Outdoor Adventure in Southern Oregon’s Klamath County

By Dan Shryock

The first few seconds seem easy enough, gliding along the steel cable that stretches for a quarter mile above the trees. Not even the high-pitched whistle from the cable trolley spinning at 30 mph can distract as your heart pounds harder. You can slow down your speed, but what’s the fun in that?

A day outdoors in Klamath County can start with a maximum-rush zipline or a more passive pursuit, perhaps birdwatching or a quiet paddle along the Upper Klamath Canoe Trail. No matter the choice, bring plenty of sunscreen. There’s much to do. 

Southern Oregon’s Klamath County is sometimes overlooked, but those who discover it wish they had booked more outdoor vacation time. The region, just east of Medford and Ashland, features two map points. To the south is Klamath Falls, where most food and lodging are found. To the north is Crater Lake National Park, Oregon’s crown jewel of nature.

Start at Crater Lake
No trip to Southern Oregon is complete without a trip to Crater Lake. The big, blue caldera, created when volcanic Mt. Mazama erupted 7,700 years ago, is the deepest lake in the United States at 1,943 feet. There are three good ways to see the lake: on foot, by car or by trolley.

The energetic can go for a hike, be it a ranger-led interpretative walk or a self-guided trek. There are plenty of trails from which to choose. Either way, your starting point for information is the Steel Visitor Center on the south side of the lake.

Not interested in high-altitude exercise? Take the 33-mile Rim Drive for a spin, with its many vista points, or visit the historic Crater Lake Lodge. Many people explore the lodge and view the lake from the south rim.

Crater Lake Trolley, in cooperation with the National Park Service, operates two-hour Rim Drive tours that start and end at Rim Village. See the lake and hear from a park ranger at the same time.

Activities on the crystal-clear water—boat tours, fishing and very cold swimming—are limited and only accessible via a one-mile hike from the Cleetwood Cove trailhead downhill to the boat dock. Be forewarned: This switchback trail drops about 700 feet in elevation. If you decide to walk down, be sure you can climb back up.

Once at the shore, cast a line. There are no native fish species in the lake, but Rainbow Trout and Kokanee Salmon were stocked decades ago. Park officials want them gone. You can keep what you catch, there’s no limit and no fishing license is required. Officials ask that only artificial bait is used. Check the park website for a complete list of do’s and don’ts.

Zipping Over the Trees
After seeing things from the lake, head south to Crater Lake Zipline for a different perspective. Enjoy a panoramic view of the Klamath Basin with each cable ride high in the trees.

Crater Lake Zipline is a series of nine ziplines, two sky bridges, a rope descent and a quick-drop back to Earth all connected by tree-based platforms. You gain more than confidence and nerve here. You cheer on total strangers with each test and soon become comrades in the trees.

Ride the Rapids
Southern Oregon is known for its whitewater rafting, yet the Upper Klamath River is often overlooked. To river guide Pete Wallstrom, that’s an advantage.

“The Upper Klamath definitely is not as well-known as you’d think it would be,” says Wallstrom, owner of Momentum River Expeditions. “I don’t know if there’s a better stretch of summer whitewater on the West Coast. It’s got two big things going for it. It has bigger whitewater and there are big flows all summer long.”

Water released on schedule from the John C. Boyle hydroelectric dam guarantees plenty of water, and rafting trips are planned accordingly. The river includes exciting Class IV sections for thrill seekers and a calmer Class III section for first-timers looking to gain confidence.

Cycling Roads Less Traveled
Excellent weather, diverse routes and low vehicle traffic combine to make Klamath County an increasingly popular destination for both mountain and road cyclists. There are more than 25 routes in Klamath County for anyone seeking pavement, dirt or gravel.

The most famous of all the routes is Crater Lake Rim Drive. The road is available throughout the summer, but riders must compete with heavy tourist traffic. For two Saturdays each September, however, the National Park Service closes the road to vehicle traffic so people can walk or ride the sometimes steep and always breathtaking route without worrying about the car behind.

The 2017 “Ride the Rim” dates are September 9 and 16.

The Moore Mountain Trail System ranks high with mountain bikers. The system near Klamath Falls includes more than 20 miles of track for varying skill levels. Each route features wildlife, high desert terrain, pristine creeks, mountain lakes or rolling farmlands.

Tip for cyclists: No matter what type of riding interests you, a good place to start is the RideKlamathRide.com website for maps, elevation and route information compiled from two sources: Ride with GPS and Trailforks. You also can access the information on your smartphone using each system’s app.

The Line on Fishing
Klamath County is paradise for anyone who likes to fish, no matter your experience or skill set. Freshwater lakes and winding rivers dominate the region.

“This is fly fishing nirvana,” says Jen Roe, owner of ROE Outfitters. “We have bucket list rivers for fly fishermen all over the country.”

There’s the Williamson River. The Wood. The Klamath. The Sprague. These rivers are home to the giant, native redband trout, a trophy fish that can measure 30 inches. The Klamath Basin fishing season runs all year, but it’s wise to check the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website for licensing requirements and open dates. Local outfitters are also a good resource.

Keep on Hiking
With so much open space throughout Klamath County, it’s easy to find a hiking trail. Start in the Fremont-Winema National Forest and its Sky Lakes and Mountain Lakes wilderness areas. Sky Lakes Wilderness features a challenging 11-mile hike to the top of Mount McLoughlin, Southern Oregon’s tallest peak at 9,495 feet. Varney Creek Trail in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness is an easier hike with optional turns to Lake Como and Aspen Butte.

Tee Time
Golfers prefer to avoid the water, but they can’t escape the area’s natural beauty. Running Y Ranch Resort provides 18 holes designed and played by the late legend Arnold Palmer. And while the final score matters, there’s something to be said for stopping after each swing to check the trees for wildlife or scan the blue sky for eagles. The course consistently has been rated among the best courses in the nation. There’s also an 18-hole mini-golf putting course. It’s not miniature golf with its man-made obstacles but a rolling course that lets everyone in the family play.

It’s All About the Birds
While cyclists are discovering Klamath County, bird-watching enthusiasts have known about this area for a long time. To get started, all you need is a sharp eye, binoculars, a bird identification book and paper to list what you see.

With six easily accessible national wildlife refuges less than an hour’s drive from each other, there are plenty of species to see no matter the season. The refuges are along what naturalists call the “Pacific Flyway,” an aviary highway used by millions of birds as they migrate north and south each year.

Wildlife photographers flock here with their powerful camera lenses to capture images of snow geese, great egret, killdeer, Canada geese, eared grebe and, of course, bald eagles.

Get on the Water
Klamath’s waterways are an ideal escape, and a good place to start is on the Upper Klamath Canoe Trail, a 9.5-mile path along the Upper Klamath Wildlife Refuge. The trail snakes between boat launches at Rocky Point and Malone Springs, northwest of Upper Klamath Lake. Watch for the trail signs poking up from the water.

The lake itself—25 miles long and 8 miles wide—is big enough to host a variety of water activities at the same time. Winds up to 10 to 15 knots most afternoons make for good sailing, windsurfing and kite boarding.

There are plenty of opportunities to canoe, kayak and even stand-up paddle on lakes and rivers throughout the county. Local guide services provide tours and rentals, if needed.

Also consider Lake of the Woods, nearly 40 miles northwest of Klamath Falls, for its sailing, water skiing, fishing and scenery. 

When You Go