Camping in Central Oregon

  • South Sister and Broken Top are reflected in Sparks Lake at sunset on August 5, 2017 in the Deschutes National Forest. Photo by Sandra Woods

  • Dawn arrives at the glacier lake, Broken Top Mountain, Three Sisters Wilderness, Central Oregon, Bend. Photo by Steve J. Giardini.

  • Big Lake campsite in Oregon near Mt Washington with a blue tent setup near the water.

By Gregg Morris for the Bulletin Special Projects

Morning comes. The sun’s early light makes its way over the Cascade Mountain peaks and through the open tent door. The subtle hues add color to the distinguishing landmarks surrounding the campsite. A fish jumps and creates a ripple in the backcountry lake sitting 100 feet away from the sleeping camper, the only person around for miles. The light creeps onto his face, wakes him, and reminds him where he is—the Three Sisters Wilderness.

Morning in a campsite has a different tempo from morning at home. Chipmunks foraging for breakfast replace kids getting ready for school. A loose and ever-changing itinerary of exploration supplants an open computer outlining the day’s events. And closing the zipper on the tent stands in for making the bed.

Central Oregonians replay this camping scenario almost every day of the year. But the masses wait for the weather to warm up before scheduling the semi-religious event of heading into the woods. They may disagree on the journey—hiking, boating, biking, or driving—and they may have different opinions on the activities—through-hiking, fishing, hanging out with friends—but the mission remains the same: to get out of town for a few days.

“I camp to slow down,” explained Bend resident Donna Burklo. “I look for a spot where I will hear or see water, because water offers an immediate calming effect that fast-tracks my escape from the day-to-day demands on my time and attention.”

Picture Perfect

Local freelance photographer Steve Giardini heads to the Three Sisters Wilderness for its photogenic properties. The 281,000 acres of land and 260 miles of trail provide the perfect backdrop to any landscape shot. His favorite starting point is the Broken Top Trailhead, off the deeply rutted Forest Service Road 4600, five miles from the Cascade Lakes Highway. A four-mile hike, including a 1,300-foot elevation gain, puts you in the middle of alpine glory.

“The Three Sisters Wilderness is a photographer’s paradise,” said Giardini. “Beautiful scenery is everywhere! Waterfalls, alpine meadows with wildflowers, lava fields, and, of course, a glacier lake are all within reach of the Broken Top Trailhead.”

Although the road is limited to high-clearance vehicles, the trail remains a relatively easy hike. So expect to see many hikers during peak times. For the amateur photographer, Giardini offers some advice.

“Most of my photographs are taken an hour before or after sunrise and sunset, so usually my hike in or out is a solo headlamp experience,” Giardini explained. “Few people are willing to get up that early or stay up that late. My day is over when most folks are just starting their adventure.”

So Much to Do, So Little Time

Central Oregon is full of places to set up a base camp for a multi-day, multi-adventure excursion. It is not uncommon to see hiking shoes, fishing rods, and mountain bikes in the quiver of a side-country camper.

“If you have the gear and the racks and rigs to get it all there, the Three Creeks Lake area is an ideal launchpad for catching fish, stretching your legs and lungs, and ending the day watching the sun tuck itself behind the mountains,” said local outdoor enthusiast Aaron Brandt. “The lakes and creeks hold playful trout that you can reach by boat or shore, the Green Lakes and Tam McArthur Rim hiking options include a few different loops and out-and-backs, and single-track runs in both directions via the Metolius-Windigo Trail.”

Family Fun

Many local families head to the woods to spend some quality time together. And many parents believe that exposing their kids to nature is an important part of raising them.

“We like to take the kids to camp at McKay Crossing, near Paulina Creek,” said Bend-based videographer Brent Barnett. “We love how small and tucked away it is from everyone. It is an authentic camping experience for both trailer and tent camping. Kids can enjoy the creek, we can hike, campsites are large so we don’t feel crammed in, and the stargazing is incredible. Rumor has it the natural slides are along Paulina Creek and a waterfall, but I’m not telling.”

There are a number of primitive areas within the Deschutes National Forest, McKay Crossing Campground among them. It is managed by the Hoodoo Recreation Service with a $10 per day per vehicle fee. The cost is on par with the other campgrounds maintained by the Deschutes National Forest. While this one offers first-come, first-serve sites, many popular spots also take reservations.

If sleeping on the ground in a tent isn’t your idea of fun but you’d still like to get outside for a night, try renting a yurt or cabin, rustic or deluxe, through the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department. Scattered across the state, including Tumalo, La Pine, and Prineville, yurts and cabins provide limited amenities and are often located close to trails and beaches.

High Desert Vistas

Being that we live in the High Desert, the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) wants to remind Central Oregonians to get out and visit our surrounding desert locations. ONDA works hard to defend public lands, preserve natural values, and encourage the exploration of wild places.

“Desert camping is special because of the wide open vistas, natural quiet, and diverse wildlife that draw people to explore and understand the High Desert’s subtle beauty,” said Dan Morse, ONDA’s conservation manager. “Camping in Central and Eastern Oregon is an opportunity to get a little farther afield and understand a bit more about the desert that makes up half of our state.”

Morse suggests heading to Fort Rock in northern Lake County for your desert experience. “There are lots of great spots for dispersed camping [aka boondocking or wild camping] with nearby hiking, excellent bird-watching, and fantastic geological features. Places like Devil’s Garden, Lava Bed Wilderness Study Area, Crack in the Ground, and the Diablo Mountains Wilderness Study Area are fascinating to explore and make for great early and late season camping when other go-to destinations are too cold or snowy.”

Too Much Love

The downside of having such easily accessible wilderness beauty lies in its overuse. As more people discover the joys of camping, the importance of protecting our natural areas becomes even more paramount.

Visitors to the Three Sisters Wilderness jumped to 132,118 in 2016, up from just 46,999 in 2011, according to data collected by the Forest Service. Mount Washington visits were up 119 percent and Diamond Peak up 97 percent from five years ago. With increased use comes increased impact, including crowded trailheads and limited campsites. In response, the United States Forest Service (USFS) has put together a Central Cascades Wilderness Management Strategies Project to look at how best to manage the 500,000 acres of backcountry between Mount Jefferson and Diamond Peak. With public input, the agency is analyzing recreation management approaches for the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Sisters, Diamond Peak, and Waldo Lake Wilderness areas beginning in 2019.

One such plan includes requiring a permit—projected to cost between $6 and $12—as well as limiting the number of users. Currently, only Obsidian Trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness and Pamelia Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness require permits to hike or backpack. Both areas have seen success with such a program since they began to combat overuse in the early 1990s.

While the idea of a pay-to-play system continues to provoke a hotly contested debate, it is certain that overuse in some areas—especially the Green Lakes area and South Sister—has blurred the definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Oregon has long been blessed with privileged access to extensive swaths of wilderness—conservation management and respectful use may yet sustain that privilege.

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