Hoping to Camp in Oregon State Parks This Summer? You Can’t Book Quite Yet

After COVID cancellations and closures, the state park system is persevering for next year—but needs some time to heal.

By Ainslee Dicken October 15, 2020

Yurt at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park

Coastal state park cabins and yurts, like this one at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, near Reedsport, have yet to reopen in the pandemic.

Oregon State Parks have suffered immensely this year. After an initial shutdown March 23 through June 9 due to the pandemic, a slow reopening began, with staffing hampered by financial realities. Now, following a stunted summer, the state department is boasting only 18 closures amid its 200 or so parks, aside from any regular seasonal shutdowns that have begun.

Frustrated at your canceled trip this past summer? So was North Portlander Jennifier Stewart, who booked a family yurt trip to Beverly Beach State Park for June 2020 way back in the fall of 2019. She said Oregon State Parks officially canceled her reservation just 10 days before her trip.

“Booking a yurt is sort of a miraculous feat anyway,” she says of that almost-too-good-to-be-true feeling of landing a coveted weekend reservation at the beach, though she certainly never could have predicted the reason these well-laid plans would fall apart. The yurts at Beverly Beach and other coastal state parks remain closed, though most campgrounds were open this summer, as well as some inland yurts and cabins.

Visitors to state parks this fall have seen signs like this at restrooms, check-in stations, and other public areas.

“It’s entirely dependent on whether we have staff to look after them or not,” says Oregon State Parks assistant director Chris Havel. “The entire year has been extraordinarily hard on staff and visitors both; we’re operating at about half strength due to revenue shortfalls brought on by economic stress. Our field staff are very proud of the work they do year in and year out, so having to scale back services has been difficult.”

Havel says that the refunds themselves have hurt the parks more than the extended shutdown. “One of the things that hit us pretty hard was not being shut down but having to refund millions of dollars. There is an additional cost when we refund the money, so the expense associated with that hit us even harder.”

To combat part of that financial hit, and to support stay-local measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, in August Oregon State Parks started charging out-of-state visitors a 30 percent surcharge on new camping reservations.

The change is meant to be temporary, as is the 30-day advance booking window for reservations, instead of the usual nine months that would have planners like Stewart marking their calendars in the fall for summer bookings. (Update: as of January 14, 2021, state parks reservations can be made up to six months in advance.) Havel explains the main reason they’re allowing reservations only 30 days in advance is to protect themselves against potentially thousands more refunds.

“We’re going to revisit that 30-day advance window in November,” he says. “What we’ve been waiting for is some sign of stability, a sense of confidence that there isn’t going to be another widespread shutdown.”

When asked what to expect for next year, Havel sounded hopeful. “Every week that goes by, we’re a little better able to prepare for next season. No guarantees that it will be normal—it depends on revenue and the state of the economy. But if we continue practicing careful management of funds now, we’ll be more likely to offer the park experience people will expect from us next spring.”

He also asks for respect and to give our state’s park system a chance to catch its breath. “Wildfires that hit parks are going to require repairs and recovery,” Havel says. “As you visit this fall and winter, be really careful, watch for all signs and closures. That’s us getting ready for next season. We need public cooperation to prepare for next year.”

While Stewart wouldn’t mind if those whose plans were canceled this year got first dibs when things reopen—“it was too bad that folks who planned nine months in advance didn’t receive an opportunity to move to the front of the line”—Havel says hopeful campers and yurters should keep an eye on Oregon State Parks’ Twitter and Facebook for more announcements as the department starts to set the stage for next season. Its website also offers a color-coded map showing which parks are operating normally, which ones are limited, and which are closed, as well as an FAQ with a running list of all open vs. closed parks, updated daily.