From a stay in a yurt with (most of) the comforts of home to rugged backpacking outings, here’s our guide to Pacific Northwest summer camping.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
No, I’m not rehashing a Victorian literary saga — I’m recalling my daughter’s first camping trip.
Last summer we took our 11-month-old to get her inaugural overnight taste of the great outdoors. Parts of the weekend — swimming in the sparkling lake, witnessing her wary fascination with the campfire, tasting her first tofu weenie cooked over the flame — were the moments you photograph and later wonder how something so perfect could have happened.
Other parts of the trip were less idyllic. I’m pretty sure I got less sleep than when she was a newborn, since she suddenly regressed to wanting to breastfeed every freaking minute of the day. And what were we thinking choosing a site without toilets?
I’m finally recovered enough to try again, just in time for the start of summer. So whether your family’s comprised of camping newbies like me or wilderness pros, here are the Northwest’s best camping spots both near and far. What’s more, a slew of tips will help make this year’s excursions ones to remember — for all the right reasons.
For families who are just dipping their toes in the camping waters (or those who haven’t amassed all the myriad gear yet), yurts — permanent but rustic one-room structures located in some campgrounds — offer a perfect compromise between the comforts of home and roughing it. For $40-$70 a night, the Oregon State Parks department rents yurts — just book as soon as possible, since these sites are scarce and are reserved quickly (though you may get lucky and stumble on a last-minute cancellation). You’ll have even better luck if you can get away midweek, when there should be more availability. You can also search for ones operated by county parks departments or the forest service; google “yurt” and the area you’re eyeing for ideas.
Some are ADA-accessible (read: stroller-friendly); others allow pets with an extra fee per night. What’s more, you can search for “deluxe” yurts, which in addition to having heat and electricity include a kitchen and a simple bathroom. (That means no using the public shower with squirmy or squeamish kids.)
Rustic cabins and fire lookouts are also a good alternative to tents, though you might need to be prepared to hike in.
Our pick: Whistler’s Bend, near Roseburg, Oregon.
Set in 147 acres of a horseshoe-like U of the North Umpqua River, this campsite and park has enough to keep kiddos busy for a quick weekend or extended trip. Bringing inner tubes and life jackets will help cool the gang down during the summer’s soaring heat. You can jump in the river at the put-in near the group camping sites, splash along mellow rapids and get out at the next boat ramp, which is a quick walk back to the yurt site.
Older children will also want to check out the disc golf course, which meanders through mixed woods and open fields — and includes one impressive “top of the world” hole that has you throw over a drop-off. Serious players frequent the course, too, so suggest quicker-moving pros play through if your littles make every hole a par 40.
For a trip a little farther afield, check out nearby Toketee Falls. A 0.4-mile hike cuts through old growth fir and cedar forest to a platform overlooking the double cascade. Plenty of other trails, some with a view of the tumbling North Umpqua below, crisscross the area. You can finish up with a soak in the natural hot springs, a series of pools cut into the rock perched above whitewater below. Be aware, though, that some soakers treat the site as clothing-optional. 3 hours from Portland.
Closer to Home:
Head to Champoeg State Heritage Center just outside Salem, with six yurts and six cabins, plus hiking trails, bike paths, Willamette River access and some cool historic buildings to explore, including the Butteville Store, Oregon’s oldest operating storefront.
Car camping — i.e. sites that allow you to drive (not hike) in — varies from the cush to the rustic. Depending on where you hammer in those tent spikes, amenities range from nearby warm showers to pit toilets. Many car camping sites also include RV access and hookups — a bonus if you (or the grandparents) roll in a RV, but less so if you want a more Into the Wild experience. And if you’re worried about noise — or taking to the hills in a prime partying weekend — pick a site with a live-in host, who can quiet loud revelers.
Especially when you’re roughing it, you’ll want to pare down expectations and planning. “It’s really important to keep it simple,” explains Bonnie Henderson, author of Best Hikes With Children in Western & Central Oregon. That means a cease and desist order on all your gourmet camp plans.
“Make hot dogs on a stick — that’s how everyone’s going to have a good time,” Henderson advises. “A stressed-out parent is not any fun for anyone.”
For tent camping with little ones, let them wear themselves out. Tromping up and down trails instead of riding in a carrier and collecting sticks and leaves instead of staying clean in a play yard will help them sleep better under the unfamiliar dome of the rain fly. And a familiarity with hiking and the outdoors will make the transition to wifi-less wilderness less of a shock for older kids.
Our pick: Natural Bridge Campground, near Prospect, Oregon.
