Oregon's Best State Parks for Adventurers

Seeking the trail less traveled? Whether you’re chasing adrenalin or a bit of solitude, these spots deliver.

By John Shewey and Ketzel Levine August 1, 2013

Image: Justin Myers

Ukiah-Dale Forest State Scenic Corridor 

Drive time: 5–6 hours, depending on route

Never heard of Dale? Never been to Ukiah? These minuscule mountain hamlets bookend a 14-mile-long state scenic corridor. From a pretty little primitive campground on Camas Creek, branch out to explore Bridge Creek State Wildlife Area, scenic back roads, and barely used mountain trails in the nearby North Fork John Day Wilderness. In fall, join a cadre of dedicated mushroom hunters, or compete with birds and black bears for lush crops of wild huckleberries. 

BEST SITE  Site 15 sits in the back corner by the creek, with open space on one side and nearby drinking water.  

VITALS Open May–Oct; $9; no reservations; pets on leash only; no electrical hookups; 27 primitive sites with room for self-contained trailers; drinking water; flush toilets

0813 deschutes river h0t0ei
Bikers, Beware! Deschutes River trails are notorious for “goat heads,” thorny seed pods from aptly named puncture vine. Choose tires—and patch kits—accordingly.

Image: Justin Meyers

Deschutes River State Recreation Area

Drive time: 2 hours

A 17-mile-long converted rail bed threads through this oasis at the mouth of the Lower Deschutes. This level, forgiving hiking thoroughfare forms part of an extensive trails network leading to scattered primitive camps, bighorn sheep photo ops, and captivating views of the legendary river’s famous rapids. One caveat: unless you like sardine-can camping or love steelhead fishing, avoid August and September, when the Lower D’s world-class habitat for the Northwest’s most iconic game fish packs in anglers.

BEST SITE A13, close to the river, provides a big backyard.  

VITALS $20, $9 primitive, $5 extra vehicle; reservations available; pets on leash only (beware: dogs and rattlesnakes do not mix); electrical hookups; drinking water; flush toilets and showers

Saddle Mountain State Natural Area

Drive time: 1 hour

Saddle Mountain, en route to the coast, is renowned as a day hike, with inspiring views, geological wonders and gorgeous wildflowers. But as an overnight destination, it remains almost secret. Nestled amid alder and Sitka, 10 deeply wooded sites come into their hushed, intimate own once the day hikers leave and campfires begin to crackle. Hike the mountain at dawn; hit the beach midday; fold the forest around you at night. 

BEST SITE  No. 4 offers a glimpse of towering Saddle Mountain’s double-peaked summit.  

VITALS $5–10 primitive; no reservations; pets allowed; no electrical hookups; drinking water; flush and pit toilets

Jackson F. Kimball State Park 

0813 jackson f kimball en8xr4

Drive time: 5½ hours

This jewel box’s 10 secretive sites hide just a two-minute drive from the Volcanic Heritage Highway, along the aqua blue Wood River (a bit cold for swimming, but magical for canoes). This is wilderness: the silence is hypnotic. Hard to believe the throngs at Crater Lake are only 10 miles away. If you crave the pristine, escape here.

Best site Take your pick—they’re all great!  

VITALS $10; no reservations; pets allowed; no electrical hookups; no drinking water; pit toilets

Succor Creek State Natural Area

Drive time: 8–9 hours

Succor Creek wends humbly beneath towering escarpments that practically swallow this unassuming little primitive campground in far southeastern Oregon. While the area’s rich natural history—geology, archeology, herpetology, and a fistful of other -ologies—may be its prime attraction, you can also explore your nocturnal side. Snooze away the hot afternoon. At nightfall, set up a cot and contemplate bedazzling stars. Astronomy beats all the -ologies!

BEST SITE Cross the creek on the footbridge, turn right, and claim a spot near the biggest tree.  

VITALS Free; no reservations; pets on leash only (beware that dogs and rattlesnakes do not mix); no electrical hookups; no drinking water; pit toilets

Oregon’s Newest Park! Cottonwood Canyon

Drive time: 2 hours

Boots, beware: with 16,000 acres and 16 miles of unfettered John Day River, Oregon’s newest—and now largest—state park will do quite a number on soles. 

Cottonwood Canyon began as a series of transactions. Portland’s Western Rivers Conservancy bought sprawling ranch holdings on the lower John Day, between the tiny wheat-country towns of Wasco and Condon, then sold the property to the state parks system. The public will begin enjoying the outcome of these deals in September. Even though big parts of the park remain works in progress, the perfect wilderness float already awaits, complete with wild steelhead and smallmouth bass. (Try a guided trip with Little Creek Outfitters.) Over the next five to 10 years, work will continue on an extensive network of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback, penetrating the basalt-studded river canyon and sweeping sage-carpeted uplands. Eventually, a riverside headquarters just two hours east of Portland along Highway 206 will include a campground, cabins, and more. 

Right now, staffing is mininal. Parks officials warn that visitors exploring Cottonwood will have no cell coverage in the canyon, and that any kind of emergency help could be tough to come by. But then again, untrammeled remoteness is more an attraction than a deterrent, right? So while the soles may take a beating, the soul can find replenishment in this canyonbound wonderland.  

VITALS Track progress of construction and facilities and fee announcements at cottonwoodcanyon.wordpress.com.

Show Comments