North Umpqua by Darcy Bacha
My family of four lives in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, a recreational paradise year-round, but especially beautiful in the summer. So when we decide to leave this place, it needs to be for somewhere special.
We are in the throes of parenting Sophie, a precocious six-year-old, and Jack, our giant one-year-old boy, who has thrown me for a loop with his tornado-like tendencies. Needless to say, the trip and packing all the gear for said children better be worth it, especially for me and my husband, John. Though we are sometimes exhausted by parenting, we still want to get out and get after it, too. Enter the North Umpqua River, the best place to make it all happen: awesome camping, adult- and kid-friendly recreation and a scenic wilderness that will make a two- to three-day trip feel like a restful eternity.
Located in Southern Oregon near Roseburg, the North Umpqua is a tributary of the Umpqua River, approximately 110 miles long. The river boasts crystal-clear water, and the surrounding area is forested by old-growth Douglas fir, maple and cedar trees.
A 33.8-mile section of the North Umpqua is classified as a Wild and Scenic River and is restricted to fly-fishing only. It is considered one of the best streams in the Pacific Northwest to fly-fish for salmon and steelhead. For those not looking to fish, whitewater rafting is an alternate activity here, and it offers everything from tame Class I rapids to adrenaline-pumping Class IV rapids.
As you drive in from Roseburg on Highway 138 through Glide (pop. 1,795), check out the Colliding Rivers viewpoint, where, in a rare occurrence, the North Umpqua River runs into the Little River in a fury of white water. Arriving in the heart of North Umpqua Highway, we stop and get all of our necessary items at the Idleyld Trading Post. This store has all the fun extras you might need for the family: ice cream, marshmallows, snacks, inner tubes, ice and a healthy selection of wine, spirits and beer.
Fishing by Darcy Bacha; Tioga Bridge by Shawn Linehan; Susan Creek Falls by Kirkendall-Spring Photographers; camping by Donaleen Kohn.
There are eight campgrounds to choose from on this largely uninhabited section of the North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River Corridor, each with its advantages and amenities. Many campgrounds give you direct access to the river and to the North Umpqua Trail, a 79-mile trail that meanders along the river and offers great hiking, biking and horseback riding. Each site at our campground has its particular charm, and we choose one set away from the river so we don’t have to stress about our unpredictable boy wandering off toward the water. Our campsite comes with a picnic table, a fire pit, a handy grill-top barbecue and a cool bench that has been carved out of a giant log.
The kids bound out of the car, and Sophie races to get her helmet on so that she can ride around the camp circle on her bike. She quickly befriends another girl a year or two her senior, and I hear her chattering away with her as they zoom around the paved confines of our camping area.
After we get settled into our tent site, we’re ready for a dip in the river. A quick walk down the trail from camp and Jack is in heaven throwing pebbles into the river. Some tweens shriek as they jump off a rock that juts out into the deep, clear water of the river. Sophie and I walk up the river, hop on the inner tube and enjoy a gentle, smile-inducing baby rapid that flows into the calm, deep water.
Late afternoon brings early dinner preparation from John, so that he can get on the river by early evening to fly-fish. While he cooks, I head off for a short run on the river trail to the recently constructed, wood-hewn Tioga Bridge, and I stop to spot fish swimming against the current, hanging close to a big rock.
If you are of the mountain biking persuasion, this footbridge also offers access to two great mountain biking sections of the North Umpqua Trail each around eight miles apiece in either direction.
The evening brings a campfire, s’mores, more kid biking and a late bedtime — a dream come true in kids’ eyes. John comes back to camp without making a fish rise but with a dreamy and happy look on his face.
John rolls out of bed by 5:30 a.m. in his never-ending quest to catch the elusive steelhead. When he gets back, I try my hand at hooking one with a double-handed spey rod and enjoy the tranquil waters while John plays with the kids nearby. I don’t have any luck either. While the North Umpqua is known as one of the best fisheries in the Northwest, it is also one of the most challenging rivers, filled with tenacious fish and difficult-to-access runs, where catching a wild fish that must be released anyway is just a bonus. The thrill of the chase, as well as the ability to stand in one of the most beautiful rivers, makes it all worthwhile.
Mid-morning takes us on a beautiful hike to Susan Creek Falls Trail, a short and easy route, and great for people of all ages and fitness levels. The hike provides enough of a challenge that Sophie whines her way up the 0.8-mile climb, while Jack chills in the Ergo, but each kiddo is rewarded with shallow-water creek exploration, boulder hopping and pebble throwing in a dense forest with a 50-foot waterfall for spectacular viewing.
Steamboat Inn by John Valls; Big Bend Pool by Darcy Bacha
A must-stop on our trip every year is the historic Steamboat Inn, rich with history of fly-fishing lore. The inn has a cafe with a tasty menu and beautiful gardens perched on a bluff above the North Umpqua. Offering all the information and supplies you might need for fly-fishing, including licenses, the inn also has helpful staff who can connect you with world-class fishing guides. If camping isn’t your thing, the inn offers a variety of accommodations from luxurious, one-bedroom river-view suites to the family-friendly Camp Water Houses right off of Mott Trail on the North Umpqua Trail.
If you are interested in learning about why the North Umpqua River is so special, stop and talk with conservationist and FishWatch caretaker Lee Spencer, of the Big Bend Pool of Steamboat Creek, about 10 miles up from the Steamboat Inn on Highway 138. This quiet sanctuary holds a deep, cold pool, where hundreds of native steelhead take refuge in the heat of the summer while waiting for fall rains to send them to their spawning grounds. Spencer camps here in an Airstream trailer year after year to protect the fish in this no-fishing zone from possible poachers, who, in past years, have decimated the entire population before they’ve had a chance to spawn. He has a vast amount of knowledge about the North Umpqua fishery and the surrounding area, and his quiet fortitude makes me want to come back year after year. This is a great activity if you’re into road biking. The road up to Big Bend Pool offers a short, fun climb to blow off some steam mid-afternoon.
Our last night ends like we’re set on repeat: camp biking, s’mores, book reading, kid romping, collapsing in the tent, knowing that we have to pack up in the morning to go back to reality in Hood River. However, it doesn’t feel so bad. Often my weekend ends with me feeling like I didn’t have enough time. Here, however, I feel like I covered it all. We leave feeling slightly exhausted, completely fulfilled and longing for the next time we can come back.
For a full list of campgrounds and recreational activities, check out the Roseburg Bureau of Land Management Recreation Guide.