written by Jennifer Margulis | photo by Nikita Lee
Most people think of Medford as a gateway city to access Crater Lake to the northeast, the historic gold-mining town of Jacksonville to the southwest, and the theater-lovers’ paradise of Ashland to the south. But this city of 78,000 residents is starting to come into its own as a destination, not just a place to stay. The historic Holly Theater is being restored downtown, spearheaded by actor and comedian Jim Belushi (who recently moved to the area). City placards lining Pear Blossom Park downtown encourage visitors to “Eat local, stay local, play local.” Good advice, as a crop of excellent new restaurants, locally owned wineries and other businesses are now making that possible.
Medford has antique stores where you can find everything from Lewis and Clark trading beads adorned with real bear claws to kitschy Star Trek Dr. Spock figurines. People come from all over the region to shop at the Rogue Valley Mall. If that’s not enough, Medford has another new claim to fame: The city is now home to Oregon’s first and only In-N-Out Burger joint.
Medford is a city of contradictions. Gorgeous hikes are just minutes away from ugly sprawl. Foodie restaurants bump up against fast food joints. An eighteen-mile biking path, Bear Creek Greenway, is a draw—but there is no shop that rents bicycles. Though it faces challenges in attracting visitors in ways its neighboring towns don’t, Medford has more to offer than you would expect.
A hundred years ago, Medford was an agricultural town of comice pears, apple orchards and pioneers. It is still home to luxury fruit giant Harry & David (though it’s no longer locally owned), which offers the curious visitor $5 guided tours. A small van drove a dozen of us alongside the orchards as a multimedia video explained how what was once a muddy railroad town in the late 1880s became a thriving city. Fall is the perfect time to take this hour-long factory tour, which includes a behind-the-scenes look at Harry & David’s massive facility. We watched busy workers packing colorful Christmas baskets and dropped far too much money on Moose Munch and gifts at the factory outlet.
Despite all of the free samples, the family was hungry. In-N-Out Burger—a national chain—is a hotspot with locals right now, but the real place to eat lunch in Medford is Jasper’s, a hole-in-the-wall renowned for its friendly service. Owner John Lenz joked that he’s just the guy who takes out the trash and then told me in a low tone that the camel and kangaroo were flown in yesterday. Jasper’s also serves elk, venison and wild boar. Kanga was my favorite stuffed animal growing up so kangaroo was out, but I dared to try the camel. It was rich and juicy, with a flavor not unlike beef, and was cooked to perfection. The only problem is the view: we sat outside facing old Highway 99, and cars and trucks rattled our table as they zoomed past. Though the noise drowned out the sounds of my children fighting, I’m sorry we weren’t able to snag a bench seat inside. (They were full. Jasper’s is always packed.) Go there for the emu, not the ambiance.
For exercise, we drove to Lower Table Rock, for a three-and-a-half-mile, moderately difficult roundtrip hike that is worth every footfall. At the top, we had 360-degree views of the valley below dotted with green, and mountains mottled with the color of clay. If you’re traveling with small children, Upper Table Rock is an easier climb.
We headed back to our hotel, Inn at the Commons, which is convenient to everything and home to one of Medford’s most outstanding restaurants, Lark’s. This highend, locally-owned foodie mecca has a space-age metal and white-leather dining area, which is punctuated by 1970s chandeliers and plants that stretch all the way to the ceiling. The eggplant crêpes with heirloom tomatoes are the perfect appetizer, and the adobo chicken melted in my mouth. My husband ordered the salmon special, which was equally delicious.
You can get surprisingly close to local fauna on a guided tour at Wildlife Images Rehabilitation and Education Center, about a forty minute drive north of Medford. On your way out of town, pick up a micro-roasted artisan coffee at Limestone Coffee Company. The atmosphere will make you want to stick around, but there are animals to go see.
Southern Oregon is home to mountain lions, black bears, and badgers, as well as peregrine falcons, bald eagles, ravens, vultures and a host of other wildlife. Animals that are too sick, injured, or intent on socializing with humans take up permanent residence here. Others go back in the wild. We learned that turkey vultures can projectile vomit up to four inches to scare off predators. We had a close encounter with a thirteen-pound golden eagle named Duchess, who perched on the arm of a handler. I’d never seen an Alaskan grizzly bear before that day, or been within smelling distance of a gray wolf. The animals are behind sturdy fences, but it is still a bit invigorating to be that close to predators. My children especially liked the fist-sized scorpion and tarantula that live in cages in the gift shop. I preferred the African sacred ibises and sand hill cranes.
