Friday, August 3, 2018

How to Pitch a Tent in Oregon: Easy Overnight Camping

Perhaps you haven't been camping since you were a kid, if at all. Or maybe you've camped in other parts of the country but haven't set up your tent in Oregon yet. Or it could be that you're used to major multi-day trips in an RV and want to simplify some of your outings. This article is for you. After a quick look at tents, we will list some of our favorite destinations: tent-friendly places with plenty of nearby activities.

The first thing needed for tent camping is, well, a tent. It can a good idea to borrow or rent one for your first outing if you can; whatever you do, don't buy the cheapest one you can find. This is Oregon, after all, and one does not trust the weather here.

When choosing a tent, there are many things to consider which go beyond the scope of this article; we encourage you to do some research before spending your money. As Oregonians, though, we will touch on two pertinent subjects here. The first is the issue of "men" or "persons," as in "three-person tent." This is supposed to indicate the capacity of the tent, but apparently the "persons" used for measurement were on a kindergarten field trip to the tent factory. While it is true that these authors are tall in stature, the "person" measurement of a tent is not to be trusted. Crawl inside a floor model if you can, or at least study the tent's dimensions with a critical eye. Nothing is worse than being crammed like sardines with your soggy fellow campers inside a rain-battered tent.

Which brings us to our other item: the rain fly. This is a piece of waterproof fabric that covers the tent and, hopefully, keeps rain out. You will often see a tent with a cute little fly that looks like a handkerchief perched jauntily at the very top. These tents are not for Oregonians. The best flies stretch out away from the tent almost to the ground. These flies can even be used to store such items as muddy hiking boots. When a storm blows in, you will be glad you spent a little extra for a tent with a good fly (be sure to pitch it in a spot that won't collect water, though, as a sodden sleeping bag is never cozy).

Once you have purchased, rented, or borrowed a tent, set it up in your backyard. Figure it out and make your mistakes in private. Determine if any parts are missing; stakes are particularly faithless things and often go missing when you need them the most. If it's windy, put the narrowest side of the tent towards the wind and pound in a stake or two before you set it up so that it doesn't blow into the neighbor's yard. Put on the fly and make sure the zippers zip and the poles aren't cracked. Then you will be ready to set up in the campground without embarrassing yourself; if things do go awry, you can frown, scratch your head, and say, "Hmph! That didn't happen the LAST time I set it up!"

Once you have a tent, it's time to decide where to go. Oregon is replete with easily accessed, well-kept campgrounds, and asking for the favorites of neighbors and friends is certain to yield a list of recommendations. Following is a short list of our own, chosen for their relative proximity to towns as well as activities to be enjoyed in the area. It is worth noting that these qualities do not go unnoticed by other campers, so check availability ahead of time. Some choice sites are reserved nine months ahead; to find a spot at the more popular campgrounds, try for midweek or camp during the "shoulder seasons."


For a riverside destination, check out Milo McIver State Park. Previously covered in this posting, this huge park on the Clackamas River offers activities for the whole family, including fishing, boating, cycling, hiking, and disc golf.

To get into the mountains, try Trillium Lake (covered in a previous post) or Still Creek with its close proximity to Timberline Lodge and sections of the Barlow Trail. These are Forest Service campgrounds, which often have fewer amenities than the state parks but have a more "foresty" feel.

Mid-Willamette Valley

The clear choice here is Champoeg State Park. Covered in one of our very first posts, this popular year-round park on the Willamette offers disc golf, a children's play area, and as much Oregon history as you care to absorb. Check out the museums, cycle to the 1863 Butteville store for ice cream, or go antiquing in nearby Aurora.

For more a more nature-focused experience, check out Silver Falls State Park. Also covered in a previous post, this extremely popular park has year-round camping and an extensive network of hiking trails that lead to a series of spectacular waterfalls.


Head up the North Santiam to Marion Forks Campground to camp near a lovely little stream in the mountains. Tour the fish hatchery next door, or take advantage of the many nearby hiking trails. This peaceful campground is a great base camp for day hikers exploring the Marion Lake area, or check out Daly and Parish Lake.


While there is camping closer to town, our family favorite in this area is House Rock Campground.  Don't be put off by the driving directions in the Forest Service link, this beautiful place is well-marked and easy to find. Set in old growth forest just off the highway, this simple campground is more suited to tents than RVs. Sheep Creek flows into the South Santiam here, offering a lovely little swimming spot. Travelers on the Old Santiam Wagon Road knew this area well, as massive House Rock offered a bit of shelter from the rain.  There is hiking access to the Wagon Road here, or continue driving on Latiwi Creek Road (which these authors rate as "adequate") to enjoy the hike to Gordon Meadows.


Two of our favorite places are both less than an hour and a half from Eugene. Located in the McKenzie Pass, the first is Clear Lake, a uniquely beautiful place that will be the subject of a future post. Camping is available at Cold Water Cove, a Forest Service campground with a good boat ramp. Linn County's Clear Lake Resort has a few tent sites in addition to rustic cabins. Lakeshore access is somewhat easier from the resort, and you will want to access this unique and beautiful lake.

