Plan a Trip to Oregon’s Theatre Town, Ashland.
written by Juliet Grable | photos by Jared Cruce
From a distance, Ashland is a storybook town: a village cradled by steep forested slopes on one side and hills that change from green to tawny, to white and snowy on the other. The illusion doesn’t fade with proximity. Well-preserved historic Craftsman and Victorian houses perch in the hills above a picturesque downtown. Its centerpieces are a bustling plaza, the jewel of Lithia Park and the economic engine that is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In summer, Ashland is jammed with theatergoers, buskers, Pacific Crest Trail throughhikers and other travelers. Loyal visitors make the pilgrimage year after year to catch the new season of plays, revisit favorite restaurants and stay in bed and breakfasts.
While dinner-and-a-play makes for a satisfying outing, there is also excellent hiking and mountain biking, spas, vineyards and rapids ranging from Class I to IV on the nearby Rogue and Upper Klamath rivers.
Oregon Trip Planner Day 1: Classic Ashland | Dinner and a Play
Lithia Park is the town’s green heart. Enhanced by John McLaren of Golden Gate Park fame, Lithia Park is a 93-acre swath of forested greenspace that straddles Ashland Creek. On this sunny day, the sweep of lawn at the park’s main entrance, adjacent to the downtown plaza, is well-populated. It is diversity in action—tourists and transients share space with diapered toddlers, kids train their frisbee arms and gaggles of teenagers linger. A cellist plays along one of the main walkways, and his notes mingle with the shouts of children and the burble of Ashland Creek.
At its edges, Lithia Park is manicured lawns and composed landscaping, including a Japanese garden on the west side. Farther in, native maples arch over the creek, fed from snowmelt from Mt. Ashland. It’s always a good ten degrees cooler along the shaded river banks, where people seek refuge on large granite boulders.
A short meander into downtown leads to Bloomsbury Books, a classic independent bookseller with creaky wooden floors, intelligent staff and works by local authors in the windows. Oregon-themed books and card racks are enveloped by aromas wafting down from the upstairs café. Minutes easily add up to an hour spent browsing the nonfiction section.
I meet my partner, Brint, for dinner at The Loft, a restaurant upstairs on the Plaza overlooking Ashland Creek. The space is divided into a dining room and more casual bar. (A rooftop bar, Carpe Noctem, serves drinks and light fare when weather permits.) We choose a window seat in the bar overlooking Calle Guanajuato, the pedestrian walkway that traces Ashland Creek. Once an all-vegetarian Mediterranean restaurant, a vestige of a laid-back hippie town, today it’s a sophisticated French-inspired brasserie that serves wines from the Rogue to the Rhone valleys.
The Loft is hip without being pretentious, with attentive service and calm, minimalist décor. We share the bouillabaisse and seared halibut, which comes served on a bed of gnocchi and sautéed vegetables, including local morels. For dessert, we split a perfectly sweet-tart strawberry rhubarb crisp and strong coffee.
As locals, it’s easy to take the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for granted, but it is Ashland’s raison d’etre, supporting a large network of restaurants, inns and businesses. Established in 1935, OSF presents eleven world-class productions each year, around half of which are from The Bard’s canon. This year’s plays range from Shakespeare’s Pericles to the classic musical Guys and Dolls to the world premiere of a play called Sweat, by Lynn Nottage.
At The Bricks—the courtyard between the ticket office and the theaters—I resolve to take advantage of this cultural asset more often.
Oregon Trip Planner Day 2: Local Flavors | Markets | Brunch
If you want to feel like a local in any town, visit its growers market. Ashland’s Saturday Market, which takes over Oak Street in front of Standing Stone Brewing Company, is not as large as the Tuesday Market, though many of the same vendors are here. Potter Bill Francis, who makes richly glazed dinnerware and mugs, has been a market staple for more than a decade. Fry Family Farm’s table is stacked with leeks, beets and greens. It’s hard to resist the fresh-baked pastries, but we’re saving our appetites for brunch at Smithfields, Ashland’s meat mecca.
With its breezy atmosphere, cheery packed bar and local focus, Smithfields has become one of Ashland’s most popular haunts. A large chalkboard lists the regional growers, ranchers, vintners, brewers and roasters whose craft dominates the menu.
