Southern Oregon: History and the Natural World 

By Iris Brooks 



Walking on trails through the Pacific Northwest forests and driving along meandering, scenic roadways leading to historic towns, I wonder how Oregon got its name. Was Oregon named after a mythical, “River of the West” by Native Americans? Or was the word “ouragan,” meaning “hurricane” given by the French? Some say it comes from the Portuguese, “Aure il agua,” translating as “hear the waters.” While there are many theories about how the state got its name, a visit to southern Oregon is not disputed, but highly recommended.

Oregon Caves. Montage by Jon H. Davis and Iris Brooks, © 2015 Click image to enlarge.


    Southern Oregon beckons with scenic drives, old growth forests, alpine hiking trails, historic towns, and cool offerings such as the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, where the cave is at a constant 44 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. For those interested in the natural world and history (the Oregon coast was discovered by Spanish explorers in the 1500s and became the 33rd state in 1859), a woodland drive from the Oregon Caves National Monument outside of Cave Junction to historic Jacksonville and on to atmospheric Ashland has much to please discriminating travelers.


This geological wonder, discovered in 1874 by Elijah Davidson and his dog Bruno, who was in pursuit of a bear, is a marble outcrop of the Siskiyou Mountain range, where rainwater from the ancient forest above dissolved the marble, creating an extensive cave network. Today an excursion here to the caves is part of a bio-diverse 4,000-acre National Park.


       Banana Grove, Paradise Lost Flowstone, Ghost Room, Belly of the Whale, and The Dome and the Pit may sound like song titles, but they are names of formations and rooms in this cave with the only active limestone formations in Oregon. There are types of calcite formations called “moonmilk” and “scallops,” offering clues to the past. And there is no need for a glossary to learn the lingo of the cave. Excellent guest rangers lead the tours with flashlights and clear explanations, illuminating the way both literally and figuratively.


       Our guide Laura, an environmental science educator, skillfully makes the science accessible, speaking of fault lines as the cream of an oreo cookie oozing out. She points to Angel Falls, highlighting moonstones with a flashlight, where the rocks become a glowing yellow, and she identifies some wall markings known as “ice cream scoops.” Participating in an intimate tour group feels friendly and fun as we learn about cave lore: if drops of water fall on you, they are considered cave kisses, bringing good luck. (I receive lots of them!)


       The cave does have bats (they are not blind, as the saying imparts) relying on echolocation with high-pitched clicks and sound waves bouncing off surfaces and insects. The bats range in size from the little brown bat, weighing approximately the same as 2 pennies and preferring total darkness to the largest, big brown bat with a wingspan of 12-16 inches. They are particularly drawn to the cave in wintertime. The Oregon Caves is also a place with endemic insects and animal remains such as the 300,000 year-old bear bones on display in the cave.


       The Oregon Caves, located in southwest Oregon on 488 acres, is 7 miles north of the California border. The cave and chateau (for dining and/or overnight stays) are about 20 miles east from Cave Junction. Although the name is Oregon Caves Monument, there is only one cave. The approach is 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and due to its steep topography the access road terminates close to the cave entrance. The natural cave–made of limestone and marble–was thought to be of “unusual scientific interest and importance” by President William H. Taft, who created the Oregon Caves National Monument in 1909. Since then, the area of the Preserve surrounding the cave has been expanded and the December 2014 legislation created the Oregon Caves National Preserve to protect and support the cave for future generations.


       At the Monument Visitors Center, run by the National Park Service, you can learn about the cave story, spanning 250 million years, along with quirky facts about animals, rocks, and trees. While most of the cave walls are marble, there are 6 different types of rock. “Cave popcorn” can lead the way to the opening of a cave since it grows in an upwind direction. I learn the heat of your hand will kill a grylloblattid, an endangered, termite-like insect, which needs cold temperatures to survive. These rare bugs are also called “ice crawlers” and can survive on glaciers as well as in caves.


       The centennial of the Park Service takes place in 2016, when more visitors from around the country are expected. Reservations are recommended for the hourly cave tours, which start at 4000 ft. above sea level and require warm clothing, but no backpacks, walking sticks, or tripods, since the slatted metal walkways make them dangerous. The tour lasts 90 minutes and is offered from 10AM – 4PM. In addition, there are 7 hiking trails from the adjacent lodge including Cliff Nature, No Name Trail, Big Tree, Cave Creek, Mountain Meadows, and Boundary. Walking along the paths is a chance to connect with the Douglas fir (as well as Red and White fir), Port Orford cedar, oaks (Canyon Live, Brewer’s, and Sadler’s), and madrone trees.


       The six-story chateau, imbued with rustic charm, was built between 1923 and 1941and is a designated National Historic Landmark Lodge as well as one of the Great Lodges of the National Parks. Located just across from the cave entrance, the Chateau at the Oregon Caves is also part of the Historic Hotels of America, a national trust for historic preservation. The exterior walls of the Chateau are covered with cedar bark while the lobby boasts a huge marble fireplace. The interior exposed wood beams come from the local fir trees and the large staircase has oak steps and a banister made from madrone wood. The alluring décor also includes a small waterfall and trout pond just outside the dining room and gift shop, which is filled with local crafts and souvenirs.


