Autumn in Oregon is ideal for camping — delightfully free from crowds, mosquitos and mid-summer heat. And, if you head out to the wide-open spaces of Eastern Oregon, it’s easy to find a true camping sanctuary — the only sound being the songbirds and raptors around you and crunch of gravel under your feet.
If you don’t mind a bit of a trek and a completely off-grid experience, you can find blissful solitude and lots of starry nights in the remote corners of these wilderness areas. Here are six hidden campgrounds for you to enjoy in Eastern Oregon.
The Eagle Cap Wilderness is an otherworldly place, with 359,991 acres of wilderness and 535 miles of trails for visitors, as well as the sparkling Wild and Scenic Lostine River. This slice of “Oregon’s Little Switzerland,” as some call it, is yours when you camp at Two Pan Campground. On the East Fork Lostine River Trail, you’ll find yourself in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountain ridges with views of Eagle Cap Peak — but check conditions before you venture out in winter. Consider making a road trip to the nearby towns of Union, Wallowa and Lostine.
You’ll be king or queen of your own domain here at Hidden Campground, a small, rustic site with 10 spaces for tent campers and trailers along the upper Imnaha River. It’s part of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, the deepest river gorge in North America. Set out on foot or by car to see the dramatic cliffs, mountain peaks, vistas and thousands of acres of precious wildlife big and small. Download the Hells Canyon pocket guide and read up on safety information before taking your trip.
One of the easiest ways to experience the unending beauty of this region is at high speed — with a tasty beverage in hand. The Eagle Cap Excursion Train runs trips (each with a different theme, like Wine and Cheese Train or Autumn Train Robbery) running through mid-October. They begin and end at the depot in Elgin. Make your basecamp 10 miles east at Minam State Recreation Area, a primitive campground in a steep valley with 22 sites, shaded by pine trees with views overlooking the Wallowa River. Bring a group of friends and family for an unforgettable fall adventure.
A must-do for any history buff, the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site and museum (open through October) features fascinating artifacts from the state’s early Chinese railroad workforce. Not far away in Prairie City is the DeWitt Museum, a historic collection of train artifacts that will impress any railfan. Stay nearby at the Strawberry Campground, part of the idyllic Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, and explore Strawberry Mountain, Strawberry Mountain Trailhead and Strawberry Lake — some of the most gorgeous natural areas you’ve never heard of.
If Steens Mountain is on your bucket list, you’ll want to spend more than a day exploring. Page Springs is the perfect basecamp at the foot of the mountain and three miles from the tiny town of Frenchglen, which feels like a page out of “Anne of Green Gables.” Visitors are welcome year-round at this 36-space campground, where you can roll out of your tent and set out on two short hikes. The Blitzen River Trail leads four miles up the river, while the Wilderness Nature Trail is a scenic a 1-mile loop around the bluff.
If you can’t sleep, you could try counting (bighorn) sheep here. They roam wild at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and Hot Springs Campground, along with bobcats, coyotes, herds of pronghorn and more than 200 species of birds that call the nearby Warner Wetlands their home. It’s isolated here in the high desert. The tiny town of Plush is 65 miles from Lakeview, and home of Oregon’s state gem — the sunstone — which you can dig for here. Bring binoculars and hiking boots and leave your cell phone behind. There’s also a small hot springs in the middle of the campground with a 5-foot stone privacy wall to protect from pronghorns’ prying eyes.