The bad news: Teepees, cabins and yurts are often reserved up to nine months before most summer weekends. Tip: book now for next season. (If the Oregon State Parks website says the site is unavailable, you can sign up to get notified by email if a cancellation happens, and return to the website to try and book it.)
The good news: There are plenty of Oregon State Parks campgrounds that don’t require reservations. That means if you’re flexible enough to get out the door early, or camp on a non-weekend, you have an excellent shot of snatching up those gorgeous first-come, first-served sites.
But what if you get to the campsite, minivan loaded, kids hungry, books on tape worn out, and the sites are full? Most of the first come, first served sites are in remote locations, which takes a big leap of faith when there’s no convenient plan b.
We’ve done the legwork and pared the list down to the spots that are located in more populated areas, so finding a backup site won’t be so daunting. Don’t delay — pack up your marshmallows, sunblock and mosquito repellent, and try to show up at the campsite a few hours before the official check-in time of 4 p.m.
On the Oregon Coast
Try Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park (near Florence), where you can walk to the sandy beach to watch whales, hunt agates or have a picnic at the historic Heceta Head Lighthouse. Or check out Cape Blanco State Park (near Port Orford), which marks the most southern of Oregon’s lighthouses and the westernmost point in Oregon. Another bucolic setting is Alfred A. Loeb State Park (near Brookings), which sits amidst myrtlewood trees along the bank of the Chetco River. There are several with frequent last-minute summer cancellations, providing a sweet last-minute score for late-planners. Those include: Fort Stevens State Park (Astoria), Cape Lookout State Park (Tillamook), Nehalem Bay State Park (Nehalem), South Beach State Park (Newport), Beverly Beach State Park (Newport), Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park (Florence) and Harris Beach State Park (Brookings).
In the Willamette Valley
No reservations are needed at Cascadia State Park (near Sweet Home), with trails leading to the 150-foot-tall Soda Creek Falls and along the South Santiam River. Fall Creek State Recreation Area (near Springfield) offers private campsites, many with views of the lake for swimming and fishing aplenty. With 300 sites, there are usually some that come up at the last minute at Detroit Lake State Recreation Area, situated on the shore of the nine-mile-long reservoir flanked by the Cascade Mountains. Once you’re here, there’s horseshoe pits, basketball, volleyball, a playground, boat ramps and a fishing dock to keep busy.
In Eastern Oregon
Consider Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area (between Pendleton and La Grande) in an old-growth forest near the summit of the Blue Mountains. It’s a convenient basecamp for exploring Eastern Oregon’s trails, museums and other attractions.Just over two hours northeast of La Grande, Minam State Recreation Area is a remote but beautiful campground on the banks of the Wallowa River, shaded by pine trees and blooming with wildflowers in the spring.
One site that often has frequent cancellations in the summer — great for last-minute snags — is Wallowa Lake State Park, where there’s no lack of activity options. Families and groups of friends can camp here to access the wilderness trails at the Wallowa Lake trailhead plus horseback riding, go-karts, canoeing, mini golf and the Wallowa Lake tram to the top of Mt. Howard. A bit farther west but still entirely off the grid (no cell service at all), Cottonwood Canyon State Park is a newer state park, with hiking and biking trails in the deep canyon of the John Day River, 30 miles east of The Dalles. It’s also a perfect spot for a lazy day of fishing, paperback book reading, napping and card games.
Deep in the high desert, The Cove Palisades State Park, on Lake Billy Chinook, is a water-lover’s paradise, worth trying for last-minute summertime camping availability. Ten miles of hiking trails wind through the park, where tent, RV sites and three deluxe lakeshore log cabins (one pet-friendly) are available. You can also sign up now for a two-hour guided kayak tour (single or tandem, for kids ages 6 and up) at Cove Palisades, offered between April and October 2019. Paddlers will learn about the geology, plants, animals and history of the high desert from their interpretive guide along 800-foot basalt cliffs.
Near Klamath Falls, Jackson F. Kimball State Recreation Site offers a rustic and primitive experience at the headwaters of the Wood River. With just 10 first-come, first-served sites, visitors will want to arrive early to claim a spot. It’s great for paddling, fishing and a low-key base camp for a day trip to Crater Lake National Park. A beautiful trail, popular with equestrians, connects to nearby Collier Memorial State Park. Collier is worth a stay as well, with tent and RV spaces and a one-of-a-kind outdoor logging museum, featuring an array of rare and antique logging equipment dating back to the 1880s. Enjoy the trails as well as trout fishing on the Williamson River.
Nearby Medford, the Joseph H. Stewart State Recreation Area is a smart choice for summertime camping, with 11 miles of hiking trails and a marina at Lost Creek Reservoir that offers watercraft rentals and fishing supplies.
If you go:
Before you head out on any camping trip, check the Oregon State Parks website for wildfire updates, TripCheck for road and weather conditions and the Travel Oregon wildfire page for other resources. Wondering about pets on the beach, campfire rules, Wi-Fi, noise regulations or anything else essential for having a great experience? Check out Oregon State Parks’ frequently asked questions.
If you’re still in a bind about where to go, it pays to be flexible with locations. Rather than sweat it out online, try calling the state reservation center at 1-800-452-5687 for assistance. “We might be able to point you to something you haven’t thought of before,” says Chris Havel, Associate Director for Oregon State Parks.