The geography of the West Coast is dominated by mountain cordilleras that extend from Baja, California, to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, and nowhere is this demonstrated in more stark contrast than in the region of southern Oregon. In a region long known for its secessionist proclivities—Jeffersonia, it would be called, were movements to secede from the two states it inhabits granted—visitors will discover a region that boasts some of the most remote territory in the continental U.S., full of winding mountain roads, wild rivers, intimate valleys, and the deserts to the east.
There are five national forests, one national park, a national refuge, and one fault-block mountain to explore across southern Oregon’s 370-mile border, and with the notable exception of Crater Lake, it includes some of Oregon’s least-visited places. In our minds, that’s reason enough for a road trip, and we think you’ll agree.
Whether you start in the west or the east, most of the thoroughfares in southern Oregon are north-south routes, and I-5 is the only interstate corridor in the region. Additionally, the largest and most well provisioned cities in the area are Medford and Klamath Falls. The stretch of eastern Oregon is very rural; for this reason, it’s likely best to start in the west and stock up before the longer, more remote drive east. Note that, especially because some of these areas are so remote, road conditions can vary significantly during off seasons. Rain storms can transform country roads to muck, and snow storms can close even highways completely. Always check road conditions before heading out.
At the western edge of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest where the Rogue meets the Pacific along the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor, lookouts are plentiful and generally allow easy access. It’s just a 2.5-hour drive from Gold Beach to Grants Pass, where highlights include Natural Bridges, Indian Sands, and Arch Rock, but North Island and House Rock are worth a trip as well. Be sure to stop off at one of the beaches along this stretch of the 101. Lone Ranch Beach offers a short hike at Cape Ferrelo that could easily be incorporated into a day of driving on the coast. Myers Creek Beach is also beautiful in its own right. Also, consider a short venture inland at Brookings to the Redwood Nature Trail along the Chetco River, which also boasts swimming holes and cliff diving at Elephant Rock. In the area of Grants Pass, be sure to consider stretches of the Rogue River Trail, which starts at Illahe and travels the length of the Rogue River to its outlet.
A southern Oregon road trip would not be complete without a trip to the iconic Crater Lake National Park. Take the longer, more northerly route via Highway 138 and stop at Tokatee Falls and dip into the Umpqua Hot Springs. Hikes are short at Crater Lake, so feel free to mix and match your favorites. Discovery Point and the Watchman Trail provide a stunning view of the lake, while Cleetwood Cove boasts the only access to the lake’s waters—unless you’re interested in taking a boat tour. If so, be sure to hike the summit of Wizard Island.
The terrain changes substantially in the rain shadow of the Cascades. Wet coastal forests give way to high desert, hot springs, broad grasslands, and wildlife. Summer Lake is a layover for more than 250 species of migratory birds, including ducks, geese, eagles, hawks, and swans. The Fremont Point Day Use Area provides an overlook of the lake and hiking opportunities. Be sure to check out Summer Lake Hot Springs as well, which offers cabins for overnight stays.
The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge offers some of the most remote territory in Oregon. Given its purpose, the refuge has few services, but the area hosts a rare opportunity to see pronghorn antelope and one of Oregon’s only populations of bighorn sheep. The recreation area’s four campgrounds are primitive and offered at no cost. Hart Mountain Hot Springs are within the refuge as well.
Continue on to the striking Steens Mountain, a demonstration of Oregon’s varied terrain. A word to the wise: Services are more sporadic here, so be sure to fuel up in Burns or Fields, the only two year-round gas stations in the area (service in Frenchglen is only available during the summer). Stop in Frenchglen for a meal at the Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site, and continue to the now-infamous Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is a critical area for more than 320 species of migratory birds. Diamond Craters, though it has no trail system, is one of the most diverse basaltic features in the U.S. Another option is the Alvord Desert and the Alvord Desert Hot Springs below the mountain’s eastern flank. The Pike Creek Mine Hike also begins here and offers wide views of the Alvord Desert below.
The main attraction here remains the several gorges cut by glaciers from Steens Mountain’s western flank. The Kiger Gorge Overlook showcases these striking gorges. Take advantage of the long day hikes that lead deep into the terrain, including Little Blitzen and Big Indian. No trip to Steens is complete without a visit to Wildhorse Lake—a spectacular way to finish a tour of Oregon’s southern territory.