Family Camping and Outdoor Adventure Around the Willamette Valley
This spring has brought unseasonably warm weather to the Willamette Valley—and, along with it, a natural inclination to get outdoors and enjoy the region’s immense scenery.
It’s easy to take advantage of the great outdoors in the Willamette Valley, which is home to a number of parks that offer day-use and overnight fun—including fishing, picnicking, and camping—that ensure a safe and memorable (if socially distant) experience.
When our travel plans had to be cancelled last summer, we got creative. Camping offered the chance to get away while following guidelines for safe social distancing. Loading up the minivan with our gear, we spent several nights camping at different parks throughout the Willamette Valley.
We made lots of memories and had a grand time. Here’s the scoop on what we found—and what you have to look forward to if camping this spring and summer in the Willamette Valley.
River Bend County Park
We started with a visit to the River Bend County Park, just east of Sweet Home in Foster. River Bend County Park hosts a large, wooded campground with 85 campsites on a number of loops. Like the name suggests, it is situated on a bend in the South Santiam River. Nearby hiking trails offer access to the river in multiple locations. The many campsite loops provide plenty of space for older kids to ride bikes; in fact, a number of teens were doing the circuit on our most recent visit. With so many large loops, younger children may find it difficult to find their way back to their site.
We took gear for water play with us on this trip—inflatable tubes, life jackets, and an inflatable rowboat. We walked to the river from our campsite one day to enjoy tubing and wading in the shallows. The next day, we took the short drive down Highway 20 to Foster Lake, with its beach and boating options. The inflatable boat was a big hit, but as amateurs, we kept close to shore as we paddled about.
River Bend County Park has a lovely patio space next to a large parking lot, for group barbecues and get-togethers. On one of our walks through the campground, we passed a number of cabins that can be reserved, if tent or RV camping isn’t your thing.
Silver Falls State Park
Silver Falls State Park is best known for its stunning, eight-mile Trail of Ten Falls (which offers views of, you guessed it, 10 waterfalls along the way). We had enjoyed a number of day trips to Silver Falls over the years, but finally took the tent and stayed overnight. The Silver Falls State Park campground is small and comfortable, tucked away from the day parking and extensive waterfall trail, but within easy walking distance.
The campground is situated in a forested grove, next to a small creek. Creekside campsites provide opportunities for waterplay. A single loop of campsites means kids on bikes aren’t likely to get lost. We took some time one afternoon to hike over to the Trail of Ten Falls, visited a couple of the falls, and hiked back to the campsite.
The campground is an easy, 30-minute drive from Silverton. If you end up in an unexpected August rainstorm and decide to pack out early, Silverton makes a great destination for breakfast.
Silver Falls State Park also offers cabin camping for those who prefer solid walls. These are in high demand, so advance booking is necessary.
Champoeg State Heritage Area
The day-use area at Champoeg State Heritage Area offers several miles of hiking and cycling trails.
Our next adventure was at Champoeg State Heritage Area near St. Paul. Champoeg is situated along the Willamette River—but unlike River Bend, there is no river access from the park; steep riverbanks and swift currents make water access unsafe. Many signs along the hiking and biking trails warn of dangerous currents.
Champoeg has four miles of paved bike trails and 1.5 miles of hiking and nature trails. If you are a history buff, or just curious about early Oregon history, you’ll love Champoeg. Steeped in Oregon history, Champoeg was a trading crossroads throughout the 1830s; in 1843, it was the site for meetings that resulted in the formation of the Oregon Provisional Government.
There are two camping loops at Champoeg, one situated in a sunny open meadow and the other under a grove of trees. We enjoyed walks around both loops during our stay.
Sarah Helmick State Recreation Site
Sarah Helmick State Recreation Site is just north of Corvallis, right off Oregon 99W. It holds the distinction of being the first state park in Oregon. Land from a claim staked in 1846 was donated to the state, becoming the beginning of the state park system in Oregon. A generous paved loop within the park allows for parking on either side of the road. Open for day-use only, the park has a number of picnic tables and a barbecue site. Groups can reserve the designated group site, as well.
Luckiamute Landing State Natural Area
With both a north and south parking area, Luckiamute Landing State Natural Area boasts walking trails along the Luckiamute River. From the small south parking lot, there is access to a short, quarter-mile trail; keep an eye out at the pond (a former gravel pit) for the Western pond turtle, a species that’s native to Oregon. Park in the north parking lot (accessible over a narrow wooden bridge) for a longer two-mile loop trail.
Elijah Bristow State Park
Elijah Bristow State Park is located southeast of Eugene, off Highway 58 and along the Middle Fork Willamette River. Named for one of the first settlers in Lane County, its 847 acres include meadows, woodlands, and wetlands. Hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails abound in this large park, which also offers numerous picnic sites (including three group picnic areas that can be reserved in advance).
State Capitol State Park
Plenty of green space at State Capitol State Park encourages lounging and, on a sunny day, picnicking. (Photo by Taylor Higgins)
Right outside the Oregon State Capitol in downtown Salem, you’ll find the appropriately named State Capitol State Park. The large grassy lawn starts near the building’s main entrance and stretches two blocks. A parking garage hides underneath this park. Take a walk through the park, bring a blanket for a picnic lunch, then enjoy all that Salem has to offer during your day in the state capital. (Every April, cherry blossoms turn the park vibrant shades of pink and add to its charm.)
Make the Most of Your Time Camping Around the Willamette Valley
While many enjoy the rustic nature of camping, getting back to nature, and “‘roughing it”’, I prefer a modicum of civilization while camping. Here’s how to make camping with kids in the Willamette Valley a little easier.
Plan ahead: Reserve ahead and choose a site with services (water and electricity)—even if you are tent camping. You’ll appreciate not having to hike for water, and the hookups give you options for charging devices or “glamping” with electric appliances. (On one trip, I took the Instant Pot along—making meal prep nearly effortless.)
Bring your bike—or bikes: If you plan to bring a bicycle, bring at least two so kids can use the buddy system for riding around the campground loops. I volunteered as the buddy a couple of times, folding myself into a very small bike to join the one kid who wanted to bike around the small loops.
Remember the insect repellent: Bugs aren’t often an issue when camping in Oregon, but bring along the insect repellent just in case you end up sharing your site with mosquitos. (Mosquitoes are more likely when you are near water, especially when camping in May and June.) Yellowjackets were an issue at Champoeg in late August, but keeping the food under wraps limited their visits to mealtimes.
Prepare for reduced services and closures: Check for current safety restrictions before leaving home. For instance: Restrooms may require masks at all times, and showers might be closed.
Don’t forget the firewood: Most campgrounds offer firewood for sale, but not all. If firewood isn’t available at your campground, try to buy from nearby, if possible, to limit the spread of invasive insects. And before you leave home, be sure to check your campground’s website for potential fire bans—especially in August and September.
Take advantage of delivery if you don’t feel like cooking: Don’t feel like preparing every meal while camping? Neither did I. DoorDash is totally capable of delivering to a campsite. (Guess how I know?)