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Exploring the Waters and Trails of the North Umpqua Valley

Fly Fishing on the Umpqua River in Southern Oregon

Rugged and remote, North Umpqua Valley offers endless opportunities for exploration.

Fly fishing on the Umpqua River in Southern Oregon
Photo by Arian Stevens

The story of the North Umpqua Valley begins and ends with a river. In between are chapters filled with stories of rugged exploration and boundless recreation, bookended by tumbling waterfalls, percolating hot springs and singletrack trails that cling to mountainsides and carve through hidden valleys. Then there is the river itself that bubbles from deep beneath the jagged floor of the Mount Thielsen Wilderness high atop Southern Oregon’s Cascade Range. It emerges clear and cold, plunging headlong toward the ocean through an ancient forest that still harbors a few secrets. On its way, it will gather countless small streams, tributaries that stretch like liquid capillaries into the vast forest of old growth Douglas fir and cedar trees.

For millennia the rivers and forests have sustained a reclusive and resourceful population. Native Americans made this valley their home long before the first explorers came to North America. They hunted deer and elk in the surrounding forests, gathered migrating salmon and steelhead from the clear blue pools of the North Umpqua in the shadow of Mount Mazama, long before it erupted to form Crater Lake. The first European settlers would arrive later, drawn by the same bounty and sheltered beauty of a place so remote that the first paved road wouldn’t be laid down until the mid-1960s. Even today, cell phones are largely useless in the North Umpqua Valley. The remote nature of this place is one of its charms. In a hyperconnected world, unplugging on a visit to the North Umpqua isn’t just a recommendation—it’s a prerequisite.

On the Water

Of all the ways to experience and explore the North Umpqua River, whitewater rafting and kayaking has to be the most thrilling—in a white knuckle, screams-of-joy kind of way. While the North Umpqua doesn’t offer the remote, overnight extended adventures that have made its sister river, the nearby Rogue, an international rafting attraction, the jaw-dropping scenery, plunging chutes and sheer volume of whitewater make a day on the North Umpqua a must-do for any adventure-minded tourist looking for the full experience.

While there are local shuttles available for kayakers and DIY rafters, the river is not a place for novices. Numerous Class III and IV rapids as well as logs and boulders make it a run best left to experts and experienced paddlers. For the rest of us, there are multiple whitewater guide services that operate out of nearby Roseburg as well as Bend, including Sun Country Tours, which shuttles guests from Bend to the Umpqua and back in the span of a day.

Hook, Line, Sinker

Fly Fishing on the Umpqua River in Southern Oregon
Photo by Arian Stevens

The North Umpqua is in many ways ground zero for Northwest steelhead fly fishing, a sport that has been elevated to a kind of aesthetic art in places like the Steamboat Inn, where an entire room is dedicated to the sport’s literature and lore. The thread picks up early in the 19th century when pulp novelist and fishing fanatic Zane Grey set up his fishing camp opposite of what is now the Steamboat Inn, above a long gravel bar below Steamboat Creek. It was here that Grey, a prolific author, spent several summers chasing the fabled summer steelhead during the dawn hours and writing his serial Western novels on the banks of the river in the afternoon.

Today, thousands of anglers make an annual pilgrimage in hopes of intercepting one of these seemingly sacred fish on their spawning journey. It’s no small feat. Steelhead are known as the fish of a thousand casts. And that’s if you know what you’re doing. Assuming you don’t, there are several guides that work the thirty-mile, fly fishing-only section of the river around the Steamboat. The Inn offers a nice selection of hand-tied flies and can help arrange guided trips.

Trail Tales

Mountain biking on the North Umpqua Trail in Southern Oregon.
Photo by Amadeus Tiller

The North Umpqua Trail is the most recent addition to the region’s list of draws for recreation seekers, having been completed in 1997. It consists of a dozen segments stretching from Maidu Lake, the source of the North Umpqua river, to Swiftwater Recreation Park and Deadline Falls near the small town of Glide, where hikers and bikers can pause to watch salmon and steelhead navigate the churning falls in feats of aerial acrobatics.

All told, the trail stretches roughly seventy-eight miles, climbing and diving through the valley’s many side canyons and forested arteries. On its way, the trail drops some 4,500 feet, making it a largely one-way trail for bikers not blessed with legs of Lance Armstrong.

Thankfully, several businesses offer shuttles as well as guided trips for those who believe that trail sections with names like Dread and Terror are best navigated with some expert assistance. Oregon Mountain Guides, based in nearby Idleyld Park, offers guided tours as well as shuttles and support.

Riverside History

photo by Joshua Rainey Photography​

While most rafters and anglers opt for one of the many campgrounds that dot the banks of the North Umpqua, those looking for something more refined have a few options. First and foremost is the historic Steamboat Inn. The inn has been the center of civic and commercial life in the upper valley for more than half a century. The low-slung lodge and surrounding cabins sit on a picturesque bluff that noses into a sharp bend in the river, overlooking a series of braided falls just below the confluence of Steamboat Creek, the major tributary to the North Umpqua and a once bustling gold mining claim. Rooms range from suites with kitchenettes and private decks overlooking the river to small cottages adjacent to the Inn, as well as several more cabins across the river where Zane Grey’s fish camp once resided.

New owners Melinda and Travis Woodward have maintained the Steamboat’s reputation for great food, which is served up in a historic dining room under pictures of North Umpqua legends like Jack Hemingway and the late Dan Callaghan, who chronicled the river’s many moods in countless photos. In the middle of the room, below a display of fly rods suspended from the timber rafters, a single solid fir table stretches nearly the length of the room; historically, the table served as the communal gathering place for the evening meal.

The table remains, but Melinda and Travis have done away with the “Fisherman’s Dinner” single-seating concept in favor of a more conventional approach that allows diners to come and go at their convenience, which Melinda said works better for families and fisherman, most of whom are on the water in the evening until dark. They have also extended the off-season chef dinner series that pairs Oregon wineries with prominent chefs from around the state for an evening of riverside dining with emphasis on Oregon ingredients.

Other Attractions

Toketee Falls on the Umpqua River in Southern Oregon
Photo by Alex Jordan

Black diamond mountain bike trails and whitewater rafting aren’t necessarily suited for the whole family. But that’s not all that the North Umpqua has to offer.

Those interested in a more low-impact day can take a self-guided waterfall tour that features half a dozen falls, ranging from the dramatic (Watson Falls plunges more than 270-feet) to the sublime.

For those feeling a little more adventurous, Umpqua Hot Springs near Toketee Ranger Station is a popular destination.

Big Bend Pool on Steamboat Creek is another great option for families. Here you can find a window into the world of the elusive summer steelhead that stack in a deep blue pool waiting for nature’s cue to move farther upstream. Hundreds of steelhead can be seen here idling in the clear pool.

While there is plenty to keep you busy for days, if not weeks, within the valley, the area is also a popular jumping off spot for Crater Lake National Park. Nearby Diamond Lake Resort also offers a nice diversion for families who want a more traditional day at the beach, complete with pedal boats and ice cream cones.

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