A town built around a dog’s discovery
written by James Sinks
Is it southwest Oregon’s Redwood Highway into Cave Junction, or are you following the yellow brick road? Maybe both.
The ribbon of asphalt meanders through odd foliage to whimsical art and mystical creatures (and real lions), to where houses float above the ground, to fields of intoxicating flowers, and to where you can gain plenty of courage (at least, the liquid sort). No munchkins—true—but plenty to munch on.
And while you won’t find Toto, Dorothy’s trusty companion in The Wizard of Oz, the community owes much to a different famous dog, Bruno.
In 1874, Bruno and a hunter named Elijah Davidson were tracking a bear when the dog disappeared behind underbrush. Davidson followed and found himself in the stunning crystallized caverns that now anchor the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.
Today tens of thousands of visitors annually roam those same passages to chambers such as the cathedral-like Ghost Room. Designated by President William Howard Taft in 1909 and expanded to include more surrounding acreage in 2014, the magical place—one of just three marble caverns in the National Park system—is a regular waypoint for natural wonder-seeking travelers between the redwoods and Crater Lake.
The caves welcome people from late-March to October and sleepy bats come winter.
Before Bruno’s discovery, indigenous Takelma tribes might have known about the caverns, but any oral history didn’t survive combative European settlers and smallpox, said longtime park ranger George Herring, who leads the monument’s education programs.
Incorporated in 1948 where the Redwood and Caves highways meet, Cave Junction has ridden the boom-bust cycles of the mining and timber industries and is now a cannabis-cultivating capital. Some of the farms are even legal. Meanwhile, to keep piquing tourists’ interest, local businesses are always brainstorming, said Ben Filip, who owns Bruno’s Cavern tavern downtown.
“Lots of places in Oregon have rivers and outdoor activities, like we do, but other places don’t have caves,” he said.
Roughly 2,000 people live in the city, but not in that number is Bigfoot, rumored to reside nearby. If you don’t bump into the hairy beast, you can still snap a selfie with a 7-foot-tall wooden statue at a Bigfoot-themed shopping plaza. Also, grab cones at Yeti’s Ice Cream & Treats before heading to see some lions, tigers and ziplines.
GETTING OUTDOORS • WOODWORKING • TREEHOUSES
From the four-stoplight community, there’s adventure in pretty much any direction. In other words: You win, no matter what.
Travel-weary legs will appreciate stretching at Illinois River Forks State Park, where you can fling discs on the well-maintained frisbee golf course. The sometimes bouncy and always scenic Illinois, which carves a course northward to the Rogue River, helped to shape the valley but it’s not for the meek. With 150 rapids including a doozy of a Class V, running the lower section takes guile, experience and permits.
(Why Illinois? The Oregon river got its (other) stately name because folks from the Prairie State were among the earliest to arrive for the lucrative 1850s gold rush.)
Looking for a first-day view? From Bolan Lake, twenty-five curvy minutes south, a moderately challenging 3.4-mile out-and-back hike leads to a former fire lookout, which burned in 2020. In late spring and early summer, you’ll trek among rainbows of blooms, and on clear days you’ll see the Pacific.
A less-sweaty-but-also-visually-appealing climb awaits at It’s a Burl, an art gallery and woodworking collective in Kerby, a former mining town and onetime Josephine County seat. Admire hundreds of funky carvings, from furniture to wine stoppers to carousel horses, hewn from more than a dozen species. Outside, ascend twisting staircases onto tree platforms overlooking the highway.
Michael Garnier didn’t fashion himself a pioneer when the midwest Vietnam War veteran moved near Cave Junction, a half century ago. That changed after he bought property with a giant oak, and pondered putting up a treehouse. The idea morphed into a bed-and-breakfast in the limbs—and turned him into an inventor of special treehouse-holding bolts.
Government inspectors weren’t initially thrilled, and it took years to gain clearance for aerial overnight lodging (during which time people could famously stay if they bought a $100 t-shirt). “The controversy might have helped,” said Garnier, smiling under a bottlebrush mustache.
Today, several treehouses are available to rent across the valley. At Garnier’s eclectic Out ‘N’ About Treehouse Treesort, you’ll find sixteen legal and unique units—five with bathrooms and some connected with hanging walkways. The tallest is 47 feet up.
Guests and nonguests also can soar down ziplines like flying monkeys, ride a 50-foot-high Tarzan swing, or saddle up for horseback rides into the Siskiyou National Forest. The resort also books rafting trips on the Klamath River, which is tamer than the Illinois.
Finally, drink in hand and with your feet up, relax on the stone fireplace hearth at Lost Camp Bar & Grill, which recently changed its name from the G Spot bar. It’s now easier to find, and on the menu you’ll find tri-tip or pork “table nachos” for $28—named such because they’ll cover the tabletop. You may need to ask friends to share. As in, every friend you know.
BREAKFAST • CAVES • UNUSUAL PLANTS
The country roads surrounding Cave Junction are scenic and perfect for a pre-coffee jog. You’ll probably see deer and smell pot—and you’ll definitely get hungry.
Happily, the mother-daughter team of Katie Houston and Maggie Millard will dispatch caffeine and carb cravings at their charming Trillium Bakery, where the kolaches sell out quickly and the Hollandaise-happy eggs Benedict lounge on pillowy housemade English muﬃns. A hand-drawn sign says, unapologetically, “Donut hate me because I’m beautiful.”
