Consider late summer and early fall the Goldilocks time for camping in Eastern Oregon — not too hot, not too cold, and delightfully free from crowds, mosquitos and, well, talking bears, too.
If you head out to the wide-open spaces of Eastern Oregon, it’s easy to find the best kind of remoteness, too, a place where the soundscape forms with songbirds, raptors and the crunch of gravel under your feet. Be prepared for a completely off-grid experience out here — expect no gas, no phone, no potable water at times — but venture forth and you can have the starry nights and pleasing days pretty much all to yourself. Below, you’ll find campgrounds in Eastern Oregon so lovely they seem plucked from a fairy tale.
1. Explore the John Day River Canyon Country
The John Day River counts as one of America’s longest free-flowing rivers, a 252-mile ribbon of liquid compassion that muscles its way through a wild and scenic canyon country so colorful it would make Georgia O’Keefe drool. Summer temps can be blistering here, but fall brings some much-needed sanity, making it an ideal time to go. Make your way about 40 miles upstream from the river’s confluence with the Columbia near Condon and you’ll find Cottonwood Canyon State Park, Oregon’s newest. Grab one of the 35 sites, 14 of which are walk-in tent sites, at the park’s Lone Tree Campground, open year-round, and wander upstream along the Pinnacles Trail for about 4 miles. Bring a fishing rod. The bass can be feisty.
2. Wet a Line in the Imnaha
When Dan Sizer isn’t running luxury backcountry trips for his Baker City-based company, Go Wild: American Adventures, you can find him relaxing among shady pines and casting a fly line into the South Fork of the Imnaha River. Pitch a tent at the lightly used Lick Creek Campground, open June through September, with seven tent-only sites and five sites that can accommodate a camper trailer. Spend your day chasing trout, swimming in the bracing waters or venturing off into the adjacent Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Lick Creek Trail.
3. A Deep and Dramatic Wonder Near Joseph
Twelve miles away from the Lick Creek Campground, Hidden Campground provides 10 spaces at a small, rustic site 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.
4. History and Nature Near John Day
A must-do for any history buff, the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site and museum in John Day (open May 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 rail fan. 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.
5. Scenic Train Rides and Camping Near Elgin
One of the easiest ways to experience the unending beauty of this region is at high speed — with a tasty beverage in hand. After a pandemic-related disruption, the Eagle Cap Excursion Train in Elgin is back. The trips (each with a different theme, like Bigfoot or outlaw robbery) run May through mid-October with a pause generally in August. Make your base camp 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.
6. Great Basin Beauty Near Frenchglen
If Steens Mountain is on your bucket list, you’ll want to spend more than a day exploring. Page Springs is the perfect base camp at the foot of the massive fault-block mountain and 3 miles from the tiny town of Frenchglen. 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 4 miles up the Donner und Blitzen River, while the Wilderness Nature Trail is a scenic 1-mile loop around the bluff.
7. Relax by a Woodsy River Near Paisley
The spring-fed Chewaucan River flows about 53 delightful miles through ponderosa and juniper stands of the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Paisley and Lakeview. Five campgrounds sit along the river, and the first of them, Marster Spring Campground, offers a shady, stress-busting haven with 10 “pack it in, pack it out” sites and a hand pump for clean water. From here you can cast for rainbow trout in the river’s riffles or journey about a mile upstream to Chewaucan Crossing Campground, another spot with six sites (but no potable water). There you’ll also find access to the Fremont National Recreation Trail, which forms part of the 750-mile-long Oregon Desert Trail. Bring your hiking shoes, mountain bike or even a horse, and explore for as long as you like.