It began with a grassy five-acre patch. The land donation in 1922 by Oregon Trail traveler Sarah Helmick, then age 99, and her son would become Oregon’s first state park (now part of the much larger Sarah Helmick State Recreation Site). Fast-forward 100 years and the Oregon State Parks system now includes 254 properties—state parks, plus recreation, heritage and natural areas—that together surpass 100,000 acres, including Tryon Creek State Natural Area in Portland’s backyard.
With summer approaching, here are five Oregon State Parks camping options under an hour’s drive from downtown. Camping reservations can be booked by visiting stateparks.oregon.gov.
Only 45 minutes from Portland, Milo McIver State Park sits right alongside the Clackamas River. The park is named after Milo K. McIver (no, not the guy from the ’80s TV show MacGyver), a supporter of state parks who was a member of the Oregon Highway Commission from 1950 to 1962. It was also the place where hippies gathered in 1970 for the drug-infused rock festival, Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life.
A prime spot for rafting, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing, the park also has 14 miles of hiking trails (some of them also equestrian) and a 27-hole disc golf course, and is home to the Clackamas Fish Hatchery, where you can take a self-guided tour and learn all about Chinook salmon and steelhead.
To make a weekend out of it, the park has seasonal tent and RV camping with shady tree-covered sites boasting plenty of surrounding greenery for added privacy. There are also three hiker/biker sites with a solar charging station and fire pit. If you’re hoping to camp closer to the water, sites 48 through 53 are your best bet. The park is open year-round for day use, with camping from mid-March through the end of October, so you can have a spooky campout around Halloween.
Once the site of a tree farm, L. L. “Stub” Stewart State Park is now a playground for hikers, cyclists, and horse riders, with nearly 30 miles of trails, disc golf courses, and year-round camping. Situated in Oregon’s Coast Range on a forested hilltop, it’s only 34 miles west of Portland.
The park is named after Loren LaSells “Stub” Stewart, a lumberman who served on the State Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee as well as the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission. Nicknamed Stub by his friends for being the shortest person in his class, the name stuck for the rest of his life.
Here you have a choice between tent camping, some hike-in only sites for a more primitive experience, cabin camping, or RV sites. Our recommendation? Book a cabin at the Mountain Dale Cabin Village, where 15 rustic (but heated! and five are pet-friendly) cabins nestled in a woodsy backdrop offer sweeping views of the Coast Range. The Banks-Vernonia State Trail, where hikers and bikers can take snapshots of the scenic Buxton Trestle bridge, cuts through the park. You’ll also find shorter forested trails, such as the loop to Boomscooter Pond, which can be accessed from the cabin village or from the Banks-Vernonia State Trail.
You can’t get much closer to all those stellar waterfall hikes than Ainsworth State Park in the Columbia River Gorge. The seasonal campground, open mid-March through October, boasts leafy tent and RV campsites, and is just steps away from the Gorge 400 Trail, where you can connect to other trails such as Angel’s Rest. The park is named after John C. Ainsworth, a businessman and banker who donated 40 acres of land in 1933—additional land has been purchased and added to the park since then. The only downside to this campground is that it’s situated right next to I-84 and a working railroad, so light sleepers may want to bring earplugs. Tip: tent sites C1 through C6 are farther from the highway and also happen to be right next to the Gorge 400 Trail.
In nearby Cascade Locks, make time for a short detour to Train Appreciation Park, a little-known roadside attraction tucked away from the downtown area that simply sports a grassy patch with a tree sign designating the park and a bench that looks toward (you guessed it) the railroad.
Remember that if you’re planning to drive along the waterfall corridor on Highway 30 between Bridal Veil Falls and the state park between May 24 and September 5, you must purchase a timed-use permit.
History buffs and nature lovers get the best of both worlds while meandering through Champoeg State Heritage Area, where “forests, fields, and wetlands recreate the landscape of a bygone era.” Located on the south bank of the Willamette River, the park is worth an extended stay with gentle hiking trails, wildlife viewing, historical sites and disc golf, as well as fishing kayaking. There’s also year-round camping.
Once the site of bustling pioneer town Champoeg, the park (which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places) is where Oregon’s first provisional government was formed by a vote in 1843. You can easily spend a day just exploring the park’s history with exhibits at the Champoeg Visitor Center that detail the story behind the Kalapuyan people of the Willamette Valley as well as fur trappers and settlers. You can also take a guided walking tour for a deeper dive into the site’s past. Behind the visitor center is a 19th-century style garden. And be sure to pay a visit to the Historic Butteville Store, founded in 1863—said to be the oldest continually operating store in Oregon—where you can buy pints of ice cream handcrafted on-site.
Camping opportunities abound here, with a choice between tents, yurts, cabins and RVs. Sites range from tree-canopied nooks to those set in more open grassy areas, so it depends on your preference. Tent campers will probably want to opt for either the Loop A section, which is shaded by Oregon white oaks, or the group sites, located near the dock away from the main campground. Loop B, located in a meadow area, gets less shade so RV camping might be more desirable unless you’re hoping to get a summer tan going. There are also some cabins in this loop as well.
Government Island State Recreation Area includes three islands in the Columbia River: Lemon, McGuire, and of course, the 1,760-acre Government Island, which is the most developed. Camping is allowed on the islands so long as you stay below the vegetation line around the perimeter. There’s just one catch—the islands are only accessible by boat. So, if you’re looking to beat the crowds, this is your place. Just keep in mind that there are no designated campsites and things are pretty simple, with pit toilets, picnic tables, and grills dotted around the island perimeter. One of the 14 landing sites in the Portland-Vancouver area used by Lewis and Clark, the island got its name after being used by the US military to grow hay.
As for nature and recreation, the islands are home to freshwater wetlands, so bring along a pair of binoculars for wildlife viewing. Try to spot great blue heron, pileated woodpecker, bats, and salamanders. The island interior, however, which includes Jewett Lake, is off limits to the public and accessible only by permit via the Port of Portland. As with any campground, be sure to pack in and pack out to keep things clean and safe for wildlife and the next visitors.