Skip the overcrowded camp sites at Crater Lake and make home base a little farther away; for more primitive (and less congested) car camping, hit up Natural Bridge Campground, about 30 miles from Crater Lake along Highway 62. You’ll be close enough to the renowned national park for easy access but avoid spending your whole vacation amid the rubbernecking. (There are about 17 campsites here, but if it fills up, check out nearby Abbott Creek, Mill Creek or the significantly more developed Union Creek Campgrounds.)
“These are somewhat primitive sites, but you can walk right out of your tent and hike along the Upper Rogue River Trail, which leads to all kinds of interesting geological features and variety on short hikes,” says Henderson. That means, though, that along with a secluded site with breathtaking scenery you’ll be using vault toilets and skipping showers.
For an ice cream cone (or a hot meal not sprinkled with camp fire ash), visit the Union Creek Resort, 15 miles north on 62. 4 1/2 hours from Portland.
Closer to Home:
Try Lost Lake Campground in the Mount Hood National Forest, where you can launch a boat from the site’s dock or venture off on the nearby hiking trails. From $26/night. Reserve online at reserveamerica.com.
All On A Summer’s Day
If you prefer the kind of overnight trips that come with complimentary breakfasts and turn-down service, you can still get your brood into the outdoors this summer.
“Hiking with kids is all about having them have an experience outside, so it’s not about how far you go or the destination,” Henderson says. “When you go with the kid agenda, it’s about just being outside and having fun.” Finding a good hike for kids isn’t only a matter of finding trips that are short or flat: Henderson recommends hunting for treks that include a stopping point (like a lookout, waterfall or just a snack break) at least every mile and a half.
Here are a handful of go-to hikes that are less popular (i.e. packed) than other Portland-area trails.
The Old Salmon River Trail, easily accessible from Mt. Hood, has plenty of spurs kids can explore, including a few with log-crossings to islands just begging to be turned into imagination playgrounds.
When sunny weather turns the beaches at Seaside and Cannon Beach into a zoo, head to Ecola State Park. From Ecola Point, hike two miles of trail overlooking the sea to Indian Beach, a small and less-used stretch of sand perfect for swimming and building castles.
Just past the Ollalie Meadow Campground outside Detroit, hike to Russ Lake, a trip that’s less than 2 miles – leaving time to drive to the nearby Ollalie Lake Resort to rent a rowboat for paddling or fishing.
Into the Wild
A lot of couples who backpack give up the hobby once they have kids, but the rewards can be well worth the planning — and, ahem, risk — of a child sitting down in the middle of the trail and refusing to go one step farther.
“Your kids will see things they wouldn’t on a day hike, things their friends may never see,” says Sarah Kirkconnell, author of Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Meals Made Simple, who lives near Mount Rainier in Washington and hikes and backpacks with her husband and three sons, ages 3 to 17. She recalls the trips her eldest spotted a bear and the time they woke to a whole troop of mountain goats outside their tent. “You’re not going to get that car camping.”
Bringing a baby is actually easy, Kirkconnell says, as long as there’s someone to carry the munchkin along with the extra gear; for older kids, just make sure to limit the miles hiked each day. You can probably plan on three to five miles for kids under age 7, and pick a site that has plenty for your crew to do — one with a lake for catching tadpoles, say, or a creek they can splash in.
Finally, Kirkconnell advises bringing nighttime training pants even for potty-trained kids (toileting in the woods can lead to accidents), involving the kids in planning (like what snacks they’ll eat on the trail) and investing in high quality gear for the kids — you definitely don’t want a wide-awake child because her sleeping bag isn’t warm enough.
Our pick: Ipsut Creek Campground on Mount Rainier
“If you want a good starter trail, this one has easily accessible water, bear lockers, picnic tables, toilets — it’s luxury backpacking,” Kirkconnell says. Hike about five miles from Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park’s Carbon River entrance through old growth forest along the Carbon River Trail; you’ll pitch a tent at the former car camping site (hence the amenities). The trail is also accessible to bikes, so one member of your group could fill a trailer with your gear and cycle in.
You’ll be within a half-mile of several cascades, so be sure to see Ipsut and Chenius Falls. If you stay a few nights, make Ipsut your base camp and explore a little more: Less than a three-mile hike from the site is a suspension bridge crossing the Carbon River, and a bit past that you’ll find the Carbon Glacier. In all, it’s a fantastic and relatively easy introduction to backpacking.
There’s a $30 per car fee to enter Mount Rainier National Park.
Closer to Home:
Hike along Siouxon Creek Trail in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, near Mount St. Helens. The path crosses plenty of creeks and passes a handful of waterfalls — natural pausing points for littler hikers. With plenty of sites along the trail, you can stop whenever your crew needs a break. National Forest recreation pass required, $5 per day.