Going Camping in Oregon in the COVID Era? Plan Ahead.

As Portlanders head for the hills, they’ll find a patchwork of campground closures and limited services.

By Margaret Seiler June 19, 2020

Link Creek Campground on Suttle Lake in the Deschutes National Forest

“Dear patient camper.” So began the sad email from Oregon State Parks that canceled the camping or yurting dreams of many an Oregonian over the past few months, letting them know that reservation they made, oh, last September could not be honored due to the coronavirus pandemic and its associated closures. On the bright side, at least they were refunding the reservation fee, too.

For those who didn’t make their summer 2020 plans nine months in advance, it was hard to schedule anything once the pandemic set in. Campgrounds were closed indefinitely, and Oregon State Parks suspended its online reservation system on April 28.

Now, though, things are open and reservable, and already very likely to be booked. Oregon State Parks reactivated online reservations for stays starting June 9, while many state park campgrounds in Eastern Oregon reopened May 29 for first-come, first-served camping. (See map here.) The federal Bureau of Land Management also opened Eastern Oregon sites first, with campgrounds around Steens Mountain opening May 16 and those in its Prineville district coming online May 21. A recent visitor to Page Springs on the western slope of Steens (full disclosure: this reporter’s niece) reports it was “absolutely gorgeous and surprisingly full” and advises making a reservation.

Yurt at Jessie M. Honeyman State Park

Ready to get yurt-y? Too bad. Yurts at coastal state parks, including this one at Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park near Florence, are still closed.

On the coast, 11 state parks are currently open for camping, but spots there are reservation-only, yurts and cabins remain closed, and many usual amenities are unavailable. At Beverly Beach State Park north of Newport, for example, the campground is packed with people who made reservations (anyone who didn’t will be turned away) but the playground is closed; the Junior Ranger program is on hiatus; group and walk-in campsites and reservable picnic shelters and meeting areas are off-limits; the showers are unavailable; and there is no firewood for sale.

Closer to Portland, the group sites and visitors centers at Silver Falls State Park and Champoeg State Heritage Area are closed, and the parks warn people to “be prepared to turn around if crowded” and ask campers to pack out trash as garbage collection services have been reduced.

Oregon State Forests have been open since May 29 for dispersed camping only, while campgrounds remain closed. The Oregon Department of Forestry announced some open restrooms at state forest campgrounds, such as Tillamook’s Elk Creek and Santiam’s Shellburg Falls, “to accommodate day use activity.”

Many National Forest campgrounds remain closed, including the very popular, easily accessible, developed campground at Trillium Lake in the Mount Hood National Forest (it could open for camping reservations as soon as June 26), though nearby campgrounds along Highway 35 are open for both reservations and first-come, first-served camping. Also open are many of the Forest Service’s more primitive campgrounds that are harder to get to and have no restrooms or garbage cans. (See map here, but be aware that individual National Forest websites will have more up-to-date information, such as for the Deschutes or Mount Hood National Forest. If you find conflicting information, it’s a good idea to call the overseeing ranger station to confirm campground status.)

Dispersed camping is available on National Forest land, but be prepared to run into more people than usual who might have been turned away from fully booked campgrounds and might not know all the rules of rustic open camping (i.e., watch where you step).

County-managed campgrounds have varied reopening plans. Clackamas County plans to open its campgrounds June 22, for example, while Tillamook County is just beginning a monthlong staggered opening of its sites and is not yet taking online reservations. 

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began opening some of its camping areas May 20, and fishing and hunting seasons and license requirements remained essentially unchanged. ODFW is keeping mum on its trout stocking schedule, though, to avoid drawing crowds to recently stocked lakes.

All management agencies are stressing campfire safety even more than usual, as panic sets it over firefighting budgets and the pandemic complicates any emergency services. On its website, the US Forest Service offers more advice handy for any camper or outdoors enthusiast, encouraging thoughtfulness, self-reliance, risk avoidance, and respect for the small towns that folks from the big city might be passing through: “We know the outdoors are calling, but the decisions you make can affect everyone. If there was ever a time to recognize our #interdependence, this is it.”

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