In the Willamette Pass, 100-acre Gold Lake offers scenic non-motorized boating, fly fishing, and even an old cross-country skier's shelter. This is also a great base camp for day hikes in the massive Waldo Lake Wilderness, which could occupy days or weeks. Armchair botanists can explore Gold Lake Bog, a research area replete with moisture-loving plants.


At a little over an hour and a half from Roseburg, Lemolo and Diamond Lakes are worth the drive. Lemolo is often less crowded, but Diamond boasts amazing views of Mt.Thielsen. Both offer boating and fishing and are near the Mt. Thielsen wilderness, or take a day trip to Crater Lake. This area is a hiker's dream; click here for a Forest Service list of trails in the Umpqua National Forest.

Bend/La Pine

Newberry Crater is an absolute must-see. This large volcanic caldera once held one large lake, but a later lava flow divided that into two separate lakes: East and Paulina (unlike the woman's name, this is pronounced with a long "i"). Paulina Lake and Little Crater campgrounds are located on Paulina Lake; East Lake and Cinder Hill are at East Lake. All of the campgrounds are inside the caldera and near the lakes. There are also six tent sites near the water at historic East Lake Resort. Boating and fishing are popular in both lakes, and the volcanic landscape provides spectacular hiking. Those able to walk on rough ground should check out the Big Obsidian Flow, a 200-foot-deep deposit of volcanic rock. There are many other hiking opportunities in this area; click here and scroll down to find a list of activities. While in the caldera, be sure to drive or hike to the summit of Paulina Peak, where you can view the entire caldera from a rugged, rocky observation area.


Our favorite here is Suttle Lake in the Santiam Pass. Three campgrounds and four boat launches provide great water access, and there is a swimming beach at the east end. You will find a small restaurant and boat rentals at the historic lodge. While this lake is wildly popular as a day-use area for Bend and Sisters locals, it is often possible to find overnight camping at its lakeside facilities. Because this area is near the Cascades summit, the wind can whip the lake into some fairly impressive waves at times; when it's calm, though, this is a wonderful paddling destination. Motors are allowed, however, so stay alert when on the water. If the wind does become an issue, there is also a trail around the lake that is fun to hike or bike. Access to the Pacific Crest Trail and other hikes in the Three Fingered Jack area are just a short drive west on Highway 20.

The Dalles

Deschutes River State Park sits near the confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia Rivers. Pioneers on the Oregon Trail crossed the treacherous Deschutes at this spot, floating their wagons and swimming their cattle across. This campground is close to I-84 but worth a visit, offering a chance to wade and fish in the muscular river on a hot day. Hike upriver on a peaceful trail, or, better yet, bring a mountain bike and explore the old railroad bed that follows the canyon. Up until recent days, it was possible to cycle about 12 miles up the canyon to the old Harris Ranch; sadly, the remaining buildings and an old rail car have been destroyed by the 2018 Substation Fire. That being said, the railbed still provides a great ride or hike with a good dose of high desert scenery and a touch of Oregon history.
A simple riverside park much given over to RVs,


There are two great choices for exploring the ghost towns and old mines in the historic Sumpter area. Near Prairie City and popular with families, Trout Farm Campground offers a lovely fishing pond with a barrier-free pier and easy access to the nearby Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. You will also find a picnic shelter and a large day-use area. If you want to get away from the crowds, check out Bates State Park, a newer park on the site of an old lumber mill near the Middle Fork John Day River. Perhaps due to its relative lack of shade (or perhaps the unfortunate name), this campground has been slow to catch on with campers. You will find a picnic shelter and pond here, as well as a hike featuring wetlands, ponderosa pines, and wildflowers.

The Coast

But what about the coast? Indeed, the coast is well-sprinkled with excellent campgrounds; however, since we have covered (and will continue to cover) the coast so thoroughly, we will not expound on it here. "Late Winter Camping on the Oregon Coast," our most popular posting to date, lists excellent year-round campgrounds from Astoria to Cape Blanco, so it should prove useful in planning an outing. It should be noted that the coast is an extremely popular destination during the hot summer months and campgrounds tend to be full for most of the week and packed on the weekends. Reserve ahead (and be ready for any kind of weather when the date arrives) or else try for those shoulder seasons.

In conclusion...

Tent camping in Oregon can be a great way to connect with the outdoors; indeed, we have never owned an RV and rely on others for our RV information! Do a little research and prepare ahead of time and you will find that you can get out and enjoy nature simply and inexpensively. Maybe we'll see you out there on our next trip-we'll be the ones with extra tent stakes and a rain fly that reaches all the way to the ground.

Estacada Lake at Milo McIver State Park

Trillium Lake

Search for the ruins of the historic Swim Water Park near Still Creek Campground

Champoeg State Park

Silver Falls State Park

Marion Lake

Gordon Meadows

Diamond Lake

Sumpter Gold Dredge