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Bucolic Ashland, Ore., is a Shakespeare-steeped literary retreat

Salt needs pepper. Romeo needs Juliet. And your epic nature trip to Crater Lake might need a cultural detour.

Enter Ashland, Ore., which sits in the bucolic Bear Creek Valley about 90 miles southwest of Crater Lake and 16 miles north of the California border.

It was born in the 19th century as a mill town on the banks of Ashland Creek. But things took a turn in the early 1890s.

That's when the community hooked up with the burgeoning Chautauqua movement, which brought summer performances and lectures to towns across the country as a sort of national self-improvement campaign. Then in 1935 came another summer innovation: a three-day Shakespeare festival.

By the 1950s, its adaptations of the Bard's plays were being broadcast nationally on NBC radio. By 1960, the production schedule had grown to include works by other playwrights.

By 1977 the festival grounds had grown to include three venues. These days, about 125,000 theater lovers, from San Francisco and beyond, visit each year.

Now the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the country's most successful regional theaters. Along with Southern Oregon University (about 5,400 undergrads), it largely defines the town. Shows are offered February through November.

Adjacent to festival grounds is Lithia Park, a 93-acre haven of tamed greenery that follows Ashland Creek. I meandered through after listening to street musician Cody Meyocks, 26, pick out a few folk songs on his banjo.

"I just wound up here when I got stuck hitchhiking some years ago," he told me. "You couldn't ask for a more gorgeous spot."

I happened to be here on a Monday night, so the closest I got to a live theater experience was a glimpse of crew members fussing with a hydraulic stage lift in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. But the town's musicians were eager to keep everyone entertained.

Besides Meyocks and his banjo, there was an open-mike night at Oberon's Tavern and a jazz quartet at Martino's, where I had a nice risotto primavera before retiring to a pleasant room at the historic Ashland Springs Hotel.

For a town of about 21,000, Ashland has a striking number of upscale restaurants, bars, galleries and shops, including several independent bookshops. English majors should brace for the lit-geek thrill that comes from seeing so many businesses with Shakespearean names. Oberon's Tavern. Puck's Doughnuts. The Best Western Bard's Inn.

I should note that city leaders are struggling to cope with young transients, sometimes known as travelers, who panhandle downtown. But that's the case in many college towns. And though locals are debating the trees and pavers chosen for the recent renovation of Downtown Plaza, downtown looked dandy to me.

Every newcomer, by the way, should approach Downtown Plaza's spring-fed drinking fountain with care. It's there to show off the city's mineral-rich water, which is said to be healthful and calming (as you might expect from a drink with trace elements of lithium).

As for the flavor — well, before I took my taste, I watched one tourist sip, spit and recoil.

"Phuh! That's gnarly, man!"

Yes, Ashland's beloved lithia water tastes like burnt matches.

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Tips for visitors to Crater Lake and Ashland, Ore.

DO'S AND DON'TS AT CRATER LAKE AND ASHLAND, ORE.

Don't expect full access to Crater Lake unless it's summer. The rim of the caldera, about 7,100 feet above sea level, gets 524 inches of snow in a typical year, which means that Crater Lake Lodge, Lost Creek Campground, sections of Rim Drive, Pinnacles Road and other roads in Crater Lake National Park are open just three or four months of the year. The Rim Village Cafe and Gift Shop, however, are open year round. To check on road closures, call (541) 594-3000, Ext. 1 or go to www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/directions.htm

Do prepare for some driving. The nearest airport is Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport, 80 miles southwest of the park. Apart from the seasonal self-service fuel pumps at the Mazama Village General Store, the gas stations nearest the lake are about 35 miles away in the towns of Chiloquin and Prospect. The park is 334 miles north of Sacramento International Airport, 726 miles north of Los Angeles City Hall.

Don't expect much from your cellphone. Service is unreliable in the park and neighboring areas.

Do a little homework on the area's dramatic geological history, its views and hiking trails at www.nps.gov/crla, then stop by the Steel Visitor Center (open year round; Munson Valley Road, Crater Lake National Park; [541] 594-3000), four miles north of Highway 62 and three miles south of Rim Village.

Don't be surprised if you feel a touch of altitude sickness; the rim, at 7,000 feet, is nearly as high as Machu Picchu.

Do some spend some time on Rim Drive. It traces a 33-mile route around the lake, with more than 30 pullouts and parking lots along the way, including great view spots such as Watchman Overlook, which looks almost straight down at Wizard Island. This year it opened in mid-June, but some years parts are closed until July. North Entrance Road and West Rim Drive usually open in early June. East Rim Drive usually follows in early July.

If you do want to stay at Crater Lake Lodge (565 Rim Village Drive, Rim Village, Crater Lake National Park; [888] 774-2728, www.craterlakelodges.com), book well ahead. Built in 1915 on the south rim of the lake and largely rebuilt in the early 1990s, the lodge, with 71 rooms, is open only in warmer months. This season the lodge is open through the morning of Oct. 12. Four floors. There are no televisions or phones in guest rooms. Wi-Fi is free; bandwidth limited. Rates for 2016 are about $180-$309. In the dining room, walk-in service is fine for breakfast and lunch, but reservations are required for dinner. Service can be inconsistent.

