The gardens and trees of Lithia Park are a feast for the senses, especially during the fall. That’s when the foliage turns this municipal wonder of Ashland, Oregon into a kaleidoscope of yellows, reds and purples. In addition to spectacular maples and other hardwoods, the park—situated southwest of downtown, where it follows Ashland Creek to its headwaters on the flanks of Mount Ashland—showcases beautiful flowers, shrubs, and pines. The vegetation is a unique blend of native plants and exotic species; some of the trees are more than a century old.
Trace those botanical roots to 1893, when the Southern Oregon Chautauqua Association erected a beehive dome along the banks of Ashland Creek as an entertainment venue to bring music, physical education and sermons to the rural area. The site became the cultural focus of southern Oregon, hosting celebrities from William Jennings Bryan to Susan B. Anthony. In 1908, the city of Ashland then set aside large parts of the original Chautauqua property and dedicated Lithia Park in 1915, hiring John McLaren, the famed designer of California’s Golden Gate Park, to develop the gardens. The park and its old Chautauqua building helped launch the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which still brings hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer to the city of 21,000. Named one of the top ten Great American Spaces, the National Register of Historic Places also designated it in 1982 as “a complete reflection of the public park movement.”
And the park truly has something for everyone, with ornamental gardens, big meadows, and a countless number of amazing plants—the vegetation growing thicker and taller as you enter the southern part of the park. See towering stands of rhododendron, ponderosa pine, a giant sequoia, and a glorious dawn redwood. Stop at benches and picnic tables tucked into clusters of ferns and shade trees, presenting tempting spots to sit and soak in the areas’ natural beauty and rugged geography marked by boulders and cliff bands.
Sure, you can grab a pastry from one of Ashland’s picturesque Victorian-styled restaurants to relax in one of those quiet nooks. Or, you can drink from the ornate, public fountain near the park’s entrance, though the mineral-rich, lithium salt-laced spring water (for which the park is named) is an acquired taste. But one of the best bets: Wait for the summer crowds to depart, and follow the birds, deer and butterflies to explore the stunning changing colors of the gardens and forests each fall.