Back in Medford, I poked my head into Downtown Market Company, which has a small dining area and back patio. Though this place gets rave reviews, it’s just a little too intimate for our noisy group, so we opted for the locally-owned, ear-splitting and family-friendly Kaleidoscope Pizzeria instead. Its top seller is the Avalanche, which has blackened chicken, bacon and Tillamook cheddar cheese. We tried the Kalua Pork, with teriyaki pork, red onions and fresh pineapple. Another win on the Medford foodie scoreboard.
We did not buy tickets in advance, so we hurried to Randall Theater, which is within walking distance from our hotel. The theater is another hole-in-the-wall—this time in an abandoned warehouse. This community theater has pay-what-you-will seats ($15 suggested donation) and seats on a comfortable couch in the front that are raffled off before every performance. We didn’t win the raffle, but every seat in the house in this small theater is good. My husband was skeptical about coming here, and the outside is nothing to look at, but we all laughed to tears at the production of a slapstick spoof on British comedy called Bullshot Crummond . Even my 5-year-old enjoyed the performance.
The people in the theater couldn’t be nicer. Overhearing us talking about being thirsty from sprinting to the performance, they brought us cups of water. My kids were in heaven at intermission when they discovered that the doughnuts cost only fifty cents apiece. I couldn’t wait for the next performance.
On our final day, we drove twelve miles north to Eagle Point and the 1872 Butte Creek Mill. This historic site houses the only gristmill still in operation in Oregon. Owner Bob Russell, whom you are likely to meet any day of the week (he said there’s no place else he’d rather be), explained how the contraptions work as freshly ground corn shoots into a sifter while another kind of flour pours into a twenty-five-pound bag in the threshing room. It’s all belts and pulleys and clanging. The mill produces more than 280,000 pounds of flour, pancake, and cornbread mixes a year, mostly sold to stores from Ashland to Grants Pass, but the products are also available in specialty shops on the East Coast. We couldn’t leave without buying some Wacky Jacky cake mix (a whole wheat cake mix) and Better Beer Batter Bread (a quick bread made with a bottle of beer).
On the way back from Eagle Point, we stopped at Front Street (Exit 33) in Central Point to visit the Lille Belle Chocolate Factory tasting room, the Rogue Creamery and local winery Ledger David’s tasting room. Not well-kept secrets, all three artisanal spots are usually packed with tourists. Chocolate-covered bacon bars and lavender chocolate caramels sprinkled with sea salt were our Lille Belle favorites. (Beware of the spicy chocolate—it will burn a hole through your tongue.) Samples abound at Rogue Creamery’s factory outlet, which sells squid ink pasta, wasabi crackers and fancy salami, in addition to its artisan cheeses. Don’t leave without sampling the award-winning blue cheese. Our kids sat outside on picnic tables and nibbled crackers while we lingered over a flight of wine at Ledger David, a mom-and-pop winery that is making some of the best wine in a valley full of excellent wineries. (RoxyAnn winery is another tasting room not to be missed.)
The kids were stir-crazy from driving, so we considered the Rogue Valley Zipline Adventure, an adrenaline rush with a vantage point that highlights Crater Lake Rim, Mt. Mcloughlin and Table Rocks. We weren’t sure that our youngest was quite old enough to appreciate the view, so we hit the down-to-earth Rogue Air Trampoline Park back in Medford. Bright red couches and chairs beckon grown-ups as kids jump their hearts out in five trampoline bays, which include dodgeball and basketball courts. The “Space Simulator” has angled trampolines on the sides so you can experience weightlessness. There was a forty-something dad jumping, who looked like he was having a blast.
For dinner, we splurged at Porter’s, where once stood a 1910 train passenger depot. The original radiators still heat the building and replicas of a 1914 chandelier light the place. I had to try the Columbia River king salmon with fennel seed compote. This is Medford: historic but forward-thinking, gruff but friendly, down-to-earth but fancy and always delicious.