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Oregon State Forests campgrounds can offer great outdoor experiences without the crowds

GATES, Oregon—If you want to get out in the woods this Memorial Day weekend, try one of Oregon’s state forests.  There are several campgrounds that often have openings or if you are just looking to go for a hike there is free parking at trailheads.

The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) manages all recreation facilities in state forests.  In northwest Oregon this includes the Clatsop, Santiam and Tillamook State Forests.

 There are three types of camping offered: developed campgrounds, designated campsites outside of regular campgrounds, and dispersed camping.

State forest campgrounds offer a true forest experience without the crowds since most have less than 20 campsites at each location.

“Developed campgrounds have restrooms, picnic tables, fire rings and often have other amenities like hand pump wells,” said John Mandich, a recreation specialist at ODF’s Northwest Oregon Area office.  “Also, most of our campgrounds are first come, first served.  So, if you are a last-minute type of camper, you should try one of our campgrounds.”

Some campgrounds get used less than others.  One of those is the Santiam Horse Camp in the Santiam State Forest near Gates, Oregon.

“This is up the mountain side at 1,200-1,400-foot elevations, so it has great views of the Santiam Canyon,” said Mandich.  “There is a 10-mile loop trail that is muti-use for horses, hikers and mountain bikers.  There are nine sites with corrals, parking for large vehicles to accommodate horse trailers—these can be reserved, but you must have a horse. So far only three of those sites are reserved for Memorial Day weekend.”

There is a day-use area with a pavilion, picnic tables, parking, restrooms and running water at a hand-pump well.

“There are only two designated camping spots for those without horses,” said Mandich.  “We hope to expand that in the near future. However, Rock Creek Campground is close by too and they have five spots.”

Whether visiting for the day or camping there are many recreational opportunities nearby.

“The recently reopened Shellburg Falls recreation area is within a 30-minute drive of the horse camp,” said Mandich.  “Popular Detroit Lake is also about the same distance too.”

Another unique aspect of the area around the Santiam Horse Camp (See the guide) is you can see all the phases of forest management on the trail.

“There are recent clearcuts from salvage logging after the 2020 fires,” said Mandich.  “These have recently been replanted.  Then you can walk a ways and see 10–15-year-old trees and finally you can see old stands with trees that have three-to-four-foot diameters.  It’s a unique experience in a compact area.”

There are also designated campsites outside of developed campgrounds.  These are numbered and offer a fire ring for campfires. The last type is dispersed camping with no amenities offered.

 “There are rules for dispersed camping the most important being—pack out what you take in, practice good campfire safety (keep fires small, attended, and make sure they are out), and practice good sanitation (bury your poop). And, camping this way it’s free for up to 14 days.”

Fees at state forest campgrounds range from $5 – $20 per night depending on the type of site. For Memorial Day and July 4 active-duty military get to stay for free with a valid military ID card. Also, the state forest campgrounds honor the Oregon state parks disabled veterans access pass.

Although openings can be found on weekends, weekdays have the best availability.  “If you shift your camping trip to a weekday you have a very good chance of getting a spot at most of our campgrounds,” said Mandich.

If you want an outdoor experience further west than the Santiam, try the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests.  If you are going through the Tillamook State Forest, be sure to stop in at the Tillamook Forest Center to see displays about the history, sustainable forest management and wildlife in Oregon’s state forests.  They also have hiking areas including a 250-foot suspension bridge behind the center that crosses the Wilson River and nearby is the Jones Creek Campground.

These are typically under used campgrounds in the Clatsop and Tillamook state forests:

Clatsop State Forest

  • Northrup Creek Horse Campground (Equestrian)

Tillamook State Forest

  • Morrison Eddy Campground
  • Jordan Creek Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) Campground
  • Reehers Camp Campground (Equestrian)
  • Keenig Creek Campground
  • Stagecoach Horse Campground (Equestrian)

To see a complete list of state forests camping opportunities, visit the ODF recreation webpage. The page lists the name, location, amenities, number of camp sites, fees and more information.

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