My favorite is savory oatmeal comprised of steel-cut oats topped with sautéed greens, mushrooms and a perfectly fried egg, finished with generous bits of housecured bacon. This pairs well with a baconand- egg Bloody Mary, flavored with baconinfused vodka and garnished with a flag of bacon and a pickled quail egg. (Incidentally, while Smithfields caters to carnivores, there are plenty of choices for those who don’t live for bacon.)
Time to burn off brunch. Before I can succumb to drowsiness, Brint drops me off at the Bandersnatch trailhead behind Lithia Park, where I meet my friend Kate for our weekly hike. Named for a character from Alice in Wonderland, Bandersnatch switchbacks up into the Ashland watershed, eventually connecting with a web of Lewis Carroll-themed trails. We gab nonstop as we push up to the ridge, passing Pacific madrones and ponderosa pines and steering clear of the glossy sprigs of fresh poison oak. We notice a swath of blackened ground. Crews have been working here to minimize the risk of future fires, clearing the brushy manzanita and performing occasional controlled burns. Hikers love this trail because bikes are not allowed. Another trail, the BTI, is reserved for cyclists.
Hikes like these sometimes end at places like the Swing Tree Brewing Company. Located in a warehouse in the Hersey Street business park, this nanobrewery is truly a locals’ haunt. The overhead door is rolled up, revealing a shuffleboard table tucked to one side and several handmade tables. The bartender pours me a Porch Swing Pale Ale, which has just the right hoppy bite, and lets me sample the other house brews on tap. Owner and brewmaster, Brandon Overstreet, explains his business strategy—start small; build a loyal following with great beer and a welcoming vibe. Swing Tree Brewing has just begun to offer food—Pacific Rim-inspired tacos are served during the week and barbecue on weekends. “I’ve had a lot of help from the community,” said Overstreet. “It’s been humbling.”
I will be back on a Sunday to check out the brewery’s weekly music jam.
Oregon Trip Planner Day 3: Bake | Bike | Co-op
Deux Chats Bakery is one of those places you just have to know about. Tucked in the back of a building at the end of A Street, the bakery is open only on Fridays and Saturdays, and sometimes runs out of goods before closing hours. The inconspicuous location and limited hours have always made me curious about the underlying business plan. Nonetheless owners Michelle and Garrett Furuichi are serving up delicious pastries—and smiling. Maybe they know something I don’t. It was hard to pass up the almond croissant and cinnamon sugar-dusted morning bun, but I opt for Michelle’s suggestion of an almond caramel knot—a sublime balance of crunchy toasted almonds and buttery pastry.
The Ashland watershed offers worldclass single-track mountain biking, but I prefer my tires skinny and my roads paved. Today I pick a route along the Bear Creek Greenway, an eighteen-mile multiuse trail that runs from Ashland to Central Point, paralleling Bear Creek and I-5 much of the way. I take the Greenway from Ashland to Talent, the next town, then cut over I-5 so I can ride back through the pastoral landscape east of town. The route along Bear Creek is nearly flat, buffered from the freeway by thick vegetation. It’s a great place to pick blackberries in late summer and to watch for returning Chinook in the fall.
The return route takes me past farmhouses, pastures and pear orchards in full blossom. Such orchards used to cover the Rogue Valley, but in the past few decades they have been displaced by subdivisions and vineyards.
After the ride, I stop at the Ashland Food Co-op for a quick snack and some impromptu people-watching. The Co-op is always a hive of activity, and parking spaces are scarce. I spoon up my favorite staples from the selfserve deli—curried tempeh salad, carrot and raisin salad and seared tofu—then take my plate outside and sit on the low wall so I can watch people come and go.
The Co-op is located on 1st Street in the heart of the Railroad District, a walkable neighborhood with restored Craftsmans and Victorians, lovingly tended yards and bits of whimsy, such as the collection of stone cairns on the corner of 2nd and C. There are still a few unpaved alleyways and bramble-covered fences. This is the Ashland I remember when I moved here in 2001, and I’m heartened to see it hasn’t changed so much after all.