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The Umpqua National Forest and Scenic Byway 138


The Umpqua National Forest and Scenic Byway 138

By Andy Harris

If you are traveling to Ashland, are new to Ashland, or haven’t yet made it out to visit the Umpqua National Forest, Diamond Lake, and the many waterfalls, hiking, camping, fishing, hot springs, and more, then we are here to say – put it on your bucket list!

Diamond Lake

Just over 2 hours away from Ashland sits Diamond Lake, a natural lake that was formed during the last ice age and which survived Mt. Manzama’s volcanic blast some 7,700 years ago that resulted in Crater Lake. Crater Lake is located only 30 minutes south of Diamond Lake, and is obviously the gem in an area full of them. But we’ve covered Crater Lake before, and we aren’t here today to speak specifically about the magnificent wonders of Crater Lake.

Diamond Lake is adorned by the pointy, european alp-like Mt. Thielsen, which looks a bit like the hat in Harry Potter which tells the children what “house” they belong to. It’s a sublime mountain, and the Thielsen View campground, where my partner and I stayed, is recommended for the excellent views – but also for being much smaller than the Diamond Lake Campground that sits below Mt. Thielsen. The Diamond Lake Campground does have great views of Mt. Bailey, which is an impressive mountain over 8000 feet, but doesn’t quite have the distinct looks of Mt. Thielsen. The Diamond Lake Campground does have reservable campsites, so if that is something that you need or want, it’s a great fit.

View from Mt. Thielsen Campground

View from Mt. Thielsen Campground

One of the great features of Diamond Lake is its 11.5 miles paved bike-path that surrounds it. It’s excellent for hiking, walking, or biking, and is a great resource for those in wheelchairs or who are otherwise in need of a paved trail.

Diamond Lake is well known for its rainbow trout fishing, and it’s estimated that there are over 205,000 trout in the lake. The lake has a 10 mile an hour boat speed limit, so it’s quite tranquil and nice for fishing or other leisurely boating activities. Diamond Lake Resort offers both boat rentals and boat charters.

North Umpqua River and Waterfalls

After spending a day and night at Diamond Lake, we continued on for a day of waterfalls, hot springs and epic views. We began our journey onto Route 138 toward Roseburg, and quickly began to descend from about 5000 feet. There were deep gorges and sheer cliff faces worn from ages of wind and snow and rain.

Our first stop was at Watson Falls, the tallest waterfalls in Southern Oregon at 292 feet. There’s a nice path that leads uphill for about 15 minutes along a roaring river to a platform that over looks the entirety of the falls. The green plant life at the base of the falls from the splashing water is breathtaking. It’s quite similar to the popular and more well-known Multnomah Falls along the Columbia River Gorge near Portland.

From Watson Falls, we continued to follow the N. Umpqua River to the Umpqua Hot Springs for a hot soak to warm our bones after a chilly night in a tent. The hot springs sit beautifully on a steep bank above the North Umpqua River and beneath trees towering toward the sun. The various hot spring pools vary in temperature and one main pool is covered. And while you do not have to partake, you should expect to find people enjoying the pools in the raw.

After our hot mineral bath, we returned back toward Route 138, where we pulled off in the parking lot for the incredible Toketee Falls. Toketee means “pretty” or “graceful” in Chinook Jargon, and it is quite apropos. The two-tier waterfall drops approximately 120 feet, and the rock formations on either side of the waterfall are nearly as impressive and unique. We believe that both Watson and Toketee Falls are must see waterfalls if you decide to take this trip. There are many other waterfalls to explore and discover along the way as well.

Toketee Falls

Toketee Falls

From Toketee Falls, we spent the rest of the afternoon driving Rt. 138 toward our campground and enjoying the splendid views of the valley and the river. We ended up spending our second night camping roughly 5 miles from Rt. 138 at Steamboat Falls Campground. Many of the camping spots along the North Umpqua River are located just off Route 138, and we prefer a campground where road noise is minimal or nonexistent. This was a perfect site for us, small and intimate, and just on the edge of Steamboat Creek and Steamboat Falls. If you are searching for other sites that might fits your needs and desires, check out the U.S. National Forest Campground Guide for the Umpqua National Forest.

Steamboat Creek

Steamboat Creek

Hiking the North Umpqua Trail 

Before heading back to Ashland via Roseburg and I-5 on the west end of Route 138, we headed out for a day hike on the Tioga Segment of the North Umpqua Trail – a 79 mile trail along the North Umpqua River. The North Umpqua Trail has 11 trail segments that range from 3.5 miles to 15.7 miles. You can, of course, hike entire or partial sections of each trail, or the entire 79 mile trail. Bikers and horses are also welcome on the trail, as is camping. The Roseburg District BLM offers an excellent brochure on the North Umpqua Trail that we highly recommend.

We hope that sometime soon you are able to head out to yet another amazing area close to Ashland, and remove it from your bucket list!

Umpqua National Forest

Hiking the Umpqua National Forest