written by Peter Murphy | photos by Susanna Risser
This is “real” Oregon, but maybe not the one you’ve heard much about. The entire length of Highway 140 stretches 237 miles from just north of Medford, heading east through the Cascades, dodging south around Upper Klamath Lake, finally pointing southeast into Nevada. The section from Klamath Falls to Adel is about half that distance, reaching into cattle range and antelope habitat.
Whether it’s the underground geothermal heating for the city of Klamath Falls (at the western portal to this section of Route 140), or the vagaries of weather and its impact on crops, free-range cattle or pronghorn sheep darting through sagebrush, nature rules the road.
You’d likely start from Klamath Falls on this visit along Highway 140 since Adel, on the eastern end, isn’t exactly on the beaten path. It’s worth the trip, but you have to know where you’re going.
Route 140 east of Klamath Falls is at its best when the hay is brown and the hills are green. The city recedes pretty fast. Olene flies by at about milepost 9, just shy of Stevenson Park. Unincorporated Olene’s population is just large enough to run a general store, but not great enough to have its own school.
This tiny town has two closely held secrets. It is home to OC&E Woods Line, a 105-mile, rail-to-trail path that is popular with mountain bikers and hikers. Also, the Oregon Department of Transportation helped restore a big swath of wetland along the north bank of its meandering Lost River a few years back.
East of Olene, Swan Lake Ranch pops up and Fox Den Ranch is next. Past the intersection with Oregon Route 70 to Bonanza from Dairy (it’s the Dairy-Bonanza Highway, of course), you enter wide-open ranch country. Ranchers tend to their stocks and their hay, cutting and bailing it beneath the summer sun. It has an Old West feel, though ranch hands who tend the herds these days are called “stockmen,” not cowboys.
The road continues northeast through fields of hay and alfalfa and past Wild West Angus Ranch. Shortly thereafter, the road climbs to the 5,087-foot summit of Bly Mountain Pass and down again into ranch country.
This area is also rich with tribal history. For many Klamath Tribe members, this region is still their homeland, with their ancestors buried in view of the highway. Much of the land traversed by this stretch of highway is within the Fremont-Winema National Forest, named for the Modoc tribeswoman, Toby “Winema” Riddle, who mediated peace between the U.S. Cavalry and the local tribes during the Modoc Indian Wars in the 1870s.
The Sprague River runs alongside the highway here and is renowned in the Klamath Tribe for the C’waam, or what the settlers called “sucker fish,” for which there is a ceremony every spring heralding their return. The C’waam, the Klamath say, kept them alive during hard times.
Remember the old movie houses built just after World War II? In Bly, you’ll encounter the Star Theater, a classic old movie house built in 1948. First called the Arch Theater in the late ’40s, it became a feed store and now serves as an antique shop and meeting hall.
Out past Bly at milepost 55, beyond the Wessell Ranch and just below the summit of Quartz Mountain, I learned a lesson about ranch life. In Oregon ranch country, if you make the right connection, you can learn about it firsthand, out from behind the steering wheel. Steve and Karen Simmons invited me to spend some time at their Aspen Ridge Resort just south of the highway, to get closer to the ranch life and learn more about what it takes to be a stockman these days.
Together with Larisa Robinson, they welcome greenhorns to their 14,000-acre dude ranch to work with some of their 600 head of cattle. You can bring your own horse or ride one of theirs, but this is as authentic as it gets when it comes to experiencing life on a working ranch.
Visitors can take up lodging in a cabin or the ranch’s main building, a stately Western lodge. It overlooks some of the frames of old barns and houses from the homestead of the community of Vistillas that once flourished more than 130 years ago. Steve works in the field and at the grill, and Karen handles duties at the lodge, including welcoming guests and serving meals. “It’s a genuine experience here,” Steve said. “It’s a real working cattle ranch. We got into it to help teach food basics to visitors.”
Heading east from Aspen Ridge Resort and Quartz Mountain, it’s downhill from the 5,504-foot summit. Lofton Recreation Area for camping and fishing is nearby. You’ll drive in and out of the Fremont-Winema National Forest then encounter the Booth State Scenic Corridor, a passage of ponderosa pines and western juniper.
Continue along 140 and you come to Lakeview, the “tallest town in Oregon” at 4,800-feet elevation and at the foot of the Warner Mountains. Its handsome buildings and small-town charm will draw you in. Its skies in July are strewn with flying people. Lakeview advocate Tule Chiono cites Lakeview’s annual Umpteenth Festival of Free Flight over the 4th of July weekend as being one of the town’s top events. Every year, hang gliders, paragliders and other human-powered flights come together for what could be the largest event of its kind in the West. Daredevils leap from Black Cap Mountain above Lakeview, with the Old Perpetual Geyser on the north side of town in their sights. Gliders land near the spout, which (contrary to some reports) still erupts occasionally.
To finish off this trip, keep going east on Highway 140 to the hamlet of Adel, about thirty miles east of Lakeview. It’s worth it, if for no other reason than to see the Adel Store. Built in 1897, it stands defiantly against the elements. It has been a post office, a saddlery and more, but today it’s a refuge for people.
Try the George Steinburger or the grilled pastrami with a domestic beer on the side. Owner Jymme Dominguez brings in live music when there are other activities going on in the area.
Adel sits between the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge to the north, where you’ll find pronghorn antelopes galore, and the Sheldon National Antelope Refuge, which begins twenty miles to the south. Even though Adel might be considered the end of the road before the Nevada border, it’s still where the deer and the antelope play.