My blog posts likely contain affiliate links, including for the Amazon Associates program.
When people think of traveling to Oregon, they probably have a few ideas in mind. Maybe hitting up big-city Portland or hipster Bend… or driving along the Oregon Coast as part of the Pacific Coast Highway. Definitely Crater Lake National Park is worth a visit! But those are places where you might be around a fair number of people, and maybe you’re looking for a bit more off-beat and unconventional of an Oregonian destination.
Enter Southern Oregon: a collection of valleys, volcanoes, and lake beds between the coast and the Great Basin desert with a surprising diversity of interesting things to do. I visited Southern Oregon in October 2023, as part of a trip down the Oregon Coast and back up to Portland via this region and Central Oregon – I certainly saw a lot of the state, but there’s still so much to explore!
If you’re planning a trip through different parts of Oregon and are curious about what there is to do in the southern part of the state, I’ve got you covered! Below, you’ll find a list of outdoorsy and adventurous things to do in Southern Oregon; as you’ve probably discovered, those are the types of activities that Oregon does best in any region!
Whether you’re hitting the highways on a road trip or looking for a new area of the Pacific Northwest to explore, this post will help you get out, enjoy some fresh air, and see a series of unique natural wonders and outdoor playgrounds for adventurers of every level.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla, Cow Creek Umpqua, Klamath, Modoc, Molalla, Shasta, Takelma, Tolowa Dee-ni’, and Yahooskin peoples, and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, among others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Wander Among the Oregon Redwoods
As you know, I am a huge Redwoods nerd; Coastal Redwoods are my favorite tree… what, you don’t have a favorite tree?!
Southern Oregon is the northern range of Coastal Redwoods, so as you start exploring the region, you can see these titanic trees. Perhaps the best place is located just off US-101 (the Pacific Coast Highway), where you can hike Oregon Redwoods Trail in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. There’s also a Redwoods Nature Trail a little further north; both trails are near Brookings, the largest southernmost community on the Oregon Coast.
(Speaking of… if you’re exploring Southern Oregon as part of a larger Oregon road trip (or driving up/down the Oregon Coast), you’ll probably cross into California, and can see Redwoods in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park, which is part of Redwoods National & State Parks.)
Stay & Play at a Treehouse Resort
If you think that one tree-related activity is enough, I’m going to make you choose; otherwise, here’s another fun adventure to stay somewhere you’ve probably not spent time in since you were a kid – a treehouse!
There are several “treehouse resorts” in Southern Oregon, but Out’n’About Treesort is the one I stayed at during my Oregon trip. They have treehouses of every size and style; there are ones big enough for the whole family and private cozy ones for couples and solo adventurers. Some are connected by elevated walkways, whereas others are set away from the rest for more privacy.
I stayed in the large “Suite” set out near the horse paddock and with a lovely peek-a-boo view of the night sky; while I only stayed one night, I really recommend planning a two-night stay if you have the time so you can enjoy the amenities of the property (ziplining, horseback riding, rafting) and explore a bit more during your day there (and also have time to visit some of the other attractions in the area, like Oregon Caves National Monument – more on that below – and the community of Cave Junction).
Enjoy Wine Tasting in the Rogue Valley
While I didn’t have a chance to do any wine tasting during my 2023 trip (I had Baby V on board at that point!), I know that the Rogue Valley is one of Oregon’s great wine regions, and one of my all-time favorite Syrah-forward red blend wines is from that area (the Honor Barn Red from RoxyAnn Winery, if you’re curious!). Here’s a guide to all of the wine-tasting experiences you can have in the Rogue Valley.
There are also a few wineries in the Illinois Valley (between Out’n’About Treesort and Oregon Caves National Monument) that you could enjoy if you’re stringing together my suggestions for things to do in Southern Oregon into an itinerary!
Dive Deep into Oregon Caves National Monument
Caving is one of my favorite activities in the National Park system, and I would be completely remiss to leave Oregon Caves National Monument off my list if you’re exploring Southern Oregon: it may “only” be a national monument, but it’s definitely one of the coolest cave systems I’ve been in, and its remoteness makes visiting even more of an adventure.
You can easily visit Oregon Caves in a day, especially if you stay somewhere in the area the night before and/or the night after. Start (based on availability/timing) with a ranger-guided cave tour, then strike out to enjoy the trails through the native forest.
