Portlanders love the outdoors. If you need proof, just go onto ReserveAmerica.com right now and try to book a camping spot for July. Chances are you'll be directed someplace like Lake Owyhee State Park, a short seven-and-a-half hour drive to the high desert of Eastern Oregon, where July temperatures top out at 112 degrees and bottom out just above freezing.
But like so many things in Portland—apartments, jobs, swimming holes—there are semi-secret spots that locals who know the angles use to enjoy our forests at their peak. Here are a few to get you started.
Lost Lake isn't exactly a secret, but it's here just in case you're unaware of this gem. For those who want a quick getaway to a postcard-worthy spot in the Hoodland, this little lake on the north face of the mountain is ideal in almost every way. First, because it's beautiful—in fact, every bit the equal of the south-side lakes that have been booked up since Valentine's Day. Second, because it's big—148 campsites, only a few of which can be reserved in advance. Third, because there's a lodge with a well-stocked camp store that assures you won't run out of beer and marshmallows by Saturday afternoon. They'll rent you boats to take out onto that lake, too. For Portlanders who aren't planners, this is the spot. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Take Interstate 84 east to Exit 62. Turn right at Cascade Avenue, then right onto Country Club Road, then left onto Barrett Drive. After 1.2 miles, go right onto Tucker Road, then go two miles and right onto Dee Highway for 6.3 miles. Take a right onto Lost Lake Road and follow twists and turns until you see signs for the resort.
Dispersed camping anywhere in Mount Hood National Forest
Sure, the forest has all sorts of public campsites with useless luxuries like "running water" and "plumbing," but smart locals have known for years that basically every plot of land in the national forest is pretty much fair game for a 14-day span. If you find free spots near a public-use area with restrooms, smart campers might just pay the day-use/parking fee and make use of the facilities there. U.S. Forest Service spokesman Chris Bentley says you're not allowed to wander into nearby campsites and use their showers, but also says it's unlikely that people will chase you down if you're a bad citizen who likes to cheat the Forest Service. There are, however, some simple rules to dispersed camping in the forest, and you should expect a friendly visit from a ranger who tracks such things, including the license plate on your car. But it's pretty simple not to screw it up: Don't light a fire except in a fire pit, and not unless you have a two-gallon bucket, shovel and ax. (The ranger will probably ask to see them, so make sure you have them.) You may not pitch your tent nor drop your personal dookie closer than 100 feet from any trail or 200 feet from any river. And they ask that you pack out every damn thing you pack in, including toilet paper. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
NF-57/Oak Grove Fork
Follow Oregon 224—the Clackamas Highway—along the river, and mostly what you'll find is a pile of campsites that have already been staked out on the Internet. But it's cool. All you have to do is keep driving, until you hit the end of the road altogether. Take the NF-57 fork at the end of Oregon 224, and you'll begin to discover, on your left toward the river, little untended campsites. These don't have potable water. And they don't have power. And they don't have a restroom. But if you get there early enough (go Thursday night), they are all yours, hugged right up against the Oak Grove Fork tributary of the Clackamas, with the sound of the water lulling you to sleep so you can wake up early and drink beer. MATTHEW KORFHAGE
Most campgrounds on the west side of Mount Hood are reserved long in advance. Of the exceptions, Green Canyon is your top pick. From U.S. 26 you'll follow a tunnel of moss and pine along a rushing creek, past the 742A trailhead and a tall, black rock face that's popular with climbers. The campground itself is nicely spaced, with 15 sites and two pit toilets. Can't land in the campground or want an even more picturesque spot without water and toilets? Go farther down the road for some well-trod primitive spots. Before you get to the cement bridge there's a pull-off by a handful of unofficial spots near a deep bend in the creek that has its own little sand beach. The ground is flat and soft, with a decomposing pine providing a natural sleeping mat that's very plush. Strike out there, too? Just over the bridge there are a few more spots on the left, by the creek. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Go east on U.S. 26 to Zigzag. Go south on NF-2618 (E Salmon River Road), which is about a mile past the town of Wemme. Follow the road south for approximately four miles. Campground is on your right.
The best part of McNeil is the smell: that hot, brittle, high-desert pine scent, like it's about to catch fire at any moment. In the summer, that may or may not appeal to you, but it's what this 34-spot, reservation-free campground along the Sandy River has to offer. There's a smattering of tall pines that don't provide much shade and ground covered in low-set shrubs. There are also stunning views of Hood, and you're near the trailhead for spectacular Ramona Falls, which is an excellent, seven-mile-round-trip hike. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Go east on U.S. 26 to Zigzag. Go north on Lolo Pass Road, Forest Route 18. Follow 18 northeast across to Forest Road 1825, which starts at the right fork onto a bridge. Follow 1825 east to the campground.
Beacon Rock/Reed Island
You can't get around Western Oregon's camping-spot shortage just by crossing the Columbia River. There are only seven state parks on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge and only two have campgrounds not on the reservation system. If you have a boat and don't mind roughing it, consider Reed Island, which sits in the Columbia just east of Vancouver. The 512-acre island has two primitive campsites and there is very little competition for them. A more realistic option is Beacon Rock, which sits in the shadow of the 848-foot basalt monolith that offers some of the region's best traditional rock climbing. The park has 26 forested tent sites that are all first-come. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Take I-84 east to Exit 44 for the Bridge of the Gods. Cross the bridge and turn left to go west on Washington State Route 14, the Evergreen Highway.
Those who don't want to risk getting shut out of a first-come campsite should remember the three campgrounds in the Clackamas County Parks system (clackamas.us/parks). They do take reservations, but fewer people think to use them. The spot is 116-acre Barton Park, which sits on the Clackamas River near Boring. The park has an impressive 102 campsites, some shaded by old-growth trees, with water and electric hookups, plus another seven primitive sites. There's also Metzler, five miles south of Estacada, which has 60 sites with water and electric hookups and another 15 primitive sites with water nearby. Then there's the jewel of the Clackamas parks system, Feyrer Park, just south of Molalla on the Molalla River. It's heavily wooded and the river has some of the better swimming holes you'll find near a park with toilets. These campgrounds take reservations but the system won't allow you to see available sites if your arrival date is within the next three days, so you should call to ask about a last-minute reservation. If you're trying to find a site this weekend, call 742-4414. Good luck—you'll need it. MARTIN CIZMAR.