Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Follow all COVID-19 guidelines, get vaccinated before you travel and remember to bring your face covering.
If you want to see some of the largest, deepest, tallest, bluest and wildest sights in Oregon, you’re in the right place. Southern Oregon’s marvelous rivers, lakes, mountains and valleys are made for exaggerations — but all live up to the hype.
Here you’ll find everything from waterfalls and wine to incredible geology and a dizzying amount of outdoor recreation. You just have to return again and again to experience it all. Here are 10 special places that will inspire you.
After winter’s snow melts and the ski lifts stop running, the fun doesn’t stop at Mt. Ashland — the tallest peak in the Siskiyou mountain range. There’s no better view than the one from the top, at 7,400 feet, which you can reach via the steep and challenging Summit Trail, with wildflowers and views of Mt. Shasta, Mt. McLoughlin and Pilot Rock along the way. Mountain bikers can also catch a shuttle up to 5,000 feet and bomb down the thrilling Mt. Ashland Super D trail, one of six spectacular trails in the Rogue Valley. If you’d rather take it easy, there’s space for that too. Take a relaxing amble along a nature trail with a pair of binoculars for some bird-watching, set out on a trail run; or check out a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes right by. The city of Ashland (and all its arts, culture and dining) is 8.6 miles north of the mountain, while the Oregon–California border is just 5 miles south.
County: Jackson County
Cascades-Siskiyou National Monument
There are so many special superlatives you can use to describe the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, a national treasure in the heart of Southern Oregon. Even while it’s close by to Ashland and I-5, and bisected by 43 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, there’s a vast amount of pristine wilderness to bask in here as you spend your time fishing, boating, hiking or camping far away from the crowds. The 114,000 acres of protected land are home to marmots, mountain lions, river otters, black bear, elk and more than 200 bird species. In one weekend you can splash in a lake, cast a line for smallmouth bass and take a heart-pumping trek to the top of a bluff to take in stunning views of the Soda Mountain Wilderness.
County: Jackson County
Rogue Valley Wine
Wine connoisseurs know and love Southern Oregon for its world-class wines and exquisite, family-owned and less-crowded tasting rooms. Here in Rogue Valley Wine Country, there’s plenty of room inside and out to spread out and admire views of rolling hills and vineyard sunsets. Spend a few days exploring the Bear Creek Wine Trail — Oregon’s warmest and driest wine-growing region, as well as the southernmost. Thirteen tasting rooms span a route of 21 miles, from Central Point at the north to Ashland at the south throughout the fertile Bear Creek Valley. The Applegate Valley Wine Trail includes another 19 tasting rooms stretching from Jacksonville northwest to Grants Pass, following the Applegate River with farms, lavender fields and country roads ideal for a scenic bike ride.
Counties: Jackson County, Josephine County
Seven million years ago, a volcano erupted and filled the Rogue River Valley with lava. As the landscape eroded, two plateaus stood behind, rising from Southern Oregon’s high desert like two “islands in the sky,” as the Table Rocks are often called. The Upper and Lower Table Rocks rise more than 800 feet from the valley floor and are magnificent places to visit, as long as you follow best practices to leave the space cleaner than you found it. Home to fragile ecosystems of plants and animals, they are official Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. For instance, Lower Table Rock is home to more than 200 wildflower species, including the extremely rare dwarf woolly meadowfoam, which grows nowhere else in the world. Consult the Bureau of Land Management’s guide on how to hike and camp at these geologic wonders, and see this guide to more treks in the area to pair with a tasty post-hike reward.
County: Jackson County
Cities: Central Point, Eagle Point, Medford, Gold Hill
Wild and Scenic Rogue River
Known for its emerald waters and lush forest canyon, the Rogue River is the lifeblood of Southern Oregon. It flows 215 miles from Crater Lake to the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach, and 84 miles of it is designated as Wild and Scenic — meaning permits are needed for adventuring so it can remain pristine for generations to come. One of the best ways to experience the Rogue is on a guided rafting trip, catching thrills on Class 3 and 4 rapids with a knowledgeable guide at the helm. You can also hike the Rogue River Trail or book a one-of-a-kind wilderness retreat that includes riverfront lodging in addition to curated fishing, hiking, rafting and dining experiences. If you’re in Grants Pass, a scenic jet-boat ride is a fabulous way to cool off on the Rogue while hearing about its history and culture on the narrated tour.
