AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO OREGON’S 140-MILE VOLCANIC LEGACY SCENIC BYWAY
In order to earn the designation of a National Scenic Byways in the U.S., roads must possess traits from one or more of six categories—archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic. Beyond that designation, a highway can be deemed an “All-American Road” if also features one-of-a-kind elements that exist nowhere else. The road or highway must also be considered a “destination unto itself.”
Those are some serious qualifiers, and a grand total of only 31 byways in the United States have obtained All-American Road status making them the crown jewels of the nation’s highway system. One of those gems is the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, which winds 140 miles through southern Oregon (en route to a total of 500 miles when including northern California), offering an incredible ride through this unique part of the country.
The nature of this region was sculpted by the byway’s namesake volcanoes, which influenced he geology, flora, fauna, and human history of the area. The Cascade Mountain Range, which extends from northern California into British Columbia, are the result of a geographic phenomenon called subduction. In this case, the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate plunged beneath the North American plate until the resulting pressure escapes the earth in a volcanic expression—including one gigantic volcano that would shaped the region’s landscape.
Visitors can take a boat tour to Wizard’s Island, the cinder cone in Crater Lake.
That volcano—Mt. Mazama—doesn’t exist anymore, at least not the way it did before 5677 BC, when it erupted in spectacular fashion, estimated to be 42 times greater than the force of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Over time, the collapsed volcanic crater (known as a caldera) would fill with snow and rainwater, forming Crater Lake, the deepest lake in North America.
Long before settlers reach the region, the native Klamath tribes (including the Modoc and Yahooskin) called the region home for millenia. According to native legend, Mt. Mazama was home to Llao, the god of the underworld. It was a great battle between Llao and the sky god, Skell, that was the ultimate of the mountain. In the time between the great eruption and the arrival of the first white settlers, the Klamath people thrived on the bounty of the land.
Visit the historic Crater Lake Lodge while in the national park.
Today, the Oregon Volcanic Byway is a tale of two sections: The Upper Klamath Lake & Klamath Falls Region, which spans 80 road miles and can be explored year-round, and the Crater Lake Region, which is roughly 60 miles and best done in summer. Starting at the northern terminus of the Byway at the junction of Highways 97 and 138, the drive begins in a westerly fashion, with the sharpened peak of Mt. Thielsen looming to the north, and Mt. Scott off in the distance to the south.
It doesn’t take long before you enter Crater Lake National Park, the only National Park in the state of Oregon. While the entire Volcanic Byway is strewn with highlights competing for the attention of visitors, Crater Lake is the headlining act. Plan to spend some time there. The Rim Drive circles the lake, and is an absolute must-do. The 33-mile long route affords a number of jaw-droppingly beautiful viewpoints, mini-hikes, and a few spots to access the lake, including Cleetwood Cove. Boat tours to Wizard’s Island, the cinder cone of the ancient volcano, are offered there and the brave can even swim in the perennially chilly lake at the cove. The route can be driven clockwise or counterclockwise, either way visitors will want to make sure to include a stop at the historic Crater Lake Lodge before leaving the park.
The Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a highlight on the Volcanic Scenic Byway.
Continuing south from Crater Lake on Highway 62, the byway passes by some fascinating volcanic geology in the form of ancient chimney-like fumaroles and other truly unique geological oddities. Those in need of a cultural or historical fix should stop at Fort Klamath, a former military outpost turned museum that details the tragic history of the Modoc War between Native Americans and early settlers.
After passing through Klamath Falls, scenery and wildlife compete for top billing as the byway enters the Upper Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Off to the west are views of Mt. McLoughlin and to the east, the 30-mile long and 8-mile wide Upper Klamath Lake. The largest body of freshwater west of the Rockies is jam packed with fish & fowl, and begs to be explored by canoe or boat tour.
The Oregon section of the byway can be concluded with a side trip to the Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge just west of Highway 97. Home to old-growth forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, the refuge also serves as sanctuary for a wide array of bird species throughout the year, and offers one last chance to commune with nature before finishing up the Oregon section of the byway or continuing on into California where the road concludes at Lake Almanor, just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park.
The geography of this region abruptly changed forever more than 7,000 years ago. The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway is a great way to see those changes and explore the incredibly scenic legacy of such an explosion.
Written by Adam Sawyer for RootsRated in partnership with Discover Klamath Visitor and Convention Bureau.