Highway 199 from Grants Pass to the California border is perhaps the most surprising stretch of road in the state. This storied passage was once the pack route for gold speculators, who came through the Illinois Valley to pan for gold in Josephine Creek and then move on to California. After gold miners left and the railroad route went east through Klamath Falls, the Oregon Caves became the last chance for tourist attraction in the area. In 1922, pranksters from Grants Pass went so far as to establish the Realm of the Cavemen, which consisted of locals dressed in gunny sacks toting bones and clubs. These primitives made visiting dignitaries such as Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan a bit uneasy with their humorous inability to comprehend civilized behavior.
Oregon Caves National Monument
While hunting a bear in 1874, Elijah Davidson followed his dog, Bruno, into the caves and made an spectacular discovery outside of what is today Cave Junction. The Oregon Caves—marble caves formed from re-crystallized limestone—are one of just a few National Monuments in the state. The hour-and-a-half tour of the stalactites is well worth any Southern Oregon vacation and a must for budding geologists. The last tour on summer weekend days is done by candlelight, as it had been decades ago.
Everything is just as it was in the 1930s at the adjacent Chateau at Oregon Caves National Monument. Locally built and locally sourced, the 76-year-old chateau is a monument to artistry and craftsmanship. Unlike most grand lodges of the era which were designed by pedigreed architects, the chateau was designed by Gust Lium, a local contractor with a quiver of creativity.
The exterior cedar bark is the original from nearby Port Orford, the furniture was custom built by a local manufacturer and the long-counter coffee shop hasn’t changed a lick since it was completed in 1937. The chateau continues its local and sustainable habits to this day. The restaurant buys its produce from farmers in the Illinois Valley, gets its bison from nearby bison ranchers and serves wines from the Illinois and Rogue valleys.
John Wayne was believed to have taken kindly to Oregon after his 1975 film, Rooster Cogburn (co-starring Katherine Hepburn), which was shot in Josephine County, on the Rogue and in Central Oregon. His likeness now confronts visitors at the Deer Creek Ranch, which The Duke co-owned, outside of Selma. Today the ranch has been converted into the Siskiyou Field Research and Education Center owned by Southern Oregon University.
The small warren of Grants Pass along the Rogue River is one of six Oregon cities that has won National Civic League’s annual All-America City Award since its inception in 1949. The eighteen-foot fiberglass caveman sculpture at the corner of Sixth Street and Morgan Lane was not enough to discourage the civic league’s judgment.
Dairy farmers and brothers, Travis and Dane Boersma, started the first Dutch Bros. Coffee kiosk in downtown Grants Pass in 1992. Today the vaunted drive-thru gourmet coffee stands number more than 150 throughout the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and Arizona.
Going Out on a Limb
An 18-unit resort of spartan to luxury treehouses are part of Out ‘n’ About Treehouse Treesort in Takilma, just 10 miles north of the California border and five miles east of 199. There are seven swinging bridges, zip-lines, a river-fed swimming pool and horseback eco tours through the adjacent Siskiyou National Forest. (treehouses.com)
With a collection of lions, and leopards, and tigers, and lynx on ten acres in Great Cats World Park, this unexpected attraction in Cave Junction brings an unusual end to your Highway 199 ramble.