former selves, still manage to impress. Short but fairly difficult hikes climb each of the rocks, which are separated by several miles. The views from the flat, rocky summits take in countryside that was once teamed with Takelma Indians. In spring, the grasslands of this area is strewn with varied arrays of wildflowers.

14. Jacksonville
The official Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway route ends at Gold Hill, but there are jewels to be found to the south. Once in Gold Hill, briefly follow Rte. 99 to the east, then switch onto Old Stage Road, which leads to the gracious town of Jacksonville. Tucked into the Siskiyou Mountain foothills at the northeastern edge of Applegate Valley, the community was established in the high-spirited days of a local gold rush. More than 80 buildings reminiscent of that era have been restored to their 19th-century appearance, and they often double as a set for western movies—the town’s phone poles can be removed to mimic the pre-electric era, and its paved streets are covered with soil. From the handsome brick buildings along Main Street to the elegant Victorian and colorfully decorated German-Gothic homes that line the quiet roads in residential neighborhoods, a tour of Jacksonville is a step back in time. Don’t miss the Jacksonville Museum, with exhibits that document the growth of the valley.

15. Lower Applegate Valley

From Jacksonville, head west through the Lower Applegate Valley. A soothing counterpoint to the rugged Cascades, the area exudes a mellow grace —a rural mix of small towns, vineyards, and farms with golden fields and horses. The Applegate River, like an attentive escort, parallels the road, whispering encouragements all the way to the Rogue River, which by this point is much tamer than during its tumultuous descent down the Cascades. Beyond the Applegate lies Grants Pass, a center for tourism and trade. Gold Hill is just a few miles south on Rte. 5.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest