by Lee Foster
Southwest Oregon presents itself as a friendly, unpretentious travel destination with several pleasures. Ashland is nationally noted for its annual drama cycle, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which offers more than Shakespeare and lasts May through October. Fine dining before the play at establishments such as Larks adds a culinary flourish. Jacksonville is one of the two best-preserved Gold Rush towns in the west, rivaled only by California’s Columbia as a restoration. One of the most accessible of the eight designated wild and scenic rivers in the west, the Rogue, can be enjoyed via jet boat or raft. Nearby is Crater Lake National Park, a great one-act play in volcanic drama. There’s a lot to see in Southwest Oregon.
Summer has been the traditional travel season here, but other seasons also have their appeal. In summer the drama festival flourishes and the Rogue River is warm. October, however, adds fall colors, December includes an old-fashioned Christmas, winter entices with intermediate skiing at Mt. Ashland, and spring or autumn promise fishermen runs of chinook salmon and steelhead trout up the Rogue River.
The town of Ashland has won a place on the national cultural map with its annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The legendary director, Angus Bowmer, began this tradition in the 1930s. Four of the 12 plays in a typical sellout season are Shakespearean, with the rest from classic or contemporary drama. The festival’s plays proceed in repertoire, in three separate theaters, booked for afternoon and evening performances, so an aficionado could watch the entire annual set in a week of theatrical immersion. As testimony to the quality of the performances, some 330,000 viewers witness the plays each year, while Ashland’s own population is a mere 15,000. Over the years the caliber of the performances has prompted a national tourism pilgrimage to Ashland for these cultural events.
If you attend, be sure to take the 10 a.m. Backstage Tour to acquaint yourself with the intricacy and scale of this $5.5 million operation, which involves more than 60 professional actors, 300 other theater professionals, and 800 local volunteers in non-stage supporting roles.
The traveler will enjoy coming to Ashland for the drama, but not for the Lithia water, a foul-tasting witches’ brew of minerals that earlier men of vision piped into the town fountain from a distant spring. Tradition requires that an adventuresome visitor sip the lithia water, bowing nostalgically to the Chautauqua-era when the beverage was favored by luminaries who gathered in lovely, 100-acre Lithia Park for uplifting discussion. The park, plus shops and restaurants (one named As You Like It), are a few steps from the theaters.
Prior to the nightly theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, there is a free outdoor show called the Green Show for about a half hour before the performance. This is a kind of aperitif. On my last visit, the performance was of four music students doing a blend of Japanese and marimba music.
On my last visit I saw Henry IV, Part 1, in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. Many travelers make an annual pilgrimage to see each year’s shows. The quality of the company is legendary.
As another kind of evening entertainment here, try the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, serving up offerings nightly with flair and panache. All the theatre, dining, and lodging in Ashland is quite compact, so it is easy to walk everywhere. The Cabaret Theater on the night of my last visit was an entertaining show, Riffin’ and Tappin’, about jazz music and tap dancing, both original American art forms. The Cabaret event is also a gourmet dinner theatre, so I recommend arriving early and enjoying dinner. I tried the smoked salmon starter, a Rogue River pear and hazelnut spinach salad, and an almond encrusted steelhead trout. Whenever dining in Ashland, the Oregon wines are a treat. The most memorable glasses of my recent trip were a Hamacher Pinot Noir and a RoxyAnn Pinot Gris.
Ashland is prime B&B and boutique inn country, and the in-town Winchester Inn is a leader, only two blocks from the theatre. The Winchester is the dream of Laurie and Michael Gibbs, who got the enterprise started in 1982. I have enjoyed their Silverdale suite, one of their 11 rooms and 8 suites. The Winchester has all the expected B&B amenities, from a lovely Victorian structure to a two-course made-to-order breakfast, with fruit and a muffin followed by your choice of three inventive egg dishes. The setting has tiered English gardens with patio outdoor space. You can walk from Winchester to the theatre and to all the restaurants and boutique shops of downtown Ashland. Winchester has its own cozy Wine Bar and award-winning restaurant.
One fine-dining pinnacle in Ashland is Larks restaurant in the historic Ashland Springs Hotel, the tall hotel of the downtown area. “Springs” is an operative word here because of the presumed medicinal value of the lithia-filled water in the region. Lithia water was an early destination tourism draw. The name of the restaurant speaks to the vision of the place. The meadowlark is the state bird of Oregon. Décor in the restaurant includes many mounted drawings of larks. Restaurant Larks celebrates all things Oregon, including the fisheries, wines, orchards, and farms that produce an abundance in this bread-basket warm area of Southern Oregon. I went to the Tuesday Farmers’ Market to see the cornucopia available from local farmers for establishments such as Larks. I tried the heirloom tomato soup, with a subtle sage flavoring, followed by the fresh Port Orford rockfish, a bounty of the Oregon coast, served on a bed of quinoa. Dessert was a blueberry and raspberry sorbet. This was memorable dining.
The Ashland downtown is a pleasant place to stroll for the traveler who delights in art galleries, boutique shops, and fun restaurants. Lithia Park celebrates the medicinal waters heritage of the area. The first Friday Art Walk is an especially congenial time to look at the local galleries. Sometimes liquid refreshments are served. Artists are a somewhat iconoclastic set among Ashlanders, so you may hear thoughts of a proposed State of Jefferson, which would be a joining of Southern Oregon and Northern California. While there is some logical basis for the concept, the State of Jefferson will probably never occur, so it is best not to contest the concept, but rather, raise another glass of Pinot Noir with an amused look on your face and savor its fruit.
Crater Lake National Park
The drama east of Ashland is at Crater Lake National Park, where a great one-act play occurred thousands of years ago, as Mt. Mazama blew skyward.
Crater Lake is a two-hour scenic drive from Ashland, so you can combine theatre, fine dining, and national park exploration in a single long day. Consider taking Highway 62 on the drive up to Crater Lake, with a stop at the Rogue River Gorge Scenic Turnout for a quarter-mile walk along a paved path by the river as the water tumbles through a narrow gorge. The Rogue River starts another 27 miles upstream. Since 1988 the Rogue has been designated as a Wild and Scenic River in the federal system. Before and after the scenic turnout, Highway 62 takes you through miles of magnificent forests, especially after the town of Prospect.
At Crater Lake, do a circular drive clockwise around the lake, which will take about three hours with stops. Pause to orient yourself and get information at one of the Visitor Centers, located three miles before the rim road, as you climb the side of the volcano, and at the south end of the rim road, immediately to the right as you access the rim. One of the first choice stops is The Watchman to see Wizard Island. Cloudcap is the highest point and affords a lovely horizontal view of the entire lake. Whitebark pine trees, which resist well the altitude, snowpack, and sculpting effect of the wind, can be seen at Cloudcap. Phantom Ship is a turnout that allows you to gaze at a small island with this imaginative moniker. Here you will see how the eye can be fooled by distances. In fact, the main spar of this seemingly miniscule island ship is actually 16 stories high.
The road is two-way, but going clockwise makes it easier to access turnoffs. The position of the sun will determine how pleasing the views are for you. Aside from looking into the lake, you will find magnificent views of the forested mountain landscape. A national parks lodge at the south end of the lake, managed by Xanterra, offers accommodations.
When driving back to Ashland, make your adventure a circular trip by continuing east and south along Highway 62, then south along the west side of Upper Klamath Lake. You pass through miles of grasslands used for cattle production. Mountains provide a backdrop. Then drive a short section of Highway 140 west before turning southwest on a long, winding, forested, back-country, scenic drive known as Dead Indian Memorial Road, which takes you back to Ashland.
The Gold Rush that began in the Sierra foothills of California in 1848 soon spread to other sites in northern California and southern Oregon. In 1851 a gold strike at Jacksonville brought in thousands of hopeful miners. Jacksonville remained the major town in southern Oregon until the railroad and roads bypassed it late in the 19th century.
Today Jacksonville is fully restored and protected as a National Historic Site. The main building to see is the Jackson County Courthouse. Ask around town about books and info on the early town photographer, horticulturalist, and renaissance man, Peter Britt, who recorded the Jacksonville scene visually. Each summer a major music festival, called the Peter Britt Festival, gathers appreciators for evening picnics and music on the grassy hill of the festival grounds. The Britt Festivals have enticed music lovers since the early 1960s. About 40,000 patrons attend each year on warm summer evenings to hear Jazz, Dance, Chamber Music, Blue Grass, or Musical Theater. (Music in Jacksonville complements drama in Ashland.)
As you explore Jacksonville, a further building to see, guided by a Historic Walking Tour Map, is the Jacksonville Inn. Handsomely restored, the building includes eight guest rooms, the most historic place to lodge in southern Oregon, and a restaurant rated among the best in the Northwest. Elaborate dinners unfold in a parade of a half-dozen courses, perhaps beginning with a homemade torta and proceeding with duck in pear sauce.
During summer, ongoing “living history” demonstrations in Jacksonville occur at the Beekman Bank, a former Wells Fargo branch where the teller will draw a check for the traveler. The Beekman Bank, from 1863, was a place where miners could leave their gold dust and money safely if they paid Mr. Beekman one percent a year for storage. The Beekman family house, an attractive Victorian, also hosts living history programs.
Two other Jacksonville offerings merit special mention. The cemetery of elaborate headstones is a roll call of the pioneers who populated southern Oregon. And the opulent Nunan house, a prize Victorian from 1892, is a remarkable “catalog” house, a carriage-trade prefab, ordered by the book. The house materials arrived in rail cars complete with the carpenters who erected it.
Jacksonville’s place in the larger story of Southern Oregon can be seen in Medford at the elaborate displays of the Southern Oregon History Center, 106 North Central. This museum is particularly strong on the detail of daily frontier life, ranging from 19th-century buggies to shawls.
Jetting and Rafting the Rogue River
The town of Grants Pass is the embarkation site for jet boat trips on the Rogue River. The remarkable boats are large, floating sleds that skim across the water, requiring only six inches of draft. They carry 70 passengers safely down the Rogue River on brief two-hour scenic trips, more extensive five-hour scenic trips, or three-hour evening trips that include dinner at the Ponti homestead.
The jet boat offers a speedy way to see the scenic forests along the river and its denizens, which include ospreys feeding on trout, beavers gnawing trees, great blue herons gliding majestically, and merganser ducks scooting along at water level. The ride extends to the Hellgate Canyon stretch where the river narrows sharply to steep rocky sides.
If time permits, choose the evening boat trip that includes dinner at the Ponti Doubletree Ranch homestead. For five generations this family has ranched this secluded area. They serve a bounteous dinner on their ranch porch after picking up jet boat patrons in horse-drawn wagons.
Rafting is a quieter and more active way to see the river. Rafting trips begin in Medford and float several stretches of the river. Rafters wear helmets because some rapids in the Rogue reach Class III status. The rafts are less disturbing than the jet boats to the local wildlife, allowing you to float close up to a family of Canadian geese or mallard ducks swimming on the river.
Southwest Oregon Ambiance
Southwest Oregon (pronounce it “gun” to soothe the natives) is relatively sunny, as is the Bend region of Central Oregon, which contrasts with the rain of the coast, Portland, and the Columbia Gorge. In Southwest Oregon you can forget about Oregon Rain Jokes (the natives rust rather than suntan, the Slug Festival runs January 1-December 31, 667 bicyclists fell off their bikes last year and drowned, and state law requires that sunglasses be sold equipped with windshield wipers). The southwest “Oregunners” are a friendly lot whose mascot is a bear that hugs arriving visitors at Medford airport, countering former governor Tom McCall’s anti-outsider policy. The area is also now more accessible than previously because of direct air flights to the gateway city, Medford.
With a car, you can explore the area and stumble across some interesting finds, such as the Oregon General Store and Museum at the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point. There you can sample healthful whole-grain breads, all made on the premises, and peruse the western collectibles, such as early tin cans.
Many lovely back-country drives crisscross the area, such as the road through the Applegate Valley from Jacksonville to Grants Pass, featuring Douglas fir forests, cattle and horse ranching, meandering rivers, and small-scale farming. Stop in at Valley View Vineyards to sample the Oregon Pinot Noir.
The largest fruit crop in the area is pears, which formed the early basis of the Harry and David fruit-through-the-mail business. In the 1930s these two enterprising pear farmers, facing desperation in the Depression, concocted a plan to mail their prize du Comise pears, giant fruits with a succulent taste, to buyers in New York and San Francisco. Their first efforts met success. Today the operation mails fruits, baked goods, preserves, and candies. In a typical Christmas period their ten million catalogs bring in two million orders for more than $60 million in edibles. An industrial tour of the Harry and David operation shows the huge scale of the undertaking, which now includes both fruit packing and the shipping of Jackson and Perkins roses or other horticultural products. The Harry and David Country Store presents a cornucopia of produce and a restaurant serving creative dishes emphasizing seasonal fruits.
Southwest Oregon’s three main attractions could each be sufficient reason to explore this lesser-known travel destination. Together, combined with the region’s lovely drives, Southwest Oregon offers a spectrum of appeals.
Southwest Oregon: If You Go
Ashland actively promotes the region at http://www.ashlandchamber.com.
The state of Oregon tourism website is http://www.traveloregon.com.
An overall regional travel information source is the Southern Oregon Visitors Association at http://www.ohwy.com/or/s/sova.htm.