Seven secrets of southwest Oregon
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Brock Nelson kayaks the upper Applegate River.

Southwest Oregon is filled with great ideas for outdoor adventure, but where to begin? Here are seven ideas for exploring some of this area’s lesser-known destinations, whether you’re backpacking, kayaking, mountain biking or looking to kick back with a glass of wine.

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By Zach Urness

The moment you drive south of Roseburg on Interstate 5, something about Oregon changes. The Siskiyou Mountains tumble across the highway, and all at once, you've entered an undulating playground of rivers, peaks and enough wilderness to keep you busy until the rapture.

But where to begin?

From backpacking to mountain biking to kayaking, the best destinations in southwest Oregon are often hidden away. Here's a guide to experiencing the places you know but in a different way (swimming at Crater Lake), along with those a long way from the beaten path (the Siskiyou Wilderness). And OK, I cheated a little. One and a half of the "Seven Secrets" are in northwest California. But you can get there from here.


The Applegate River is without question the most overlooked stream in southern Oregon. And considering its neighbors are the world-famous Rogue and beloved Illinois, it's no wonder. But although this 51-mile tributary of the Rogue does lack the wild grandeur of its beauty-queen sisters, the Applegate does offer three attributes that make it a gem worth exploring: kayaking runs, steelhead fishing and wine, lots of wine.

The upper section of the river, above Applegate Reservoir and southwest of Medford, is home to a beautiful and entertaining Class III+ kayak run with one difficult Class V undercut that's usually portaged. Considered a perfect introduction to creek kayaking, the run follows crystal water into polished black canyons through a dripping, mossy forest. This stretch, which wanders across the California border but is accessed from Oregon, is typically paddled during winter and spring (400 to 2,000 cfs; more info click here

For those more interested in fishing, there's a strong run of winter steelhead from January to March below the reservoir that's particularly appealing to fly-anglers. And even if you strike out, Oregon 238 through the Applegate Valley is dotted with more than 18 vineyards, all happy to ease your pain.


You haven't felt the true meaning of cold until you've taken a swim in the sapphire caldron of the United States' deepest lake. Though more than 400,000 people visit Crater Lake National Park each year, few even think about plunging into water that's 1,943 feet deep, 36 degrees cold and surrounded by jagged cliffs.

For those with the requisite insanity, there are basically two options. The first is to hike down Cleetwood Cove Trail (2.2 miles round-trip, 654 feet of elevation gain), and simply dive in from the shore. The better choice, however, is to hike down the same trail, then hop on a Volcano Boat Tour and get dropped off at Wizard Island.

Passengers on the morning boat tour can reserve a half-day (three-hour) drop-off or the full-day (six-hour) by calling ahead, 888-774-2728. With the drop-off option, you can work up a sweat hiking this cinder cone island before deciding whether to dive into crystal blue water that'll leave you breathless.


The Sky Lakes Wilderness takes backpackers through glacier-carved peaks and valleys in the southern Cascades during a tour of azure lakes that features both campsites and trout.

Just one problem.

During the height of summer — July and August — these 30 major lakes are home to an almost biblical plague of mosquitoes. Instead of strapping on a mosquito net hat, explore this backpacking paradise during September and October.

Southern Oregon autumns are cool enough at night to slaughter the vast majority of pests, yet warm enough for hikers to enjoy sun-dappled afternoons in their short sleeves as they explore trails bursting with fall colors in orange, red and gold. The Blue Canyon, Seven Lakes and Mountain Lakes basins are almost devoid of people once the school year begins, giving most backpackers their pick of campsites.


Preston Peak is a monolithic slab of dark granite that towers high above northwestern California's Siskiyou Wilderness, dominating the skyline for miles around. Bagging this remote summit between Grants Pass and Crescent City, Calif., takes you into a craggy wilderness of clear streams, wildflower valleys and some of the oldest rocks in the country.

Preston Peak itself is nearly 200 million years old. And though the summit is just 7,309 feet, it stands above the surrounding mountains like an angry old man with a bottle of whiskey in hand and a loaded 12-gauge shotgun across his lap. The easiest route begins at Young's Valley Trailhead, which can be found off Redwood Highway 199. A six-mile hike leads to beautiful Raspberry Lake, which makes a good camping spot on a trip best completed during a two- or three-day backpacking trip. From the lake, it's an off-trail climb up the northwest ridge followed by an exposed Class III scramble to Preston Peak's summit.


This 100-mile ultramarathon takes runners through the rugged country of the Siskiyou Mountains on a trail course that begins in Williams and ends in Ashland. The route is not for the faint of heart, with more than 20,000 feet of climbing, three peaks taller than 7,000 feet and any number of obstacles that come with running through the wilderness at night. There are 20 aid stations along the way, 16 of which are fully stocked with trail food and liquids.

The race, in its second year, is scheduled for Sept. 17-18. Last year, 131 people started the race and 72 finished. The entry fee is $275 before Sept. 1 and $300 after. Time limit: 34 hours. See This link for more info.


Mountain biking through the Cathedral Hills Trails system satisfies the cravings of both speed and science. The network of trails, south of Grants Pass, weaves through 400 acres of sweet-smelling forest that's home to the largest knobcone pine and whiteleaf manzanita in the state. Ranging from easy to difficult, the trails offer a range of fun challenges for riders in a setting that's usually uncrowded during weekdays. The knobcone pine (117 feet tall, circumference 118 inches) is near the midpoint of Ponderosa Pine Loop. The whiteleaf manzanita (25 feet tall, 55-inch circumference) is near the junction of Cloverlawn, Hogback and Zed's Way trails.


Few things in life are better than watching the sun rise across a wild panorama of mountains from the comfort of your sleeping bag. That's the type of morning you can enjoy by renting a lookout cabin in the national forests of southern Oregon.

Typically small and primitive, lookouts can be rented for around $40 to $75 in a number of locations, from the Siskiyou to the Umpqua National Forests. A favorite is Bolan Mountain. About 30 miles southeast of Cave Junction, this cozy house of glass sits on a 5,374-foot summit with views of the Red Buttes, Siskiyou and Kalmiopsis wilderness areas. To make reservations, visit www. But be warned, the best lookouts are reserved quickly during the height of summer.


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