A trip to south central Oregon is a dream vacation full of snowcapped volcanos, majestic waterfalls, alpine lakes and one of America’s most spectacular National Parks.
But you need to plan ahead because you are about to leave every shred of civilization behind.
Mother Nature’s Violence Creates Beauty
Every part of the landscape here has been shaped by volcanic activity deep under the earth’s surface.
Every rock, cliff, mountain and waterfall is a leftover remnant of volcanic eruptions through the millennia.
In fact, Oregon’s most spectacular sight, Crater Lake, was born 7700 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted in a massive volcanic explosion. The resulting six mile wide caldera filled up with rain water and snowmelt, creating one of the most beautiful sights in North America.
Travelers from all over the world now come to this remote section of Oregon to stand on the rim of this ancient volcano and stare at the brilliant blue waters 1500 feet below and drive the 33 miles of sublime beauty around Rim Road.
But you can do so much more than just drive and stare. Be sure to leave your car and the congested scenic overlooks and walk through this otherworldly landscape.
On a recent trip to Crater Lake National Park my wife and I took three hikes. The first was a short loop around Sun Notch with views of “Shipwreck Rock,” a volcanic remnant jutting up out of the water.
The second was a short but hot, dusty, sunny hike straight up to a fire lookout at Watchman Peak – the highest perch in the park at 8,000 feet offering a view of the entire lake.
The “Wizard of Awe”
But our favorite hike was the Discovery Point trail extending north from the visitors center – an easy stroll through the pines along the rim of the caldera with views straight down the cliffs to the lake below, and Wizard Island, the remnant of the volcanic cone that’s shaped like a wizard’s hat poking out above the lake’s surface.
But south central Oregon is more than just Crater Lake. Be sure to tack on another day or two to explore the Cascade Lakes, a series of scenic lakes whose glassy surfaces reflect the Cascade Mountains that tower above.
We spent another full day driving through the Umpqua National Forest, including a few short hikes to some of the Pacific Northwest’s most majestic waterfalls – Watson Falls, Toketee Falls, and Falls Creek Falls.
That’s a Big Rabbit
We capped off the day with a view of the Rogue River Gorge and a ten mile bumpy dirt road drive up to the “Rabbit Ears,” two mammoth volcanic outcrops towering over the surrounding National Forest.
But while the sights in south central Oregon are fantastic, you need to keep in mind they are also in the proverbial “middle of nowhere.”
You will find virtually no restaurants, no grocery stores, no fast food, no convenience stores, no gas stations, no cell phone reception. And no hotels.
You are now Leaving Civilization
I kept asking, “Where do people who live here eat?”
But the fact is, people DON’T live here. The land is surrounded by National Forest and Parkland.
Perfect for social distancing.
Not perfect if you are hungry — or tired and looking for a place to spend the night.
Camping is a popular option. There are plenty of campgrounds in the area, although I am sure spots fill up quickly.
If you aren’t into roughing it, your options are extremely limited. Crater Lake Lodge offers some pricey rooms with a view. But good luck booking a reservation. I think you need to be personal friends with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to score a room. The rustic lodge, owned and operated by the National Park Service, fills up months or years in advance.
Your only other option is to stay in one of the cities such as Klamath Falls, Bend, or Medford surrounding Crater Lake and drive the two hours plus from civilization.
Or if, like me, you want to stay close by and be one of the first tourists in the park, then Whispering Pines Motel at the intersection of Routes 97 & 138 is about your only option.
The location, 15 minutes from the North Entrance of Crater Lake National Park is ideal, especially considering rooms are just $60 per night. That’s the good news.
The bad news?
It’s a $60 per night motel. This isn’t the Ritz Carlton.
My expectations were low. I knew from the reviews there was no air conditioning and few modern amenities but I was hoping for one of those retro-charming roadside motels of yesteryear.
It’s Retro Alright
The Whispering Pines definitely gets the retro part right. But charm?
Umm. Not so much.
Unless you are blessed with an extremely low maintenance spouse, you will probably get some complaints like I did.
But the sheets and towels seemed to be clean.
Following a long day of hiking the waterfalls throughout Umpqua National Forest, maybe I did finally find a bit of charm in sitting on the plastic chairs outside my room drinking a local craft IPA under the yellow bug-stained florescent lights of the Whispering Pines Motel.
And did I mention it was just $60 per night?
Pack a Lunch
Finding a place to eat, however, is even more challenging than finding a place to sleep, especially during a pandemic. I suggest stocking up on sandwiches and snacks before leaving civilization.
But there are a few hidden gems if you know where to find them.
Our best meal of the trip by far was a lunch under the Douglas Fir trees along the North Umpqua River at the Steamboat Inn.
A rustic lodge for salmon fishermen, you know the fish is fresh.
Eat where the Fishermen Eat
Smoked Steelhead Salmon Dip was a great way to kick off lunch.
Despite being about as far from Little Havana as you can get in the Lower 48, the Cuban sandwich seemed to be a specialty of the house. It was spectacular with high end cheese and pork you won’t find in the most authentic Cuban restaurant in Miami.
My green chili cheeseburger was a dripping, juicy delicious mess accompanied by house specialty, “Steamboat Potatoes.”
Little did we know at the time, but that would be our last meal for the next 36 hours because every restaurant we planned to eat at (after extensive research online) was closed when we got there (despite assurances online that they were open).
Welcome to the Downside of Traveling during a Global Pandemic
After a short stop at the Rogue River Gorge, I had planned dinner at Beckie’s Café next door. But when we got there, we discovered the restaurant was doing take-out only — and had an hour wait for food.
No thanks. We went back to the Whispering Pines Motel and ate cookies and trail mix.
The next morning, there was nothing open for breakfast.
Then my planned lunch spot, Annie Creek Restaurant at the south entrance to Crater Lake National Park, was also closed despite saying on its website it was open. The Crater Lake Lodge was refusing meal service to anyone except Lodge guests. So we ate ice cream and almonds.
36 hours after our great meal in Steamboat, we finally made it back to civilization in Klamath Falls — and ordered a pizza.
Trust me. Civilization never tasted so good.