The five-mile hike felt like a triathlon at the time to this New York City–raised “indoor kid.” But when Jefferson Park’s huckleberry meadows opened up to Park Ridge, with views of Mount Jefferson’s pitted glaciers so close I could almost touch them, I experienced nothing short of a rebirth—and I was alone. There may have been the occasional day hiker, a few tents, and a friendly Labrador. But compared to cramming onto the rush-hour subway, it was bliss.
That was my first trip to the Mt Jefferson Wilderness, in 2010. Jump-cut to my return visit in 2016: Day hikers logjammed trailheads, bathed in Axe body spray and toting Bluetooth speakers quivering to Drake’s “One Dance.” Worse, the alpine lakes around Park Ridge were festooned with trash bags and unburied human waste. Every Oregon explorer now knows a version of this scene. Trails, campgrounds, and open spaces are getting more and more crowded. Officials blame Oregon’s recent Yosemite-caliber conditions on three things: population growth along the I-5 corridor, successful tourism campaigns, and social media.
Whatever the cause, reforms aimed at preventing overuse (and maybe sparing sanity) are fitfully taking shape—making it likely that heading outside will require more planning. After the 2017 Eagle Creek fire, nature-hungry Portlanders bubbled over into surrounding areas. This year on the Washington side of the Gorge, for the first time, permits are required on weekends at Dog Mountain during wildflower season (between March 31 and July 1). Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area liaison Rachel Pawlitz says there may be more permits in the works once the Columbia River Highway Congestion & Transportation Safety Improvement plan is completed sometime around the end of 2018.
The last major call for new use policy in Jefferson and the Central Cascades was in 1991. Since then, visitation has increased dramatically, nearly tripling in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area just between 2011 and 2016, according to the Forest Service. New policies in the works for the Mt Jefferson, Three Sisters, Mt Washington, Waldo Lake, and Diamond Peak Wilderness Areas could mean overnight permit requirements, or restrictive permits for all recreation at all trailheads.
Meanwhile, you can still find wild places—you might just have to drive a bit farther. This month’s cover story aims to help you plan those summer weekends, equip you to be the envy of every other camper, and take you into lesser-known but equally beautiful Pacific Northwest wilderness.
And while there’s nothing trivial about backcountry ethics or the loss of solitude, Oregon’s potential battle with the Trump administration over public lands stands as a reminder that no matter how bad things seem right now, they could be much, much worse.