Note: This article was published in the April 2020 issue of PDX Parent, just as everything was shutting down. But camping is back! As of March 2021, all of these camps had available sites for this summer.
Time to get out of the house and camp in the Great Outdoors! We share our favorite PNW spots for popping up a tent, parking an RV, or rolling right up to a ready-made shelter.
No need to let social distancing drive you stir-crazy! As warm weather arrives, planning an outdoor adventure is a great way to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on your family and your community while also making the most of our region’s long outdoor recreation season.
And while day trips are great, spending the night in the wild has an extra-refreshing effect. That’s why we’re so excited to share these spots to camp, no matter what flavor of outdoor living suits you. Tent, rv, yurt, even adirondack shelter — we have you covered (though you’ll still have to byo rain fly). Plus, all these campgrounds are within a three-hour drive of portland, so you’ll spend the bulk of your time enjoying the great outdoors, not counting down the miles till you can answer “yes!” To your kids’ millionth “are we there yet?”
So you want to … TENT CAMP
Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Southwest Washington
With more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwest Washington has plenty of campgrounds to use as a home base. Put up a tent at one of our favorites, Iron Creek Campground, just under three hours from Portland. Here, many sites are surrounded by lush greenery — making this drive-up campground feel rustic while still having access to potable water. (No showers, though, so count a dip in the Cispus River as a bath; toilets are accessible by car.)
While you camp here, play in the rivers and hike through the second-growth forest (much of the forest was decimated by the eruption of nearby Mount St. Helens). Our pick: the 3-mile Covel Creek Trail, which takes you behind a thundering waterfall. Pro tip: Bring the kids’ helmets, since the well-paved loops within the campgrounds make bike riding a breeze.
Tumalo State Park, Central Oregon
Just 5 miles north of sunny Bend, Oregon, Tumalo State Park offers riverside camping, fly fishing, hiking and, of course, splashing in the Deschutes River. Convenient amenities like ice and firewood sales, plus showers and flush toilets, makes it easy for families to stay put in the campground without a run to the grocery store every day.
If you do want to explore Central Oregon more, drive up Mount Bachelor to swim or canoe in the alpine lakes (we love bulrush-filled Hosmer Lake for its sleepy vibe and views of the peak). Pro tip: Bend’s popular Tumalo Falls are not in Tumalo State Park; they’re a 40-minute drive away.
Cape Lookout State Park, Oregon Coast
If you’re anything like us, no trip to the Oregon coast is long enough. So why not stay a few days — or longer — at Cape Lookout State Park? Kids will love hunting for glass floats and shells that have washed ashore onto the 3-mile-long beach. (Pro tip: Hit up one of the antique stores in nearby Tillamook to buy a few floats and hide them behind driftwood for your tiny treasure hunters to “discover.”)
A popular hike hugs the cliff overlooking the Pacific, but for littler legs, a short nature trail offers opportunities to learn about local flora and fauna. (Help your kids read the interpretive signs and you’ll learn something, too.) And like many Oregon state parks, Cape Lookout offers a Junior Ranger program, with daily activities that teach conservation in a fun way.
Finally, this location is perfect for those who prefer Camping Lite: The campground has flush toilets, hot showers and is a 10-minute drive to hot coffee in Netarts.
So you want to … STAY IN A YURT
Grayland Beach State Park, Washington Coast
If you want to fall asleep to the sound of ocean waves (and who doesn’t?), the yurts in Washington’s Grayland Beach State Park are just a quick walk from the beach — and within listening distance of the ocean. Don’t forget the kites, as the steady breezes here make for ideal kite-flying. At low tide, the beach becomes massive — it’ll take a while to reach the surf — but that means more space for frisbee throwing, sandcastle building and, once your kids are worn out, lounging in the sun.
The park lies within several Native American tribes’ traditional territory, so stop by the welcome center to learn about their culture and history. While you’re there, chat up a park ranger — they may have seashells or other beach treasures for little ones to touch.
Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon Coast
It’s pretty much impossible for families to get bored at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria. This expansive, kid-friendly park includes a wide beach, hiking trails, and a small lake perfect for teaching children to fish. (Pro tip: Don’t forget to purchase a license first!) If that weren’t camping bliss enough, check out the shipwreck on the beach at low tide and explore the military fort on the park grounds. Then put on your swimming suits to hike the 2 miles around Coffenburry Lake within the park, pausing whenever you get hot to take a dip in the water.
Yurts here aren’t terribly private, but the hot showers, bikeable loops and easy access to Warrenton (and its Starbucks just 10 minutes away) more than make up for seeing into your neighbor’s site.
Camp Wilkerson, Northwest Oregon
A few minutes past Vernonia, Oregon, in a thick Douglas fir forest, Camp Wilkerson offers an off-the-beaten-path camping experience an hour and a half outside of Portland. Rent one of the rustic cabins here, which can sleep a family of six, and each has a porch swing. (Wee!) If those are reserved, unroll your sleeping bags on the shelf bunks of the Adirondack shelters — three-sided structures that offer a roof in case of unexpected rain.
Kids will love walking over to the trails to see all the horses (or “earth ponies,” as my My Little Pony-loving daughter calls them). Then wade in the stream that runs through the camp, reteach yourself how to play horseshoes and keep an eye out for the elk that sometimes wander through the woods.
Yurts and cabins get reserved fast. If there’s no availability on state park sites, check out hipcamp.com, the site that accumulates privately owned lodging options like cabins, yurts and even tree houses.
Ready to RV?
Feeling inspired to strike out on your own family RV adventure?
Take a test run at one of these tried-and-true spots:
Crooked River Ranch RV Park, located in Central Oregon’s High Desert, is just a 20-minute drive from the entrance to Smith Rock State Park, which offers endless recreation opportunities. Pro tip: An onsite swimming pool and tennis court make this a fun spot for tweens and teens looking for a little freedom to wander about.
Lost Lake RV Resort in the Mount Hood National Forest offers fine views of the lake and the mountain, along with full services including firewood and a general store. Don’t forget to check out the old-growth boardwalk interpretive trail!
Want to keep it easy when traveling in a larger group? Try the Pine Point Group Camp at Timothy Lake, also in the Mount Hood National Forest. Each group site has its own toilet and water spigot and can accommodate an RV or trailer, plus two tents. And fishing, paddling and horseback riding are all available nearby.
Catherine Ryan Gregory lives in West Linn and shares family travel hacks as well as kid-friendly destinations on her blog, toAndFroFam.com. She aims to help parents feel more confident traveling with their kids so they can hit the road, make memories together and leave the stress behind.