Mention waterfalls, and a typical Oregonian’s mind will wander to the Columbia River Gorge, where majestic Multnomah Falls is only one of more than a dozen streams that tumble from the steep cliffs on the north side of Mount Hood.
But waterfall lovers know there is a second great route in this state — the one that follows the North Umpqua River between Diamond Lake and Roseburg, southwest of Bend.
Labeled “Thundering Waters” by Umpqua National Forest, itself home to some two dozen named falls, the path extends along more than 50 miles of Oregon Highway 138 and side roads. It is climaxed by Watson Falls, at 293 feet the state’s third tallest, and includes spectacular Toketee Falls, a short drive (or longer hike) from a popular hot springs.
And this waterfall route is only one of several reasons to make the four-hour drive from Bend to Roseburg, a city of 23,000 at the hub of the Umpqua Valley region. Besides the natural beauty of its nearby forests, this historic lumber town has seen a recent revival with the growth of its wine industry and the tourist-luring success of the Wildlife Safari park in suburban Winston.
The town’s revitalization isn’t complete, and franchise motels are stacked near Interstate 5 interchanges. But amidst the boarded up storefronts on Main Street, Jackson Street and other downtown arterials, outstanding new restaurants are serving gourmet meals with Umpqua Valley wines and Oregon craft beers. And a perceptive museum of natural and cultural history stands south of town, beside the Douglas County Fairgrounds.
Wildlife Safari isn’t a new attraction. In fact, it’s been around since 1972. The 600-acre park is the Northwest’s nearest equivalent to the famed San Diego Wild Animal Park, and like its counterpart, its first purpose is education and sanctuary — supported by public visits.
“In fact, it’s an extremely endangered collection,” said marketing director Jacob Schlueter, who accompanied me and photographer Barb Gonzalez on a 90-minute tour of the refuge.
The highlight of Wildlife Safari may be its cheetah breeding program, which Schuleter described as “the No. 2 breeding center on earth.” The park has set aside 30 acres outside of its exhibit areas with terrain that mimics the savanna of the cats’ native sub-Saharan Africa. Open, grassy plains and a natural stream through forested groves allow the park’s 21 cheetahs a largely stress-free environment to choose a mate.
This is important, Schlueter said, because fewer than 10,000 cheetahs remain in the wild. Wildlife Safari’s program is an integral part of the national Species Survival Plan. Since 1973, more than 170 cheetahs have been born here and sent to zoos throughout the country. The ultimate goal, said our host, is to find perfect genetic matches to reintroduce into the wild.
Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animals, capable of sprinting up to 70 miles per hour. While there is rarely a reason to run that fast in Oregon, Wildlife Safari does encourage the cats to run in special chain-link corridors. Visitors may be introduced to a few cheetahs at a time within a drive-through compound.
There are two ways to visit Wildlife Safari. Drive-through visitors may either remain in their own vehicles or climb aboard a shuttle for a narrated tour. Lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants, hippopotamuses, white rhinoceroses, elands, zebras, ostriches, grizzly bears and many other species from six continents have grown accustomed to the intrusions, which they largely ignore.
Equally enjoyable is a walk through The Village, more akin to a traditional zoo. From the area for flamingos and other exotic birds near the entrance, to the children’s petting zoo against a fence, The Village pleases the whole family. Tamarins and tortoises, wallaroos and capybaras, lemurs and hornbills are among its denizens.
Wildlife Safari was founded by businessman Frank Roland Hart, who had become enamored with African wildlife during dozens of trips to that continent. He made a commitment to conservation, and in 1986, Wildlife Safari was fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Today it attracts 150,000 visitors a year.
While it’s the Willamette Valley that is best known as a wine region in Oregon, mainly for its world-renowned pinot noirs, the Umpqua Valley’s two dozen wineries have earned increasing recognition. Here, with a climate of warm summer days but cool springs and autumns, they grow a much wider variety of wine grapes than the Willamette.
Abacela, located just over the hills from Wildlife Safari near Winston, is a recognized leader in its production of Spanish-style wines, including tempranillo, a medium-bodied red, and albariño, a fruity but dry white.
But red-wine drinkers can also find cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, zinfandel, malbec, cabernet franc, grenache, dolcetto, barbera and sangiovese at various Umpqua wineries. Pinot noir is produced as well, of course, along with two lesser-known, cold-hardy hybrid grapes, baco noir and Marechal Foch.
White-wine lovers will enjoy riesling. gewürztraminer, chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, viognier, gruner veltliner, semillon, muscat and roussanne.
Farmers have been growing grapes in the Umpqua Valley since they were planted by German immigrants in the 1880s. The Prohibition era largely extinguished the industry through the 1920s. Then, in 1961, a young man named Richard Sommer — acting against the advice of his University of California-Davis professors — planted the 36-acre Hillcrest Vineyard on an old turkey farm west of Roseburg.
Hillcrest was joined in 1971 by Girardet Wines and in 1972 by the Henry Estate. Today more than 30 vineyards (the number is growing) source grapes for the booming industry. The Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association works with all of the valley’s wineries, while the Southern Oregon Wine Institute, at Umpqua Community College, was established in 2008 as the state’s first viticulture program outside of the Willamette Valley.
I’m a big fan of Abacela, whose vineyards straddle an ancient fault line where the Klamath Mountains collided with the Coast Range. It was founded in 1992 by former medical-school professor H. Earl Jones. By 1998, Abacela had produced a Spanish-style red that became the first American tempranillo ever to win a gold in an international wine show.
Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, established in 2001, produce nearly a dozen estate-grown wines, including the first gruner veltliner (a dry and spicy Austrian white wine) to be commercially released in the United States. It has won multiple platinum awards. The tasting experience at Reustle is exceptional: In a series of three Christian-themed wine caves, a series of small plates are carefully paired with a variety of wines.
Like most of the valley’s wineries, the Cooper Ridge Vineyard is a family operation, named for Robin and Lesa Ray’s son, Cooper, now a high school student. Founded in 2008, the small-production winery has a beautiful new tasting room on a hillside near the confluence of the South and North Umpqua forks. And its guest quarters, available for nightly rental by one couple or two, is a spectacular space, overlooking its acres of vineyards.
Reustle also has a guest cottage for rent, as does Delfino Vineyards, whose 60 acres include a Tuscan-themed tasting room.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Crater Lake National Park to appreciate what’s special about the Rogue-Umpqua National Scenic Byway.
In fact, the first 80 miles — on State Highway 138 from Roseburg to Diamond Lake — are as memorable as any drive in Oregon.
The scenic beauty begins in earnest at Glide, a gateway community of 1,800 about 17 miles northeast of Roseburg. Here, the turbulent Little River descends in a rush of whitewater to meet the North Umpqua beneath a viewpoint for the Colliding Rivers.
Then you’re on the Waterfall Route. Between Mileposts 22 and 70, you’ll be directed by roadside signs to Deadline, Susan Creek, Fall Creek, Toketee, Watson, Whitehorse and Clearwater falls, to name a few. A fine resource for this drive is the 24-page “Thundering Waters” brochure, available from Umpqua National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management, or visitor centers throughout the Roseburg area.
The North Umpqua is a designated “national wild and scenic river,” and Deadline Falls is one that demonstrates why. Short but powerful, it is one of the best places on the river to watch spawning salmon and steelhead trout leaping the rapids on their upstream journeys. They are mainly active between May and October, but the quarter-mile trail from Milepost 22 is a pleasant hike any time.
The ¾-mile trail into Susan Creek Falls, beginning at Milepost 28, is a great family hike. For one, it’s a gentle climb, blacktopped for accessibility; for another, it is flanked by a series of interpretive signs that identify the native foliage, from thigh-high ferns and salal to towering firs, yews, cedars and maples. The trail ends at a fairy-like fan waterfall that tumbles 50 feet over rock cliffs painted with moss.
At Milepost 32, a one-mile trail leads through a narrow bedrock crevice to Fall Creek Falls, a double falls with tiers of 35 and 50 feet. This trail has some moderately steep sections.
A favorite hike
My personal favorite is the walk into Toketee Falls. Between Mileposts 59 and 60, keep an eye open for a paved road on the left, toward the Umpqua Hot Springs. (The road turns to grated dirt before you reach these rustic springs, about four miles in.) Keep to the left about a quarter-mile off Highway 138 to reach a parking area for the falls.
A well-maintained trail leads 0.4 mile through old-growth forest to a viewpoint over Toketee Falls. More than 200 steps, more down than up, lead to a sturdy deck from which to see an upper plunge of 40 feet that gives way to a lower plummet of 80 feet over a sheer wall of volcanic basalt. The trail yields occasional spectacular views of the North Umpqua as it passes through a narrow rock gorge.
Watson Falls — the highest in southwestern Oregon, and the third highest in the state — may be reached by a turnoff just a mile beyond Toketee. A Forest Service road leads to a large parking area with a trailhead for a relatively steep 0.4-mile trail. This crosses a wooden bridge to a resting bench with an impressive view of the 293-foot falls, again descending from a basaltic lava flow.
Two smaller falls are easily visited from campgrounds at Mileposts 66 (Whitehorse Falls) and 69½ (Clearwater Falls). The former is a 15-foot punchbowl falls with an accessible overlook, the latter a segmented falls 400 feet from the campground.
Connecting each of these cataracts is the North Umpqua Trail, which extends 79 miles from Deadline Falls to Maidu Lake, in the Mount Thielsen Wilderness overlooking Diamond Lake. It can be hiked in 11 segments, each of which may be easily reached from Highway 138.
A wonderful place to dine or to overnight along the Waterfall Route is the Steamboat Inn, at Milepost 38½, between Fall Creek and Toketee falls. There has been a resort here since the mid-1930s, when author Zane Grey, a keen fisherman, began camping nearby.
The original North Umpqua Lodge became the Steamboat Inn in 1957. Purchased six months ago by a Eugene couple, Travis and Melinda Woodward, the 23-acre resort now offers three meals every day and 19 guest units on both sides of the river.
Roseburg itself was established in 1853, as Deer Creek, and renamed Roseburg (after founder Aaron Rose) four years later. The town grew after it became the terminus of the railroad from Portland in 1872, making it a shipping hub for the lumber and mining industries of Southern Oregon.
Many of its early historical buildings, were destroyed by what has become known as the Roseburg Blast, one of the deadliest disasters in Oregon history. Early on Aug. 7, 1959, a building-supply store fire ignited a parked truck filled with dynamite and ammonium nitrate. The resulting explosion leveled 12 city blocks, killed 14 people and left a crater 52 feet wide and 12 feet deep. More than 300 businesses within a 30-block radius suffered damage.
The urban center, of course, has been rebuilt and revitalized, notably with several fine restaurants. But the city’s only national historic district, the Mill Street/Pine Street Neighborhood, stands outside the original hub.
Roseburg’s outstanding Douglas County Museum of Natural and Cultural History stands beside the fairgrounds on the south side of town. A family-friendly facility with numerous hands-on exhibits, especially including a section on the logging heritage, it features extensive displays on Native Americans, pioneer immigrants, and early farm and transportation equipment — including the original Oregon & California Railroad station.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at email@example.com .