Camping Guide: How To

The Ultimate Pacific Northwest Camping Cheat Sheet

Turned around on snowy forest roads? Sick of sold-out campgrounds? Here's how to win the camping game.

By Benjamin Tepler Research by Catherine Johnson May 22, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Mount Hood's Timberline Trail

Where Can I Go in ...

The Wet Months

In those cold, dreary times, rain, snow, washouts, and seasonal road maintenance constrain the avid campers and hikers of Oregon and Washington. With lots of Gore-Tex and a sense of humor, there’s still plenty to do at lower elevations, including the Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge (watch for ice!), Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests, river valleys, and certain high-desert climates, like the Ochoco National Forest. Or master snowshoeing. Or just vegetate in front of Planet Earth II.


Trailheads are now (mostly) reliably open. But there can still be snow in July, especially at high elevations, like the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, any of the other Cascade peaks, the Wallowas, or Steens Mountain. July is also peak season for the lecherous mosquito. In general, areas below tree line with still or slow-moving water like ponds, lakes, gentle streams, and no wind will be the worst. Head east of the Cascades for drier climates, or west to the windy coast for reprieve.


Glaciers are melting, high-altitude routes have thawed, and even the plague of insects seems to abate. August is a great time to get outside, but it can also be extremely hot and is prime time for forest fires. Don’t plan any long trips into dry Southeastern Oregon or the dusty, waterless trails around Mount St. Helens during a heat wave; instead, find yourself a freezing alpine lake and jump in.

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Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge


Mid to late September is the sweet spot: mosquitoes are mostly gone, daytime highs are often in the dreamy mid-70s, and deciduous species, like the Midas-gold larch, are turning fiery, vibrant shades. It’s a great time everywhere in the PNW. The downsides? After months of snowmelt, many rivers and streams have dried up, making for unreliable water sources. Check with a ranger station for recent trip reports. Hunting season can be well under way by September, so take extra precautions. (You were probably wearing a safety-orange beanie anyway.) That Goldilocks weather can turn on you instantly in late September and early October, with freak snow showers, lightning, and hail, especially at high altitudes.

How to Snag Your Favorite Campsite

For state parks in Oregon and Washington, campsites can be booked at midnight starting nine months ahead. That means if you want to stay in a yurt at Cape Lookout starting on July 1, be ready to try to book that site on October 1 the fall before.,

Many national forest sites are first come, first served, but reservable campgrounds and those ever-coveted lookout towers can be booked at 7 a.m. starting six months ahead of your desired date. So if you want to stay at Trillium Lake July 1, try to book at 7 a.m. on January 1.

Important exceptions: Group campsites in national forests can be booked up to a year in advance. Also, you can generally book up to 14 consecutive days at a site, meaning some people (evil people) might cheat the system by booking a week or two ahead of their desired date, then canceling (or just not showing up) the nights they don’t want. With cancellation policies, they pay in fees as well as karma, but it’s still an all too common practice, according to Chris Havel of Oregon State Parks.

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Cape Lookout State Park

Important Backcountry Permit Open Dates and Deadlines

*Some backcountry areas in Oregon and Washington require permits during peak season. Most also offer some number of walk-up permits, but it’s a gamble.

February 1

Climbing Mount St. Helens
First come, first served, but they sell out quickly. $22/person Apr 1–Oct 31,

February 15

Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Lottery closes March 2, then first come, first served starting April 1 at 7 a.m. $10 application fee, $5/person per day May 1–Sept 30,

Olympic National Park
First come, first served. $8/person May 1–Sept 30,

March 15

Mt Rainier Backcountry/Wonderland Trail
Lottery closes March 31, then first come, first served. $20 application fee, Memorial Day–Columbus Day,

North Cascades
Lottery closes March 31, then permit sales are first come, first served until May 15. $20 application fee, May 15–Sept 30,

May 1

Obsidian Trail and Pamelia Lake Limited Entry Permits
First come, first served. $10 application fee, Friday of Memorial Day weekend–Oct 31,

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