County: Josephine County
Great Umpqua Food Trail
Southern Oregon’s bountiful landscapes host some of the best farm-fresh food and drink the state has to offer, whether it’s cherries and blueberries or yummy pizzas with handcrafted cheese and organic produce from a few miles away. Find more than 45 businesses — including wineries, breweries, restaurants, farmers markets, farm stands and U-pick farms — along the self-guided Great Umpqua Food Trail. Most are a short detour off Interstate 5 in many small, friendly towns worth exploring. Satisfy your taste buds as you get to know the “Great Umpqua” region — named for the watershed and the lush valleys through which the river and its tributaries flow. The food trail offers three itineraries to inspire exploration: Rambling Rivers, Old Wagon Roads and Sips to the Sea — all within a stone’s throw from historic sites and idyllic countryside. Make sure to say hello to the magnificent Monarchs and Painted Ladies at the Butterfly Pavilion in Elkton along the way.
County: Douglas County
Highway of Waterfalls
In terms of bang for your buck, there’s no better spot to see waterfalls in Oregon than along the 172-mile Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway (OR-138), aptly nicknamed the Highway of Waterfalls. Stretching from Roseburg south to Gold Hill, just north of Medford, the byway follows parts of the North Umpqua and Upper Rogue rivers and more than 15 eye-popping cascades. Among them are the double-tiered Toketee Falls, one of the most photographed in the region, and 272-foot Watson Falls, among the tallest in Southern Oregon. Some of the waterfalls attract crowds on the weekends, but many are more remote with very little foot traffic. Bring your camera for the necessary photo op and then put it away, because there’s so much more to do when you get here. Take a hike, enjoy the rush of the wonder of the cascades and breathe in the fresh pine-scented air.
Counties: Douglas County, Jackson County
Cities: Roseburg, Glide, Prospect, Gold Hill
Crater Lake National Park
If you’ve ever peered down from the rim at Crater Lake — the deepest, bluest lake in the U.S. — you’ve gotten a taste of its majesty. To really know this Oregon wonder is to hike some the national park’s 90 miles of trails, ride your bike along Rim Drive on a car-free day and stargaze at an elevation of 6,178 feet. The lake is the result of Mt. Mazama’s eruption 8,000 years ago; take time to learn its creation story, part of the rich Native history of the Klamath region. It’s all part of the endlessly gorgeous Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, a 140-mile stretch of highway from Diamond Lake south to Klamath Falls and Oregon’s southern border. The scenic byway takes road-trippers through the best of the best: where eons of eruptions and lava flows left a fiery heritage of cinder cones, pumice plains and unforgettable landmarks like Crater Lake.
County: Klamath County
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
Many lakes in Oregon are small and crowded, making it hard for kayakers and anglers to avoid wakes from nearby boats. Upper Klamath Lake, on the other hand, is quite large — the largest lake in Oregon and west of the Rocky Mountains. This uncrowded, off-the-radar destination, part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway and 30 miles south of Crater Lake National Park, is a premier spot for nature lovers looking to get away from it all. The Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge at the north end is full of rich marsh and wetlands, some of the richest freshwater ecosystems in the western United States, which draw more than 1 million migrating birds. The lake and its many tributaries and creeks make for excellent paddling, like at the crystal-clear Spring Creek, just north. Bring your favorite watercraft or book a guided tour and make sure to pack a picnic — with 98 miles of shoreline, there’s plenty of room to spread out.
County: Klamath County
Cities: Klamath Falls, Rocky Point, Lake of the Woods, Bonanza
Any photo of this 325-foot stone fortress rising out of the high-desert landscape doesn’t do it justice. Fort Rock — actually a tuff ring of an ancient volcanic crater that sat in a shallow sea many millennia ago — is a geologic wonder worth the detour. You can spend a few days exploring Fort Rock State Natural Area via a short hike along the inner outcropping and a guided cave tour (temporarily paused during COVID). Since the cave is a Natural Heritage Site, taking the guided tour is the only way to explore the cave, which is the site of an archeological discovery of 10,000-year-old sagebrush-bark sandals that are believed to be the oldest in the world. Continue the journey through Oregon’s Outback to the ancient volcanic fissure of Crack in the Ground, featuring a cool 2-mile trail that is at times more than 30 feet below ground. Along the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway, soak in the warm waters of Summer Lake Hot Springs and explore the massive wall of Abert Rim, the largest exposed fault scarp in North America. Just outside Oregon’s tallest town, Lakeview, is the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, which played a vital role in reviving populations of pronghorn, the fastest land mammal in North America.
County: Lake County
Cities: Christmas Valley, Silver Lake, Summer Lake, Lakeview