       Aside from the architectural interest of the Chateau and natural appeal of the cave, there is noteworthy history here as well. This site was the birthplace of the portable View-Master. William B. Gruber an inventor and photographer teamed up with postcard publisher Harold J. Graves and designed the iconic 3D viewer with stereoscopic technology over dinner in 1938. A year later it was introduced at the World’s Fair in New York as an alternative to post cards of scenic locales. Many models in a variety of colors took shape through the years. Today you may still purchase the small viewers along with commemorative 3D reels at the gift shop of the Oregon Caves Chateau.


History is also etched into the quaint and well-preserved, Gold Rush era village of Jacksonville, which was the first town in America designated as a National Historic Landmark. Located 7 miles west of Medford, Jacksonville–originally called Table Rock City, due to a nearby mesa–has much to offer. The name change honored President Andrew Jackson in this place conjuring up images of wagon trains and gold rush antics. It has over 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and this seemingly unaltered town is a place to explore heritage in self-guided walking tours with maps from their Visitors Center–housed in the former railroad station–or on narrated trolley tours offered in the spring, summer, and fall.


       The walking tours booklet suggests: “look closely at the storefronts for signs of the past–worn stone steps, faded advertisements painted on brick walls, bricked-in windows, and stone tablets with the name and construction date of the building.” The attractive, restored, open-air trolley–running hourly from 11 to 3 PM–is also a great way to learn about the history and architecture of Jacksonville, Oregon while riding in style.

Historic Jacksonville Oregon. MONTAGE BY JON H. DAVIS & IRIS BROOKS, © 2015 Click image to enlarge.


       There are many replica buildings due to a loss after fires in the 1870s wiped out wooden stores and sheds. But there are also quite a few original brick buildings still to be found. There is a butcher shop from 1854 and a re-purposed brick hotel from the 1870s (the United States Hotel) that accommodated General Sherman, President Rutherford B. Hayes and his entourage, before a skating rink was added and the hotel went out of business. Functioning as a historic site, the former Beekman Bank from 1884 still has the original bank scales credited with running 13 million dollars of gold through it when gold was valued at $13.00 per ounce.


       In 1852 gold was discovered in Daisy Creek by a pack of mules. Fortune hunters flooded the region and the town thrived as one of the largest in southern Oregon, even becoming the seat of the county government in 1853. Gold sluice boxes are visible, where they acted as a trough to separate the gold from the sand or gravel mixed with it.


       The Bella Union Restaurant resides in a building dating from 1868 and was the location for a 1970 film titled, Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. Before becoming a saloon, the building operated as a machine shop and a saddlery. Other buildings have new purposes, but the signs remain, as in the Table Rock Billiards Saloon (1860), which now functions as a coffee shop. The old jailhouse (where the last official hanging took place in the early 1900s) now operates as an art center and the adjacent firehouse functions as a Fire Museum.


       We pass the Peter Britt Gardens with magnolia and monkey trees. Britt was a known photographer who was the first to shoot images of the iconic Crater Lake Park; later documenting people, places, and events in Jacksonville. But he originally arrived by oxcart in pursuit of gold, like so many of the early inhabitants of Jacksonville.


       Today the Britt Gardens and amphitheatre are a venue for the popular summer, Peter Britt Festival featuring over 100 musicians performing in a variety of genres. The expansive grounds also offer several lush hiking trails with a variety of wildflowers. The trolley tour passes interesting, older residences and we glimpse the house of the first Bozo the Clown, who later became the voice-over artist tor Grumpy, Pluto, and other characters from Disney’s Snow White.


       History abounds in the Jacksonville Cemetery on a hilltop with expansive, panoramic views and 24-acres of woodlands. It is a quiet place to walk amidst the ponderosa pines and clear your head or you might opt for the downloadable, narrated walking tour of the cemetery. If you prefer something more lively and urban, strolling the town is rewarding with boutiques offering handmade, local products and crafts. And there are about two-dozen, all-weather hiking trails, which are part of the Jacksonville Woodlands Historical Natural Park and Trail System, with an excellent map outlining routes, length, and difficulty of this “woodlands necklace” surrounding the town.


       Jacksonville Inn and their luxurious Honeymoon Cottages around the corner (with whirlpool tubs, steam room, multi-sided fireplaces, and private gardens) are highly recommended for an inviting, private, and pampered environment during a visit to Jacksonville. The well-situated inn was built in 1861 from locally quarried sandstone and today you enter through a very well stocked wine shop, which doubles as the welcoming reception area.


       The Inn is also known for its acclaimed and distinctive fine dining experience in a romantic room lit by candlelight. You may linger over a home-cooked breakfast with fresh-squeezed orange juice served in a brick room imbued with history, featuring vintage photographs and a glimpse of the past or on the outdoor, garden patio. I am not surprised to discover the Jacksonville Inn was voted “Best Restaurant” in the region for many years and after a day of hiking, it is the perfect place for a gourmet, culinary indulgence.


