In Oregon, there are many ways to commune peacefully with nature. The catch: You must compete fiercely to do it.
During peak hiking in summer, you're bound to find trailhead parking lots overflowing, leaving nearby ditches and berms jammed with cars and looking like scrapyards. And booking a campsite is cutthroat business. Unless you time everything just right, yurts and cabins at the most sought-after state parks are all snatched up by weekend warriors far more ambitious than you are.
And that was before the pandemic.
This year, an outdoor escape became even more challenging to pull off. In March, the state park system took the unprecedented step of closing its properties—every last waterfall and walking path—in response to COVID-19. Campgrounds didn't reopen until early June, and most cabins and yurts remain off-limits, due in part to budget shortfalls.
If you'd given up on arranging that rustic getaway, there is hope in the fields, farms and forests of private landowners across the state. The online platform Hipcamp is nearly identical to Airbnb, but with a focus on lodging that places people smack dab in the middle of the great outdoors: Think tent sites, RV hookups and cabins.
When browsing through Hipcamp's dozens of listings, your gaze may fix on the one titled "Christmas Tree Farm Camping." It is, after all, the holiday season. And this year, our gatherings may be smaller, but both anecdotal evidence and early sales figures indicate we're celebrating as big and traditional as possible, either by setting up real Christmas trees in our homes, wrapping the exterior in lights, and doing more laps through drive-thru displays.
So in a year when good spirits are hard to muster, a night on an 8-acre property boasting more than 500 planted firs would send levels of Christmas spirit through the chimney.
The farm is in rural Lebanon, about 90 minutes south of Portland, where the hosts also live while running a scaled-down campground. Due to COVID, only one party can sleep over at a time, but eventually a handful of recreationalists will be able to spread out across the fenced-in area—most in tents, but there are a couple of parking spots for RVs. Those who feel sociable can then come together in the evening around a large fire pit lined with boulders to swap advice about nearby hikes and paddles.
For now, though, you can enjoy having the run of the farm to yourself, aside from the couple who reside there and their three German shorthair pointers. Given the December chill, we decided to upgrade from pitching a tent to staying in the barn loft, where the bar for roughing it went from "sleeping on the ground" to "flipping through a less-than-ideal selection of channels via Dish Satellite." But you're not here to watch TV. You're here to roam and spin among the Christmas trees, like a winter princess version of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
Our hosts greeted us at the front gate to lead us up a paved driveway past their house and to the big brick-red barn. Behind the barn is a dirt path that circles the property. After the recent rain, it was at first muddy, revealing enough deer tracks to suggest this might be part of their regular commute. Eventually, we reached a leaf-covered stretch that served as a slip guard. So far, there were plenty of trees, but only a few that could have been of the Christmas variety—and even those were far too large to fit in any living room.
We continued on, looping past a series of black troughs strapped to trunks. The grain feeders were further proof deer frequented this place. Beyond that were sizable campsites, one furnished with a picnic table, and a sturdy wooden outhouse just out of view for any guest who doesn't want to traipse all the way over to the barn in the middle of the night.
But we had yet to see any Christmas trees. And we were losing light, fast.
Turns out, we passed right by them when we drove in. The tidy rows you'd expect on a tree farm were all there closer to the road—the year-old firs were just tiny. In fact, the flags marking each twig were more noticeable from a distance. It will take a few more years before you can really have that immersive Christmas tree experience, and a total of seven or eight before they're ready to cut and sell, but there will also be more of them. The large open space in the middle of the property will soon be planted with firs.
Even though the trees were smaller than expected, the mission to escape town was still accomplished. We breathed in fresh country air on our little hike. We learned more about the deer—a herd of 14 make their beds there, and sometimes "you'll wake up to them fighting," our host said. If you pop outside around 8 pm and turn on a flashlight, you'll see a meadow full of eyes reflected back at you. We heard coyotes howl and cows moo in nearby pastures.
Perhaps best of all, though, was nature's reward the next morning: fresh eggs courtesy of the farm's chickens, which we put to good use in a tomato basil Benedict.
STAY: Search "Oregon Lebanon Christmas Tree Farm Camping" on Hipcamp to reach the reservation page.