Water defines Klamath Falls, from the namesake river flowing through its heart to the lakes and marshes that surround it. Where there is water, there are birds. Until recently, I only traveled to Klamath Falls for birding excursions or to catch the Amtrak. But as I discovered, there’s a lot more to this High Desert town than eagles and egrets.
Once called Linkville, Klamath Falls thrived during the Depression thanks to a newly finished rail line that sparked a timber boom. Some of that history remains in the attractive brick buildings downtown. The region saw lots of action during World War II, serving as a training ground for Navy flyers and hosting soldiers recovering from tropical diseases. On a darker note, one of the country’s ten Japanese internment camps was located nearby, at Tule Lake.
Today, Klamath Falls hosts a respected polytechnic institute, a National Guard Air Base and a robust cycling culture. And yes, plenty of birds, too. Over the course of three days, and with the help of friends who call “K Falls” home, I discovered many of the region’s hidden treasures.
The Klamath Basin is layered with history, starting with Pleistocene megafauna. At the Klamath County Museum, housed in the old Armory building, I studied portraits of the players in the Modoc War, a map showing “balloon bombs” launched by the Japanese during World War II, a display documenting the “Water Wars” of the early aughts and a full-size tule canoe.
The history lesson continued downtown, as we embarked on a treasure hunt to find the many murals. We poked our heads into various vintage boutiques before picking up a wedge of tasty manchego at A Leap of Taste, which occupies the street-level corner of the Oregon Bank Building. Built in 1929, it’s the town’s tallest building and contains the only elevator in Oregon still staffed by human operators. David Fillipe took us on a ride through time, stopping at each floor so we could tour the historic photos lining the walls. Unfortunately, several of the buildings captured in the photos have been burned or razed, including the Balsiger Building, a unique structure built in the Egyptian Revival style. (“I’m still upset about that one,” Fillipe said.) Many of the photos were taken by Maude Baldwin, a fine photographer and the daughter of hoteliers who ran the Baldwin Hotel into the 1920s. Today the Baldwin Hotel is a museum, but it’s only open for visitors during the summer months.
Later that evening, we returned downtown for dinner at Thai Orchid, where friendly waitstaff serve delicious, authentic Thai food. Highlights were the fried prawn appetizer, served with sweet plum sauce, and warming Tom Kha soup.
To start the day, our friends treated us at Nibbley’s, a homey restaurant with an ample dessert case in the heart of the Washburn Way shopping district. There we loaded up on coffee, omelets, waffles and hearty, big-as-the-plate oat pancakes before facing the winter chill.
Here’s a secret: Like Bend, its High Desert neighbor to the north, Klamath Falls is cycling paradise. Be sure to stop by the excellent Hutch’s Bicycles downtown, where you can shop for a new bike, pick up accessories or get a tune-up before heading to riverside Moore Park, origin of a network of mountain biking trails that climb into the surrounding hills. Much credit goes to the Klamath Trails Alliance for these and other area trails.
I prefer flatter cycling, so after a short tour we drove to Olene, an eye-blink community in a pretty bend of the Lost River. There we accessed a section of the OC & E Woods Line State Trail, a “rails-to-trails” project that starts in Klamath Falls and heads east to the town of Bly. (A second line runs north from Beatty to the Cycan Marsh, for a total of 110 miles.) We enjoyed the bracing air, lovely landscape dotted with sage and juniper and, best of all, absence of motorized vehicles on the trail.
Rodeos Pizza and Saladeria is a downtown spot popular with cyclists. Take my friends’ advice and order a Caesar salad and the Goddess, a vegetarian pie topped with feta, sun-dried tomatoes and more. There are plenty of options for carnivores, too.
I’ve often stocked up at The Daily Bagel before boarding the Coast Starlight for trips north, and I was happy to enjoy a more leisurely visit to this downtown café. Housed in a lofty brick building, The Daily Bagel has a full espresso bar, fine assortment of bagel shmears and sandwiches and plenty of reading material.
My non-birding friends indulged me with a trip to Miller Island Unit, which is part of the Klamath Wildlife Area. The peaceful spot is also popular with hunters training their bird dogs. I spotted several bald eagles and other raptors soaring over the frozen river, and vowed to return in February when Klamath Falls hosts the annual Winter Wings Festival and later in spring when the flooded marshes attract waterfowl by the thousands.
Back in town, we did another kind of birding, admiring the portraits of white pelicans, pileated woodpeckers and other birds that adorn the traffic signal boxes on many downtown corners. What better way to warm up than with beer at the Klamath Basin Brewing Company, located in the old Creamery building. A glass window allows you to quaff beer while watching the brewmaster work among the steel tanks. We ordered a flight to share. Our favorite brew was the award-winning Notch Eight IPA, which paired perfectly with a basket of fish and chips.
In anticipation of my next trip to Klamath Falls, I’ve started a running list, which includes the Baldwin Hotel Museum, Ross Ragland Theater and the spring waterfowl migration.