He stands guard over the north entrance to the city nigh 20 feet tall, hardened arms and sinewy muscles, a mighty club gripped tightly in his left hand. He’s the Grants Pass Caveman statue, a novelty of both civic-minded businessmen and mascot of the local high school. The Caveman was birthed by a group of businessmen in 1922 who were looking for ways to promote tourism in Josephine County. One of the major natural attractions in the county is the nearby Oregon Caves, and though no Neanderthals were discovered there, the name has stuck for almost 100 years.
The concrete arches of the Caveman Bridge span the Rogue River like twin rainbows. The waterway starts high in the Cascade Mountains near Crater Lake and stretches all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The tributary runs through the heart of our small city in southern Oregon and is its lifeblood, from the tourists it brings in, to the drinking water it provides. The bridge, built in 1927, is an architectural icon of Grants Pass. It’s known as a “mini McCullough” because it was designed by bridge engineer Conde McCullough who also built the bulk of the famous art deco bridges along the Oregon coast. A weathered green sign sits next to the entrance of the one-way bridge, white letters announcing to visitors the bridge is a gateway to the Redwood Empire, Oregon Caves, and the Golden Gate Bridge, the last destination a curious claim considering the Golden Gate is 400 miles away. But the city is a gateway to some fine riding through rugged land that was formed by tectonic plates clashing and volcanic upheavals. The forests are thick, the mountains majestic, and waterways are abundant. Seeing how much of the landscape remains unchanged, perchance picking a caveman as mascot for these parts was indeed appropriate.
In the spirit of the Hudson Bay trappers and gold prospectors who first traveled to this area during the westward expansion, we charted four courses through both the familiar and unknown, the Shamrock Tour® providing the perfect opportunity to explore a handful of roads we’d never ridden. There’d be no need for a covered wagon, though, as a 2018 Indian Springfield served as our trusty steed, its mighty 1,811cc Thunder Stroke 111 with enough ponies that it probably could have pulled a cover wagon. The Springfield runs the same cast aluminum frame and swingarm as Indian’s touring motorcycles, the only difference being a scant less trail. It doesn’t have the heft of a front fairing weighing down its fork, either, and many claim it’s the most agile of all the big Indians. Four-day trips on the roads of southern Oregon would be the perfect proving grounds for this lofty claim.
Mount McLoughlin towers above the southern Oregon landscape, its 9,495-foot peak still capped by snow despite it being early summer. Its shape is archetypal, two even sides and a pointy apex, the kind of mountain kids draw in grade school. Though it hasn’t erupted for 20,000 to 30,000 years, it is a volcano, a recurring theme with many of the mountains in Pacific Northwest ranges. Today’s route would loop around the monolith.
It’s a quick initial blast down I-5 south to Gold Hill, just long enough to get fluids running through the Indian’s big powerplant and put some heat in the tires. The Springfield sprints to highway speed in two quick shifts. In sixth gear the bike settles into an easy, loping cadence at 75 mph and the tach hovers at 2,800 rpm with plenty of passing power a twist of the throttle away.
Outside Gold Hill is a shortcut through a rural stretch called Sams Valley. It’s a two-lane road through small ranches and farms, so we bump speed down to 55. Cows crowd the fence line, conjuring the old adage about the grass being greener. The road skirts the Table Rocks, a pair of flat plateaus that are popular with hikers. Fields hover in the state between spring and summer, the verdant mats tinged with just a touch of tan.
Motorcycle & Gear
While the first two stretches are fairly straight and uneventful, our patience is rewarded when we hit Butte Falls Highway. Before long we’re in a series of sweet “S” turns where the Springfield exhibits great stability and composure on its edges. The road begins to wind up the mountain like a snake and the forest gets denser. Blink and you might miss the tiny lumber town of Butte Falls. My wife and I park our bikes in front of the country store, grab something to drink, then head to the quaint little park across the street. A wooden carving of a lumberjack stands on the corner, a reflection of the town’s logging history. His name’s Ralph Bunyan, little brother of folklore hero Paul. Leaving Butte Falls, houses become few and farther between as the road continues its ebb and flow up the mountain. Not far down the road is the turnoff for Willow Lake, one of many high mountain lakes in the shadow of Mount McLoughlin. Fishing boats buzz around the lake as a pair of American white pelicans come in for a landing. A late season storm dusted the mountain with snow two days before our journey, and it’s at least 20 degrees cooler than usual this time of year. Luckily, I stashed an extra layer in the saddlebag of the Springfield.
The twists and turns of this spirited stretch yield to Highway 140, the main road between the two biggest cities in southern Oregon, Medford and Klamath Falls. As such, the tranquility of the prior stretch is broken by cars in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a short hop to Lake of the Woods, another popular destination for campers and recreation seekers. Between its lodge-style restaurant, rental cabins, and marina, Lake of the Woods is bustling with visitors. It’s also a great place to be for the Fourth of July as they light up fireworks over the lake.