One of Oregon’s most unique summers is coming to an end this Labor Day Weekend.
A season that saw mass closures of recreation sites due to the COVID-19 pandemic from March to May, followed by an unprecedented number of people flooding outdoors from June to August, has meant nothing about this recreation season has felt normal.
And that continues into the holiday weekend.
Hot temperatures combined with the pandemic’s lingering impact means Oregonians will be headed to the forest, mountains and beach in droves, but finding a campsite or a good hike could be a big challenge.
Here are 7 critical things to know before loading up the car for summer’s final hurrah.
1: Options for camping in Oregon
The vast majority of public campgrounds that can be reserved across Western Oregon have already been snapped up.
As of last week, 96% of Oregon’s state park campsites were already booked , and numbers are likely similar for campsites in the mountains and forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
If you haven’t booked yours yet and have your heart set on spending the holiday weekend outdoors, here are four options:
Check reservations websites. You can reserve campsites at Oregon’s state parks (ReserveAmerica.com) or on the vast tracts of federal forestland (Recreation.gov). There’s a lot of them, so check often. You might find a cancellation or a random site still open.
If that fails — and there’s a good chance it will — there are three other options for getting a campsite.
First come, first-served: There are fewer first-come, first-served campgrounds on public land, but they do exist, and are often great. The trick is looking at a Forest Service map to identify lesser-known spots, calling a Forest Service ranger station to get details and then heading out to claim them by Thursday or Friday. An example: the Middle Fork of the Willamette corridor southeast of Oakridge has a cluster of campsites listed as “light-medium” usage, and “all sites are first come first serve.” Those are the ones you want to target. Many more popular campsites also have a mix of reserved and first-come sites, but that’s always a roll of the dice.
Dispersed camping: Dispersed camping simply means finding a campsite that is unofficial, typically off remote roads, or around lakes, on federal or state forestland. A proper dispersed site looks like a normal campsite, but without any signs, bathrooms, or amenities.
“If you’re looking to disperse camp, be sure to find an already impacted spot at least 200 feet away from water and properly bury your waste, pack out all of your trash, and don’t have a campfire,” said Chiara Cipriano, spokeswoman for Willamette National Forest, the largest and most heavily used patch of federal land east of the Willamette Valley.
Private campgrounds: Beginning with the 2017 total solar eclipse, and increasing with the rise of websites like HipCamp.com, there are an increasing number of private campgrounds out there. Log onto the site and see what you can find. The prices are often pretty good.
2: Campfires are banned or limited in many places
It’s a bummer to go camping and not have a campfire, but there are fewer places to do so. No campfires are allowed in Mount Hood National Forest — zero, nowhere, nada, not even in developed campgrounds.
In Willamette National Forest, the 1.6 million-acre region east of the Willamette Valley, you can only have a campfire in the iron ring of a developed campground site, but nowhere else. If you go backpacking in the Cascade Range, there’s a 100 percent chance campfires are banned.
Things get more flexible in the Oregon Coast Range and at the Oregon Coast, but make sure to check regulations beforehand.
3: Hikes and day-use sites will be crowded
There are two ways to consider heading out for a day-trip: leave early to visit a popular site, or find a more remote trail, picnic area or spot.
For more popular places, including the entire Oregon Coast or a hike such as Blue Pool or Sahalie Falls, leave early and plan to arrive before 10 a.m. State and federal officials are planning to shut down parking lots that get overwhelmed and ticket people parked illegally. So, again, if the place you’re planning to visit is featured heavily on Instagram or Facebook, you’d better get there early.
If you do arrive and find a trailhead totally overwhelmed, go somewhere else. If you’ve done your homework and have a good paper map, chances are good you can find an access spot to the beach, or a different trail, just down the road.
But you can always find a less popular place, and again that means doing your homework. Look at a Forest Service map or read a guide book for places under the radar. They really are out there!
4: Opal Creek wildfire closures, and Columbia Gorge funkiness
The biggest thing people from the Willamette Valley need to know is that the entire Opal Creek area, and even areas beyond, are closed by the Beachie Creek Fire.
That means many local favorites, including the Little North Santiam Trail, Opal Creek Trail, Henline Falls, Shady Cove Campground and Elk Lake Campground are closed. Make sure to check what’s open and closed before heading out, or just look at this map:
In the meantime, the Columbia Gorge, while it has reopened many sites, still has COVID-19 related closures on some trails, while Multnomah Falls has a funky permit system in place to gain access. In other words — and again following the theme of this story — do your homework before getting in the car.
5: Be safe if you are on the water
As we reported on Wednesday, Oregon is nearing the record for most boating-related deaths this summer. And there’s one way to avoid such a fate: wear a lifejacket. Even if you’re a great swimmer, a shocking number of these deaths occur when a person is out in a kayak on a hot day, falls into surprisingly cold water, has their body tense up in shock, and is unable to self-rescue.
Boating: Oregon sees most boating deaths since 1993, majority involve no life jacket
Another big problem this summer has been people floating in inner tubes down rivers where there are major log jams. The Santiam River between Greens Bridge and Jefferson, and the area near Buena Vista Ferry on the Willamette have both been major trouble spots.
So, wear a lifejacket, bring the right type of boat and know where you’re floating.
6: Get a pass in advance
For many day-use sites, you’ll need to pay $5 or so at the entrance. Save time by getting a state parks pass beforehand online or a Northwest Forest Pass, for federal sites.
7: Clean up after yourself, wear a mask if it’s crowded, and be graceful
It has been a difficult few months for everybody, so do your part by packing out all your own trash and understanding how to go to the bathroom in the outdoors if there’s no bathroom.
Oregon’s state parks — and the majority of the Oregon Coast — are managed by an agency running with 70 percent less staff than normal, making cleaning up trash and stopping chaos more difficult than ever. If you arrive at a trailhead or beach access spot and find it crowded and closed, that’s your fault, not theirs.
Also, Oregon’s rules still require wearing a mask if you’re in a crowded spot outdoors. So just bring a mask for crowded areas, then take it off when you’re in the open.
Oregon’s public lands are there for everybody, and there are plenty of places to enjoy nature’s gifts if you just work at it. Do your homework when choosing a spot, pack out your own garbage and have a backup plan, which includes a physical map that you can reference in case your first choice doesn’t work out.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 13 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Labor Day weekend: Your guide to camping safely in Oregon