written by Kevin Max | photos by Ezra Marcos
Throughout the history of Grants Pass, or Perkinsville as it was first called, slogans have spanned downtown archways. “Mines Timber” led to “We Grow Best Fruit” and “Finest Climate.” Finally, in the 1920s, “It’s the Climate” stretched across Sixth Street and remains today.
Gold found in the area was an early catalyst for growth. Tracks for the Oregon & California Railroad reached Grants Pass in 1883, bringing a viable chance of survival after the luster of gold faded in Southern Oregon.
Now, two years after an amazing experience floating the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River with Rogue Wilderness Adventures, my family and I return to its banks for three days of exploration.
It’s late on a Wednesday morning, and Ma Mosa’s is standing-room only. The wait staff at the small, brick, farm-to-table café is buzzing between its six tables and two counters, delivering bacon pancakes, rice and coconut milk porridge, and omelets with farm-fresh spinach, carrots and leeks.
The two-year-old restaurant has all the ingredients for an instant classic on the locavore scene—produce from farms in the surrounding Rogue and Applegate valleys, a commitment to GMO-free food, growler fills for local brews and al fresco seating for summer guests.
After a pleasant feeding frenzy at Ma Mosa’s, we stroll the streets of downtown Grants Pass. Behind the windows announcing new shops, restaurants and pubs is a sense of awakening. There’s an old-fashioned soda fountain, clothing shops for classically draped women, and Never a Bum Steer for leather, jewelry and hilariously bawdy messages on cards and stickers.
A couple of blocks over on 4th Street is The Closet Catalyst, a hip clothing exchange run by Crystal Stoberg, 27—a further sign of an emerging downtown renaissance. The clothing exchange shop opened in 2012. Stoberg and her husband saw Grants Pass’ downtown as a diamond-in-the-rough opportunity. “It seemed like this little town was in for a renewal, and we wanted to be a part of that,” says Stoberg.
My wife, Sarah, scores a beautifully made leather jacket. I find a whiskey decanter sitting atop a high shelf. Our eleven-year-old daughters, Fiona and Isabel, are getting restless and ready for something more challenging than walking from store to store.
We check in at The Lodge at Riverside, a cozy hotel with a pool and hot tub overlooking the Rogue, and suit up for a simultaneous bike ride and trail run with the girls at Cathedral Hills Trails. Cathedral Hills is a 400-acre forest just south of town with Douglas fir, pine and a floor festooned in wildflowers.
At this stage of family life, we’ve found that throwing the kids on their bikes while we run behind is an effective all-in-one workout. An hour usually does the trick. Exercise is a massage for the brain before a jaunt out to vineyards in the Applegate Valley.
I know a day has only twenty-five hours, but if you use them wisely, you can slip in a quick trip to Southern Oregon wine country. Take 238 to Applegate. Just south of town, along the Applegate River, are more than a dozen wineries along the Applegate Valley Wine Trail. Schmidt Family Vineyards has beautiful estate reds that you don’t find north in the Willamette Valley—cabernet franc and merlot. Switch to white at Wooldridge Creek Winery, and try the gewürztraminer and Twilight White as the sun sets low over the converging Wooldridge and Slagle creeks.
Back in town, we’re lured by Roux 26’s eclectic menu and images of European gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. While the restaurant was still working out the kinks of a new chef, the ahi tuna, pumpkin curry and penne alla vodka were good. In the bar, a pianist tapped popular tunes to a chorale from its joyful patrons.
In the morning drizzle, we’re content to take refuge at The Lodge and read for a while. The lobby has coffee and a wood-burning fireplace, the latter a rare find these days.
After a couple of hours, cabin fever descends on our quarters. The Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue offers a thrilling antidote. We head for Merlin and then twenty miles northwest on Galice Road, which follows the winding contour of the river to the trailhead at Grave Creek.
Fog sits silently in white strands over the dark green river canyon. A wan sun angles through the valley, selectively lighting the bridge at Grave Creek and turning raindrops into a million lit globes tumbling toward earth. Early spring waterfalls bisect the river trail, making our run more adventurous than we had planned.
If a Rogue River bear were actually watching us from high up on the canyon rim, it would be laughing at our awkward fording of waterfalls, tracking our slow progress along the trail and cringing at our sporadic loud singing of “Let it Go” from Frozen—sung with hopes of not surprising any of its kind along the narrow path.
It couldn’t have been more than four miles roundtrip to Rainie Falls and back to the dry car, but it took a long time and made us remember how much we missed rafting and singing our way down the Rogue two summers ago.
Back in Grants Pass, The Laughing Clam seafood bistro serves up good recovery IPAs, and fish and chips. A classic brick tavern of the highest grade, The Laughing Clam has the most tap handles ever assembled under one roof—most of which are used as crown molding. All of that is forgiven as fourteen of them are located behind the bar and operational.
Who knew that Grants Pass had a spa? One such Tuscan-themed incarnation is tucked into an industrial park on the north end of town and goes by the name, The Spa at Club NW. Sarah is a willing subject and soon leaves us for pampering places.
While she is prostrating herself in the name of creature comfort, the girls and I head back toward Merlin to ogle beasts of prey at Wildlife Images, a sprawling rural refuge for wounded, abused or discarded mammals. This twenty-four-acre sanctuary was founded in 1981 by wildlife rehabilitator J. David Siddon. Today, it is run by his son, David Siddon, Jr.
Our guide introduces us to wounded bald eagles, orphaned grizzlies from Alaska, wolves that miscreants bred with dogs, cougars with problems related to their misguided owners and black bears that I’m happier to see behind the fence than on the river trail.
The Rogue River runs at about 4,200 cubic feet per second this time of year. That’s roughly half of the flow of the Dutch Bros. Coffee headwaters in Grants Pass. There are nine Dutch Bros. venues just in its hometown of 35,000. There are more than 200 across the West.
Founded in Grants Pass in 1992 by dairy farming brothers Dane and Travis Boersma, Dutch Bros. is now the largest privately held drive-through coffee company in the country. What better way to show your Dutch love than with an Americano at the brothers’ first non-drive-through coffee shop on D Street.
At some point in these outings, we forget that we have kids. One of them reminds us that she and her sister are being creatively ignored. In retribution, she demands sushi. The problem with this always comes down to the unagi and the kids’ appetite for this jewel of the sea. G Street Bar & Grill is an unusual hybrid of dudes in baseball hats on one side eating off the grill menu and families seated on the other side ordering sushi—an apt metaphor for Grants Pass. The sushi was very good, though Fiona and Izzy gobbled all of the eel. In my bitter mind, I began writing the musical, “Little Orphan Unagi” with the lead and understudy already cast.
Civic planners agree that no town is livable until it has a hospital, a library, a brewery and a bakery. Of these, the bakery is the most essential to any culture. Something of this importance should be left to the babes. Babes’ Bakery on the north end of downtown—symbolically hidden inside a former bank—is a good find.
There are bagels and then there are bagels. My jalapeño bagel is as big as a yarmulke and piled with cream cheese and tomato. The cinnamon roll is the size of a pie and can amicably satisfy four people, even among greedy unagi orphans.
For the drive home, we’ll need a little somethin’ caffeinated from Dutch Bros. to keep us awake. We’re already planning our next trip to the Rogue River Valley, when zip lines, treehouses, farm tours and the roar of the Rogue are on the agenda.