Southern Oregon is also a destination to hike through ancient forests and expansive parks like Ashland's Lithia Park, which dates back to 1892 (recently named one of the top ten Great American Spaces by the American Planning Association), and soak in the therapeutic waters of Lithia Springs.


       Many travelers visit Ashland (not to be confused with 30 other towns by the same name across the United States), drawn to America’s oldest Elizabethan theater featured in Ashland’s annual summer Oregon Shakespeare Festival (extending beyond the summer season). They produce more than Shakespeare, featuring a selection of contemporary drama and cultural connections in courtyard performances encompassing everything from aerial dance and Chinese opera to music of Zimbabwe in the “Green Shows.”

       Ashland hosts other festivals celebrating books, film, chamber music, and culinary highlights along with being home for a thriving artist community. But I am drawn to the walking opportunities. There are Ashland Audiowalks, led by actors and self-guided walking tours accompanied by tour-players to explore early settlements, evolution of the railway and Railroad District, and historic homes in America’s West.


       The town of Ashland has an inviting collection of eclectic galleries with alluring glass works and artful earthenware, intriguing shops with unexpected treasures ranging from Chinese singing water bowls and Tibetan bells to Pendleton blankets and hats, and tasteful restaurants for all palates along with an expansive, healthy food co-op. Strolling through the town you may discover the perfect gift for a hard to please relative or handmade shoes for your next walking excursion.


       Equally enticing is the extensive Lithia Park on 93 acres, with 42 of them listed in the National Register. Lithia Park began in 1892 with 8 acres and was formally established in 1908 as southern Oregon’s first park. Shakespeare performances were added in 1935. Lithia Park–on the site of an old flour mill–was lovingly landscaped in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead (New York’s Central Park) by landscape architect John McLaren (known for his design of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California).


       The accessible park (within the downtown area) includes an easy path with little elevation along the east side of the Ashland Creek. You may stroll past Japanese Gardens (designed in 1916), duck ponds, and a rose garden (appreciated by the deer as well as human visitors). The natural and evolving habitat showcases Japanese maples, Oregon grapes, Eastern flowering dogwood, and American ash. From local, native alders, oaks, Oregon myrtle, and Ponderosa pine to imported London plane tree, bamboo, sycamore, and Southern magnolia, there is much to admire. Guided nature walks are also available three times a week from May through September.

       The park is a short walk from the historic Ashland Springs Hotel, now celebrating its 90th anniversary. Lovingly restored, this landmark hotel, a member of Historic Hotels of America, opened to the public in 1925. The stately, nine-story hotel is easy to spot in downtown Ashland, designed with hybrid architecture, mixing gothic and Beaux Arts styles. The rooms provide amenities such as local lavender for a relaxing soak in the tub. But if you are looking for healing waters, consider a stay at their sister property, the Lithia Springs Resort.


       Natural Lithia springs mineral water is an important component in the healing landscape of Ashland and the surrounding area. In centuries past, Native Americans were attracted to the curative properties of Lithia Springs, and are said to have laid down weapons in this place to settle conflicts. For them, the water was sacred.


       Today the Lithia Springs Resort, just outside of the town of Ashland, also believes these rejuvenating waters have relaxing and healing powers. Their water is a mixture of natural spring water (with a high sulfur content) and rainwater, said to draw out impurities. Their in-room soaking tubs are outfitted with jets, through which aerated, potable mineral water (off-gassing the sulfuric odor without chemicals) is pumped into the room in your bungalow, retaining the restorative and detoxifying properties of the highly alkaline water.


       After feeling the curative power of the water in your oversized soaking tub, you may choose to linger at the koi pond or inhale the fragrances in the organic gardens, imbued with a sense of tranquility, relieving any residual stress before enjoying the tasty, homemade breakfast with freshly baked scones and muffins, accompanied by an inspirational quote. The expert gardener also advises on an indoor blackboard, telling us what is in bloom at the moment along with which birds or other animals have been spotted on the property.


       The loop of these three towns makes for an inviting drive for travelers interested in history, healing, and the natural world. And it is a perfect time to recall a Lithia Springs breakfast quote by Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology:

“This is the gift–to have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy!"





       The Chateau at the Oregon Caves

       (Open May – November)


       Jacksonville Inn and Honeymoon Cottages


       Ashland Springs Hotel


       Lithia Springs Resort (serving breakfast only)


       MORE INFO:


       Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve


       Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center


       Ashland Oregon Chamber of Commerce

Iris Brooks, a regular contributor to the World & I, is a cultural explorer, writer, and photographer with over 500 arts and travel articles published in a variety of magazines. Learn more about her work and newest projects along with photo and video collaborator, Jon H. Davis on the NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO web site,

This article originally appeared in the World & I magazine, November 2015.