Enjoy a Quiet Tiny Cabin Mountain Retreat near Ashland
A few years ago, Mr. V and I had to do a quick-ish turnaround trip from California to Seattle; I decided to extend it for an adventure near the midpoint. I found this quaint tiny cabin outside of Ashland and we spent a few nights nestled away in the woods, plus days exploring the area.
Ashland is best known for its famous summer Shakespeare Festival, so there’s plenty to do in town; we also spent time at Lake of the Woods and admiring the view of Mt. McLoughlin, a southern Oregon Cascade volcano. (I didn’t realize it during that trip, but we were also quite close to Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which I’ll get to in a few sections!)
Hike the Rogue River Gorge & Natural Bridge Trails
The Rogue River is one of the preeminent geographic features of western Southern Oregon; it flows from high in the Cascade Mountains near Crater Lake National Park all the way to the Pacific Ocean. As you already know, it carves out a valley great for wine-making before ending at the coastal town of Gold Beach. Further upstream, it’s a bit more dramatic: rafting the Rogue is a great adventure, and there are a number of cool geologic features along its route down from the volcanic Cascade range.
Just east of Union Creek, the Rogue carves a dramatic gorge into the lava flows that cover this area; to the west, you can walk to see the “Natural Bridge” where the river flows into a lava tube before rushing out some 200 feet further downstream. Both spots are considered very easy trails but show how both lava and water have helped shape the area in dramatic fashion.
Explore Crater Lake National Park
It almost feels diminutive to include Crater Lake National Park on a list of things to do in Southern Oregon – it’s the #1 thing to do, far and away! It should have its own article, Valerie! (Oh, wait, it does! 😉)
As Oregon’s only National Park, Crater Lake has big shoes to fill; it’s not like Utah with five parks to blow your mind, or California’s eight diverse parks to cover the state’s incredible natural wonders… nope, Oregon has just Crater Lake, and Crater Lake does a great job of representing one of Oregon’s most fascinating features: the Cascade volcanoes.
Obviously, the focus of any visit to Crater Lake National Park is the crater itself – driving the rim road, taking a boat tour on the lake, and so on. There are also great hikes for every skill level, and some of the best dark skies in this part of the country because of the crater’s elevation and protection from coastal clouds.
As mentioned, I have a guide for visiting Crater Lake National park that goes into a lot more detail; you’re gonna need it because I can’t imagine you’ll be visiting Southern Oregon and not going to Crater Lake! (It is however a highly seasonal park, so be sure to check the NPS site for park conditions as part of planning your trip!)
Learn History at Klamath Falls’ Favell Museum
Okay, bear with me as I stretch the definition of “adventurous” and “outdoors” mentioned in the title when referring to Southern Oregon adventures; I’m not the biggest museum person either, but I think Klamath Falls’ Favell Museum is worth making an exception for.
This museum, nestled in the heart of Klamath Falls (where – let’s be honest – you should spend 1-2 nights anyway since it’s one of the major communities in Southern Oregon), is home to a collection of Western Art and Native American artifacts that help put your outdoor adventures in perspective: people have called this area home for thousands of years, and left evidence of life on this part of the continent. The collection houses artifacts dating back 12,000 years, which as you’ll soon read, makes them among the oldest evidence of humans in this part of the world.
You don’t need more than a few hours to explore the whole collection and galleries, so this is a good activity if you need something a bit slower pace or the weather isn’t cooperating for an outdoor activity.
Kayak the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
The Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is a neat little natural playground; in the area, you’ll find a number of ways to get outdoors and explore this part of Oregon. Formed by natural marshes at the northern end of Upper Klamath Lake (the Lower lake is in California and connected by the Klamath River), the area is popular for boating, fishing, and similar activities.
One fun option is kayaking, and if you can book an evening/night kayaking session with ROE Outfitters, even better! You’ll set out on the water as the sun goes down and can enjoy a calm paddle with an LED-lit clear kayak – you’ll see the fascinating world below the water, and see the stars pop out.
Explore the Southern Oregon Outback
While most people might turn north or south at this point to continue traveling elsewhere in Central Oregon or Northern California, there’s more of Southern Oregon to explore! Specifically, Lake County, also called the Southern Oregon Outback, has some fun adventures if you have the time to make them.
