Capturing the Rogue spirit in southwestern Oregon can be wet and wild.
There's no missing the Caveman once you head into downtown Grants Pass. Standing almost 20 feet tall, clutching a club, and clad only in an animal skin, the statue has been the town's mascot since 1971.
The Caveman's influence can be seen throughout this historic little town in the heart of Oregon's Josephine Valley. His image adorns the helmets of the high school football team, and a quick flip through the phone book reveals nearly 20 businesses that begin with "Caveman."
It's clear that Grants Pass—an easygoing town of 23,000—is proud to showcase its past in any way that it can. Surrounded by heavily timbered rolling hills and split by the dramatic beauty of the Rogue River, the downtown has been designated a National Historic District. Strolling along its tree-lined streets past the carefully preserved buildings is a delight.
Grants Pass had originally been a stagecoach stop along the Applegate Trail, which brought miners to the gold-fields of Northern California. When gold was discovered in the nearby rivers in 1851, this stop quickly became a commercial center for the region's mining and timber industries. Officially founded in 1883, the town was named in honor of General Ulysses S. Grant's victory over Confederate forces at Vicksburg. The stagecoach route eventually gave way to train tracks, and, by the time the 20th century arrived, the town had become the county seat boasting a courthouse, library, opera house, and several theaters.
A great way to get to know the town is to swing by the Josephine County Historical Society and take one of the group's walking tours. The route starts out with a series of late-19th-century homes complete with original period furnishings and fixtures. Then it's a few short blocks over to the intersection of Sixth and G, where a bustling row of shops and restaurants sits behind classic facades. In search of the rare and unusual? Try either the Blue Moon or Stovepipe antiques stores or sample the international wares at Tierra del Sol.
If you're looking for a more informal shopping venue, be sure to catch the outdoor Growers' Market every Saturday morning from spring through fall. Originally offering only locally grown produce, the market now includes everything from handmade arts and crafts to freshly baked foods. All are reasonably priced. The market always draws big crowds, so get there early.
Beyond its relaxed charm, Grants Pass also makes a great ground zero for day trips throughout the area. The rugged coast is just a two-hour drive away through rolling canyons and towering redwoods. Ashland, with its legendary Victorian homes and award-winning Shakespeare festival, is only 40 miles south. The small town of Merlin, home to Wildlife Images, where sick, injured, or orphaned animals are gently nursed back to health, lies 14 miles north. With year-round tours and educational programs that feature wild bears, cougars, and eagles, it's a perfect place to take the kids.
Set in the heart of the state's banana belt, Grants Pass is blessed with an unusually dry, mild climate, ideal for hiking, camping, and fishing. The Siskiyou National Forest—1.1 million acres covering two mountain ranges and hosting more than 1,400 species of plants, many of them rare—sits just outside the city limits. Beyond that, the 18 parks that dot the surrounding Illinois Valley offer plenty of camping. Olympic Creek is a popular hiking spot for day-trippers, and the trail at Rainey Falls leads to the base of a beautiful waterfall where migrating salmon perform dramatic jumps as they work their way upstream to breed. If you'd rather catch salmon than watch them, the stretches of the Rogue and Applegate rivers just outside town are prime territory for hooking big chinook and coho as well as summer steelhead.
The Rogue River also provides one of the premier attractions in Grants Pass: river rafting. World renowned for its classic white-water runs, the Rogue features an 84-mile stretch that was officially designated a wild and scenic area by Congress. Whether you want to float lazily along on a raft, charge the rapids in a kayak, or take a daylong catered cruise on a jet boat through the legendary Hellgate Canyon, you're sure to find a local outfitter to meet your needs.
If you feel more comfortable on land, then a trip to nearby Oregon Caves National Monument is in order. Known as the "marble halls of Oregon," the caves lie just southwest of Grants Pass. Discovered by a deer hunter in 1874, the seemingly endless network of underground chambers featured on the 90-minute tours provides visitors with an adventure in geology. Colored stalactites seem to drip from the rocky roofs, stalagmites rise off the damp floors, and eerily shaped formations of "cave popcorn" and "moonmilk" line the passages. Surprisingly, there is no evidence that prehistoric humans ever dwelt in these caverns, though that didn't seem to faze the townspeople who erected the Caveman.
In fact, this prehistoric theme was the inspiration for the "world's most unique club"—the Oregon Cavemen of Grants Pass. Formed in 1922 to boost awareness of the town and the nearby caves, this group of local businesspeople has donned shaggy animal skins to welcome such visiting dignitaries as Shirley Temple, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. They even made international headlines during the Cold War when the Soviet press miscast them as "an antireligious group that claims the prehistoric era is better than present conditions in the United States." Of course, visitors today will discover that such thinking is, well, primitive.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are in the 541 area code unless noted. Pick up AAA's Oregon & Washington TourBook and map. For additional information, contact the Grants Pass Visitors Bureau, 476-7717, (800) 547-5927, www.visitgrantspass.org .
Hawthorne Inn & Suites, 243 NE Morgan Lane, 472-1808, (800) 527-1133. Fifty-nine rooms. Rates from $67 to$145
Riverside Inn, 971 SE Sixth St., 476-6873, (800) 334-4567,www.riverside-inn.com . One hundred sixty-five rooms. Rates from $69 to $275.
Sweet Breeze Inn, 1627 NE Sixth St., 471-4434, (800) 349-4434. Twenty-one rooms. Rates from $45 to $65.
Weasku Inn, 5560 Rogue River Hwy., 471-8000, (800) 493-2758, www.weasku.com . Seventeen rooms. Rates from $110 to $350.
Big Daddy's, 956 Rouge River Hwy., 479-8667. Burgers and ice cream specialties.
Laughing Clam, 121 SW G St., 479-1110. Fresh seafood, steaks, sandwiches, and salads, plus daily specials.
Wild River Brewing & Pizza Company, 595 NE E St., 471-7487, www.wildriverbrewing.com . Microbrews and best pizza in the valley.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Growers' Market, Fourth and F streets, 476-5375, www.growersmarket.org . Saturday mornings March-November.
Hellgate Jetboat Excursions, 479-7204, (800) 648-4874, www.hellgate.com . May-September.
Josephine County Historical Society Museum, 508 SW Fifth St., 479-7827, www.webtrail.com/jchs .
Oregon Caves National Monument, 52 miles southwest on Hwy. 46, 592-2100, www.nps.gov/orca .
Rainman Excursions, 774-7131, (800) 575-6799, Rafting and float trips.
Wildlife Images Rehabilitation & Education Center, 476-0222, www.wildlifeimages.org .
Rogue River Rooster Crow, live rooster crowing competition, parade, logging show, and carnival. June 29-July 1. 582-0242. Back to the '50s Summer Celebra-tion, classic car show, wine stroll, and music. July 27-29. 476-5773.
Josephine County Fair, August 14-18. 476-3215.
Photography by James Katz
This article was first published in July 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.