If you want a break from higher prices at the lodge, do think about the Rim Village Cafe and Gift Shop, especially at lunch time. The cafe is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. for much of the year, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. in summer.

Do check out Sinnott Memorial Observation Station, or Sinnott Memorial Overlook, a sheltered viewpoint and museum that's built into the caldera clifftop in Rim Village, a short walk from the lodge. It was completed in 1931 and renovated in 2003; it's usually open mid-June through October. The neighboring Rim Village Visitor Center is usually open from late May through September.

Distance from Rim Village:

1.3 miles northwest: Do go to Discovery Point and imagine what it was like in 1853 to stumble on the scene. It's reachable by car on the West Rim Drive or by an easy hike from the Rim Village parking lot. Snow usually covers the trail from October through July.

11.1 miles north: Don't try Cleetwood Cove Trail unless you're fit. This steep, strenuous 1.1-mile path to the lake's sole boat dock is the only permitted route to the water's edge. Typically open from July to October, it begins on the north rim of the lake. The trail, with its 700-foot elevation change, takes 30 to 45 minutes to hike down and twice as long to hike up. By the way, you're allowed to swim in the lake, which has a surface temperature that reaches the highs 50s in summer. But the deeper you go, the colder it gets.

11.1 miles north: Do think about a Volcano Boat cruise, offered through Sept. 18. It begins at Cleetwood Cove, so you must hike the strenuous Cleetwood Trail. There are three tour boats. Cruises typically take two hours, with six departures per day. (Standard tours do not stop at Wizard Island.) Cost is $40 per adult, $27 per child ages 3-11, free for younger children. Kayaks, canoes and rafts are banned. Info: www.lat.ms/1I9qgip

11.1 miles north: Do think about Wizard Island, which is reachable only on a half-day Volcano Boat cruise. There are two departures each day (morning and afternoon). The trip takes a little more than five hours, excluding the hike down Cleetwood Trail. Guests typically cruise 45 minutes to the island, then spend three hours hiking and exploring, then return by boat. Fishing for Kokanee salmon and rainbow trout is encouraged as long as you use artificial bait. Rates $57 per adult, $36 per child ages 3-11, younger children not permitted. Info: www.lat.ms/1I9qgip

24 miles west: Do order pie at Beckie's Café (Union Creek Resort, Prospect; [541] 560-3563, www.unioncreekoregon.com/beckies-cafe), which has a log-cabin feel and dates to the 1920s. Main dishes $8.65-$19.95. A slice of apple pie is $4.95. Ice cream a dollar more.

24 miles west: Do walk the half-mile interpretive trail at Rogue River Gorge, just a quarter-mile past Beckie's on the way up Highway 62 to the lake. The path takes you past lichen-covered rocks and lava tubes, giving you varied views of the river below as it rushes between the rocks. For details on other nearby viewpoints and waterfalls: www.lat.ms/1LjV5BX

7 miles south: If you need a snack or souvenir, do pause at Mazama Village (569 Mazama Village Drive, Crater Lake National Park), about three miles beyond the park's southern entrance, which has food and lodging. Annie Creek Restaurant (open through Sept. 28) serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There's also a gift shop (May 24-Sept. 16) and the Cabins at Mazama Village. There are 40 units (open through late September; no phones or TV) with a rate of $144 a night. Also nearby is the Mazama Village Campground, with businesses operated by Xanterra, the same concessionaire that runs the lodge.

92 miles southwest: Do try to see a production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland; [800] 219-8161, www.osfashland.org). The theater company offers 11 productions from February through Nov. 1. Tickets to most shows are $30-$110, but shorter presentations are often priced at $10. There's a free 45-minute outdoor "green show," often featuring music or dance, Tuesdays-Sundays, through Oct. 11.

92 miles southwest: Ashland Springs Hotel (212 E. Main St., Ashland; [541] 488-1700, www.ashlandspringshotel.com). Seventy guest rooms and a grand lobby. Dates to 1925. Rates $169-$279; 10% off on weekdays for AAA and AARP members.

92 miles southwest: Martino's Restaurant and Macaroni's Ristorante (58 E. Main St., Ashland; [541] 488-4420, www.martinosashland.com). A snazzy upstairs Italian dining room. Dinner main dishes $10-$28. Martino's downstairs sibling (more casual, same menu) is Macaroni's. Lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays; dinner only on Mondays.

92 miles southwest: Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., Ashland; [541] 488-0029, www.bloomsburyashland.com. Good selection of regional titles; stairs lead up to Bloomsbury Coffee House (same address; [541] 482-6112; www.bloomsburycoffeehouse.com).

christopher.reynolds@latimes.com

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