I’ll cover a few specific daytime activities in the next few sections, but the best part of visiting the Southern Oregon Outback is that it is currently working to become the 10th Dark Sky Sanctuary in the U.S. A lack of major development in this area makes for some epic scenery to enjoy and explore, and also incredibly dark skies at night.
You can actually string together several places on this list into your own Oregon “dark sky trail” if you love astronomy and the weather cooperates during your trip – when’s the last time you saw the Milky Way?
Soak in Summer Lake Hot Springs
One of the main geologic features in the Oregon Outback is Summer Lake, a large, shallow, alkali lake that varies in size based on seasonality and rainfall. On the southern “shores” of the lake basin, you’ll find Summer Lakes Hot Springs resort.
The original bathhouse dates to the 1920s, and today you’ll find outdoor stone pools for soaking, plus a series of eclectic cabins and houses for overnight guests; amenities vary so be sure to review the website for what you need to bring. There’s also a large parking area for campers and tents if you’re exploring with even more independence.
As Summer Lake Hot Springs also sits on the border of the Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network, this is a great spot for stargazing too, after you finish a soak. (Note: I did not partake of the hot healing waters during my visit due to being pregnant at the time.)
Seek Human History at Paisley Caves
If you have a vehicle with decent clearance, you might also visit one of the coolest archaeological sites in the U.S. – but one that you probably haven’t heard of, and which is pretty much wide open to the public to explore: Paisley Caves.
Originally thought to be a site with some of the oldest evidence of humans in North America, the site is now dated to about 14,000 years ago (the oldest sites, like those in White Sands and the Yukon, are currently dated to 23,000-24,000 years ago). Still, it’s impressive to visit and get a sense of how early humans on the continent would have used this cave system for shelter and society. You can even see evidence from archaeological digs in the form of markers and relic bags that have been returned to the site.
To reach Paisley Caves, you need to head toward the town of Paisley, then turn onto one of the county roads just north of town (here’s a map link that’s easier than trying to explain how to follow unnamed county roads!). Once you arrive at the small parking area, you can get out and hike up to the caves on the rock face; keep your eyes peeled for petroglyphs on the fallen rocks in the area, as there are some if you have particularly keen eyes.
Take a Hike at Fort Rock
For one last adventurous activity in Southern Oregon, don’t drive by the road signs: the detour to Fort Rock is well worth it.
Fort Rock is located in northern Lake County, and is officially designated as a “tuff ring” on an ancient lake bed. In case you – like me – have no idea what that means, basically, it’s “a pyroclastic cone with a crater above the surrounding ground surface” – it’s the remaining top of an erupted volcano above gound level while the remainder of the volcano is below ground surface. (The NPS has a really handy resource about them and other parks where you can see them!)
Officially denoted a “State Natural Area,” Fort Rock is managed by the Oregon State Parks system, and has a few organized trails around the ring… however you can just walk around and explore on your own wherever you find interesting in the formation. (There are occasional closures to protect wildlife and flora, so be sure to check the site’s website before visiting and observe posted signage.)
Bonus: Go Caving in Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Beds National Monument is not technically one of the things to do in Southern Oregon, because it’s located 15-20 miles south of the border in California… so I threw it on this list as a bonus, because it’s still a great activity, but doesn’t strictly fit the same definition as other activities on this list!
You can easily visit Lava Beds from Klamath Falls, the nearest major city (and, as mentioned, one of the largest cities in Southern Oregon). It’s a 45-60 minute drive to the visitor center, and from there you can both register to go out caving and get oriented to different caving options.
Oh, did I forget to mention? Lava Beds National Monument is a caver’s dream: it’s home to dozens of lava tube caves that you can pretty much explore to your heart’s content – it’s one of the few parks I’ve been to where you don’t require a ranger or guide to do a pretty technical activity (spelunking). All you need to do is register at the Visitor Center and make sure you have the right equipment for your capabilities and the caves you plan to visit.
If you want to tack this onto your adventures in Southern Oregon, check out my one-day itinerary for Lava Beds – that’s all the time you need to enjoy this unique park.
Have any questions about these things to do in Southern Oregon, or other activities you’ve heard about? Let me know in the comments below!