Southern Oregon on Two Wheels
A motorcycle journey on backroads and byways
Day one: Portland to Agness
After weeks of waiting for a relentless La Niña to loosen her grip on spring, I spotted a perfect four-day window in the forecast. Maps studied, gear packed and the first 180 miles under my belt, I exited I-5 toward the heart of Southern Oregon’s wine country in the Umpqua Valley. But it’s the scenic and twisty roads I was headed for, not wine. A multipurpose touring motorcycle is the perfect way to explore this dramatic terrain of remote mountain roads and natural beauty.
Arriving in the hamlet of Umpqua, I stopped for a quick lunch at Lighthouse Center Bakery, Café & Country Store. Completely remodeled in 2009 and still housing the local post office, Lighthouse serves fresh breads baked from a wood-fired oven and a menu of vegetarian soups, sandwiches and desserts. Curry garbanzo stew was the perfect mix of light and filling that I needed.
I continued on the historic Coos Bay Wagon Road, opened in the 1870s by Aaron Rose, for whom Roseburg was named. The road once provided an overland route from Roseburg and the Rogue and Umpqua valleys to the Coast. These days there are more direct routes, but none more scenic. As the pavement gave way to dirt and gravel high in the Coast Range, the road tunneled through lush old growth and the headwaters of the East Fork Coquille River.
The beauty of solo travel is making it up as you go along, so on a whim, I veered south, deeper into the mountains. A straight shot from Myrtle Point through Powers, Oregon Route 542 turned into Forest Service Road 33 and followed the South Fork Coquille River toward its source high in the Siskiyou Mountains.
Steep and rugged, the breathtaking Siskiyous were cloaked in a marine fog as I wound my way into the higher altitude. Again the pavement gave way to dirt, narrowed and climbed into the mountains. As I came around a sharp left, a large black bear lumbered in front of me, stopping for a moment to give me a dirty look for disturbing his peace before scrambling up a steep ridge and disappearing into the tall timber.
Following a steep decent, I arrived in Agness to find a welcoming cabin at Singing Springs Resort, first opened in 1952. Situated in a tall grove of firs on the banks of the Rogue River, Singing Springs is a peaceful spot. It was late and the kitchen was closed, but my gracious hostess, Teri Durham, reopened to whip up a great burger. A cold Mirror Pond Pale Ale capped off my perfect day, and I dropped off to the sound of the river outside my window.
Day two: Agness to Wolf Creek
I found it difficult to make decent time traveling along the Rogue River as I kept feeling the need to stop and take in the view. I watched a bald eagle soar high above the river as a jet boat negotiated a rapid. I stopped to take pictures even more frequently once I made the Coast and headed south.
In Pistol River, a dozen kite boarders played in the legendary waves that make this a mecca for wind junkies. Further south, Highway 101 wound for 12 miles through Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, sandwiched between old-growth forest and dramatic rocky beaches.
Hunger overtook me just as I arrived at Mattie’s Pancake House in Brookings. Locals argued amongst themselves about whether I should go for the blueberry pancakes or the French toast. Not wishing to start trouble, I ordered both and shared with the folks at the next table.
Hard against the California border, five miles up a rough dirt road along Peavine Ridge, I found one of Oregon’s last remaining redwood groves. The solitude and remoteness made the Oregon Redwoods Trail a worthwhile side trip.
A hundred miles later, back on east side of the mountains, I pulled into Merlin for a caffeine break at The Riffle Cafe. The Riffle offers a full menu and breakfast until 3 p.m., as well as lunch and dinner, and is widely regarded as the best food in town. I opted for a piece of ridiculously rich and decadent chocolate cake with ice cream.
Just west of Merlin, the road wound past the sheer walls of Hellgate Canyon and followed the Rogue to Galice. I pondered the options before deciding to ride north on Grave Creek Road, which proved to be a veritable roller-coaster of twists and turns. An hour later, I pulled up to the historic Wolf Creek Inn and took a room for the night.
Built in 1883, Wolf Creek Inn is the oldest continually operated hotel in the state. Originally billed as “a first-class traveler’s hotel” for folks taking the stagecoach, Wolf Creek has hosted celebrities from Clark Gable and Mary Pickford to President Rutherford B. Hayes. In more recent years, it’s been painstakingly restored and furnished. A modern kitchen serves guests in the historic dining room. After fresh Copper River coho and a glass of fine Umpqua Valley pinot noir, I retired to my room to ponder the next day’s explorations.
Day three: Wolf Creek to Klamath Falls
Despite a loose plan to explore Applegate country to the south, I found myself inexplicably drawn toward Gold Hill. At an intersection where I intended to turn left, my bike went right as if pulled by an invisible force. Soon I was zooming up narrow Sardine Creek Road until pavement ended and it all became clear. I’d arrived at the Oregon Vortex and World Famous House of Mystery.
A link to the paranormal or perhaps just a terrific tourist trap, the Oregon Vortex is a place where balls roll uphill, brooms stand on end, short is tall and leaning is required to keep from falling over. My guide explained the many strange phenomena that occur here on the banks of Sardine Creek. It’s hard to tell what’s going on — a magnetic vortex or a darned good illusion — but everyone agrees it’s great fun.
I had not previously explored the Applegate Valley in the southernmost part of the state, so I spent my afternoon wandering a countryside dotted with small wineries and family farms, crystal clear trout streams and vast panoramas of the snowcapped peaks. I passed dozens of side roads beckoning for further exploration. I briefly considered a dirt route through the high country but was warned that snow levels had the route blocked. Instead I chose a paved road that meandered through the foothills.
Having skipped lunch, I remembered a friend telling me of a fine microbrewery in Klamath Falls. It was a little more than an hour away and provided me with the perfect excuse to ride another classic Oregon motorcycle road, Route 66.
Klamath Basin Brewing Company’s Creamery Brewpub & Grill, housed in the old Crater Lake Creamery building, was a lively spot in the heart of downtown K-Falls. Trading milk for beer was the best thing that ever happened to this building. It had a large, sun-drenched patio outside and a sports-bar atmosphere inside. I ordered a tender flat iron steak that I enjoyed with a Crystal Springs IPA.
Facing a setting sun, I found my way to Rocky Point Resort on the calm shores of vast Klamath Lake, where I spent the twilight watching the light fade on the landscape before retiring to a comfortable room and dreams of my next vacation…I mean, assignment.
about author Robbie McClaran
Robbie McClaran has been a freelance photographer for 30 years and an avid motorcyclist for longer. His photography has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Magazine, Reader's Digest, Time, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Inc., Bloomberg Markets, Business Week, Forbes, Runner¹s World and Popular Mechanics. Robbie lives with his wife, two daughters and dog in Portland.
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