GRANTS PASS, Ore. — One of the famous landmarks in Grants Pass is a large sign hovering over the city’s downtown proclaiming, in big white letters: “It’s the Climate.”
For the five years that I lived there, the sign was a source of much amusement because it’s not a motto exactly, but a declaration that assumes everyone driving through Grants Pass is wondering “now what it is about this place . I can’t quite put my finger on it .?”
“Oh yes! It’s the climate! Thank you gigantic sign!”
But while the silliness of promoting something as fleeting as the weather is obvious — is it still the climate when it’s raining outside? — the sign does raise one important point:
Southern Oregon’s weather is, in fact, spectacular, especially this time of year.
The sunshine arrives earlier, lasts longer and burns hotter than in the damp Willamette Valley. Allergies are less of a problem, mosquitoes are limited and the lack of humidity means even 90-degree days are comfortable.
The outdoor recreation calendar lasts from May into October, and with wild rivers, rugged mountains and great fishing, it makes a wonderful place for family vacations.
And so, with summer getaways being planned in countless family households, I present my top five family vacations in Southern Oregon. These are vacation spots that most anyone can enjoy — from children to grandparents — and include lots of easy places to play and spend the night.
5) BOLAN LAKE CAMPGROUND
Nestled deep in the Siskiyou Mountains, on the border of Oregon and California southeast of Cave Junction, sits a little-known destination of alpine lakes, trails and mountain top views.
Best known for Bolan Mountain Lookout — one of the best rentable fire lookouts in the state — the area also features a campground of 15 sites surrounding trout-stocked Bolan Lake and three excellent nearby trails.
Down the road from Bolan Campground are easy, kid-friendly trails leading to Tanner Lakes and Tanner Mountain — both in the Red Buttes Wilderness. My favorite activity was hauling an inflatable kayak a half-mile to Tanner Lake to fish for trout. On the way to or from Bolan Lake, it also makes sense to stop at nearby Oregon Caves National Monument.
If you want to rent Bolan Mountain Lookout, make sure to make reservations way ahead of time on Recreation.Gov. The area also is somewhat confusing, so make sure to stop at Wild Rivers Ranger district in Cave Junction for a good map and directions.
Best time to visit: June to September
Information: Wild Rivers Ranger district, (541) 592-4000.
4) ILLINOIS RIVER CANYON
Deep green swimming holes, sand beaches and wildflowers you can’t find anywhere else in the world populate this wild and remote canyon between Grants Pass and Cave Junction.
Explore this scenic recreation area beginning from Selma along the Illinois River Road. This semi-terrifying road winds into the spectacular, bright-orange and burned-over canyon. Trails, beaches and campsites line the road.
My favorite campsite and swimming hole is Store Gulch — though there are plenty others — while the swinging bridge at McCaleb Ranch is also nice. The best hike or backpack route is the Illinois River Trail, which features a singular collection of wildflowers and plants, including the carnivorous cobra lily above the river’s deep gorge.
Best time to visit: Spring and early summer
Info: Wild Rivers Ranger district, (541) 592-4000
3) CRATER LAKE / DIAMOND LAKE
These iconic Southern Cascade lakes attract a combined 1.5 million visitors each year, the vast majority during summer. And for good reason.
Oddly enough, Diamond Lake is the more popular of the two — especially among Oregonians — due mainly to the ability to catch rainbow trout the size of SUVs. Diamond Lake Resort is the hub — they rent boats, sell equipment and offer lodging — but the area also has campsites. Mount Thielsen and Bailey surround the lake and adventure-seekers can follow trails up both.
Crater Lake, of course, is home to the state’s only national park. My favorite activity is taking the boat tour to Wizard Island, hiking the cinder cone island’s summit and celebrating with a quick swim in the United States’ deepest lake.
Two of the best hikes are Mount Scott and Garfield Peak. Celebrate with dinner and drinks at the lodge. Since nights at the lodge are pricy, consider camping or staying at Union Creek Resort (where you can access both Crater and Diamond lakes).
Best time to visit: Mid-June to September
Info: Crater Lake National Park (541) 594-3000); Diamond Lake Resort (541) 793-3333)
2) APPLEGATE VALLEY
In a landscape of iconic rivers, the Applegate has traditionally played third-fiddle to the Rogue and Illinois.
That being said, for a vacation that features local wine, summer music and lots of hiking, biking, boating and fishing options, the Applegate Valley is tough to beat.
Let’s start with Applegate Reservoir — a warmer and less crowded version of Detroit Reservoir. It’s great for fishing, boating, mountain biking and hiking. Nice campsites nearby include Cantrall Buckley and Jackson, both along the river. Applegate Lodge is a nice place to spend the night (if not in a tent or camper).
A total of 19 wineries populate Highway 238 through the Applegate Valley — between Grants Pass and Ruch — and for nighttime entertainment, head to the historic (and touristy) town of Jacksonville
More wild recreation options can be found nearby in the Red Buttes Wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail and the Middle Fork Applegate Trail.
Best time to visit: May to September
Info: Star Ranger district, (541) 899-3800
1) ROGUE RIVER
You could pick anywhere along this 217-mile stream and not go wrong, but for our top vacation pick of Southern Oregon, I’m referring to the Rogue River’s recreation section near Merlin and Galice.
Spend hot summer days floating through fun, splash-and-giggle Class I and II rapids between Hellgate Canyon and Grave Creek Boat landing. Put your fishing line in the water for trout, steelhead and chinook salmon.
Enjoy dinner at Galice Resort, sitting on an outdoor deck over the river where music often plays. Take an evening stroll on Rainie Falls Trail to a spot where salmon jump in late August and September.
For civilized lodging on the river, try the Double Tree Ranch, Galice Resort, Morrison’s Lodge or Riverhouse Camp Lodge. For camping, my favorite spots are Indian Mary and Almeda, but there are many others.
Numerous outfitters in the Rogue Valley offer guided trips and boat rentals.
Best time to visit: June to September
Info: Smullin Visitor Center (541-479-3735)