It’s a good idea to book online in advance for Oregon Caves tours. If you haven’t, grab same-day reservations at the visitor center and gift shop in town. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for kids for a 90-minute, illuminated, half-mile tour. For mood lighting, the final tour on some days is by candlelight. And for $45, you’ll be outfitted with coveralls, helmets and lamps to prowl deeper in the 3.8-mile network of tunnels.
The marble caves aren’t just cool to see: They’re cold, a steady 44 degrees, so sweaters or jackets will best accompany your sense of wonder at how something so big and beautiful can form so slowly. It can take a thousand years for a stone stalactite to grow by one inch. And you thought it took a long time for In-N-Out to arrive in Oregon.
The caves also house the country’s only underground Wild and Scenic River. Actually more of a creek, the River Styx helped Elijah Davidson find his way out in 1874 when he ran out of matches, said Herring, the affable and informative park ranger.
Outside, you’ll find numerous hiking trails and the historic designated but currently shuttered Oregon Caves Chateau hotel. Built in 1934, it will reopen in 2024 at the soonest after major foundation work, he said.
Seven species of bats overwinter in the cave, he said, making it a “hibernacula,” which—let’s face it—sounds a tad bit creepy.
“I see. And how many vampires?” I asked.
“No vampires,” he said.
“Are you sure? Like really, really sure?”
“Well, I’ve never been attacked.”
Some actual bloodsuckers live full-time at Eight Dollar Mountain, a vantage for how the unusual geology of the Illinois Valley—the nutrient-poor soil is known as “serpentine”—means hardy, unusual and out-of-place flora, like high desert-suited pine trees. Down a plank walkway at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wayside is a bog filled with darlingtonia, a carnivorous plant that attracts and eats bugs.
Darlingtonia are also known as pitcher plants, and if that makes you thirsty for pitchers of adult beverages, options abound. Hop over to Wild River Brewing and Pizza—the first location of a family southern Oregon chain—to find an assortment of ales and IPAs, including in cans and growlers. On historic Holland Loop Road, visit a pair of wineries, Foris and Bridgeview, and sip artisan rum that’s made in a cargo container at Marble Caves Distillery. (Next door at the historic Holland Store, you can grab afternoon Doritos and handguns.)
If you end up at Bruno’s Cavern to croon karaoke, don’t miss the flavorful gnarly garlies, dough knots that will keep vampires at bay, just in case.
SMOKEJUMPERS • BIG CATS • REDWOODS
During World War II, Japanese ships off-shore sent thousands of explosive-laden balloons aloft toward the Pacific coast, with a goal of setting forests ablaze. In response, the U.S. Forest Service in 1943 opened one of the nation’s first smokejumper bases at the Illinois Valley airport.
(The only deaths on the U.S. mainland from enemy action in the war were caused by one of those balloons, which killed six civilians in Klamath County in 1945.)
Now a museum, the former Siskiyou Smokejumper headquarters shows where crews would repair their own parachutes (which presumably made them very good at sewing) and then get dropped into the backcountry to keep small, mostly lightning-caused blazes from growing.
The place shut in 1981 to save money—but the cost of fighting nearby mega-fires since, like the 2002 Biscuit Fire, challenges the notion of any savings at all, said Dan Laws, a volunteer whose father was a jumper in the 1970s.
Near the airport, winged attractions of a different sort zigzag at the Rusk Ranch Nature Center, home to a summertime butterfly pavilion and hummingbird garden. The kid-friendly place typically opens in May.
Since 2005, Great Cats World Park has given feared felines including lions, tigers, cougars and ocelots a safe place where they can sarcastically judge people, mostly passersby who hit the brakes when they see the sign out front.
The federally-licensed business isn’t a zoo, but rather a retirement and breeding facility that’s helping keep cat species—many of them threatened or worse in the wild—genetically sustainable.
Here, you can see 51 happy wildcats purr and eat snacks in sprawling, well-appointed pens. The Asian fishing cat even has a pond. How nice is it? The cougars, Kasa and Whistler, are so spoiled they won’t even eat deer. “Only beef,” said head keeper Farrah Conti.
You’ve gotten this close to the soaring redwoods of northern California, so it would be a shame to miss gaping at them. Less than an hour down Highway 199 is California’s lush Jedediah Smith State Park, with 7 percent of the planet’s remaining old growth redwoods.
Before putting the gateway to the Oregon Caves in the rear-view mirror, fill up your belly—and perhaps your cooler—at Cave Junction’s most-recommended restaurant, Taylor’s Sausage, where flavorful dogs are just the beginning. The menu is like a carnivore’s Who’s Who, and the retail fridges boast everything from bacon to steak to smoked turkeys.
The legendary family-owned company sells its sausages up and down the west coast. Long before moving here in the 1970s, Taylor’s was one of the original tenants in Hollywood’s famed farmers market in the 1930s.
Who knows, maybe even stars of The Wizard of Oz ate there.
At the end of that timeless story, as Dorothy departs the land beyond the rainbow, she remarks that there’s no place like home. Retracing your way up the Redwood Highway, it might occur to you that there’s also no place like the colorful Cave Junction.
CAVE JUNCTION, OREGON
Lost Camp Bar & Grill
Taylor’s Sausage Country Store
Wild River Brewing and Pizza Co.
Yeti’s Ice Cream & Treats
Out ‘N’ About Treehouse Treesort
Vertical Horizons Treehouses
Bigfoot Experience Room
Bolan Lake Trail #1245
Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Wayside
Great Cats World Park
Illinois River Forks State Park
It’s a Burl
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve
Rusk Ranch Nature Center
Siskiyou Smokejumper Museum