We were merely a quarter mile into our backpacking trip when the incessant ringing and stinging of mosquitoes started, and no one was carrying any repellant. It was a boggy section of the trail into Serene Lake, so we figured it'd pass. It didn't. The day was hot, but we covered up anyway, even tying towels and bandannas around our heads to keep the sound off our ears. At our campground we made a fire and enjoyed a wonderful night under the stars, and when we woke up, we packed our tents in a hurry and ate as we walked back along the same mosquito-ridden trail. As far as backpacking trips went, it was a memorable one. It taught me never to forget my mosquito repellant and to avoid backpacking to alpine lakes in the early summer, that it's better to wait for late summer instead.
The trip from hell also reinforced something else. Even for a trip gone awry, we stayed in such a beautiful place. The stars we saw that night were as memorable as the mosquitos. At one point, as we sat watching the stars reflect on the lake, I got my first glimpse of the intensely bright shine of the solar panels on the International Space Station as it orbited above us. When I backpack through Oregon today, I remember that trip, both the importance of planning ahead, and picking the right season, and that when things don't go as planned, go with the flow and the trip will still be full of great memories.
I now make it a point to take a number of backpacking trips around Oregon every summer. I take my friends to my favorite places and add a few new ones each year. Here are some of the best places to backpack in Oregon, but with so many options, consider this a start and share your favorites in the comments below as well.
The Columbia River Gorge is usually thought of as a day-hiking area, but there are a few great places to go for short backpacking trips as well. One of the better options is along the trails that link Wahtum Lake near Mount Hood with Eagle Creek. Above Tunnel Falls on Eagle Creek has a number of nice backcountry camping spots.
* Please note that Eagle Creek Trail is currently closed past the five-mile mark due to fire.
The forests surrounding Mount Hood are full of backpacking options close to Portland. The Salmon River Trail runs through beautiful old-growth forests and has camping spots throughout. Given the options, it's a great place for everyone, including families looking to get their kids started on some easier trips. Mirror Lake, although also a short hike in, is a great option for families as well, and offers some of the most majestic views of Mount Hood you can get from a backcountry campsite. Timothy Lake also has backcountry campsites at Meditation Point that are great for a short overnight backpacking trip. For anyone looking for a more rugged backpacking experience, the Timberline Trail circumnavigates Mount Hood, and takes two to three days depending on the group.
The wilderness surrounding Mount Jefferson has some of the best backpacking in Oregon. The many trails near Mount Jefferson link via the PCT, and any number of routes are sure to make for a memorable backpacking trip. Mount Jefferson is accessible from all of Oregon's largest cities, and it has become increasingly popular with backpackers looking to access high elevations in the summer. One place that has become so popular that it will soon require a permit is Jefferson Park, where you can camp at the foot of the mountain at high alpine lakes. Opal Creek Wilderness is usually known for its swimming holes, but continue further down its trails and there are great backcountry campsites where you can sleep in old-growth forests with giant Douglas firs and western redcedars. Serene and Rock Lakes are amazing places to hike into near Jefferson Park, just heed the earlier warning of mosquitoes and bring your repellant or go in late summer.
* Please note that areas of Jefferson Wilderness are closed to fire.
What might be Oregon's most impressive wilderness full of huge volcanoes and alpine lakes, the Three Sisters Wilderness has so many great backpacking routes to choose from. Those on the eastern side are generally more accessible from nearby Bend, so head to the west side of the mountains for a multi-day trip around lakes, through obsidian fields, and camp at tree-line below volcanic peaks. For a great overnight backpacking trip from Bend, hiking into Green Lakes and sleeping beneath South Sister is sure to be memorable for years to come. For an unbeatable grand tour of the area, check out the Three Sisters Loop!
Situated away from any population center in Northeastern Oregon, the Wallowas is a land of peaks, alpine lakes, and backpacking trails. You'll have no trouble finding campsites at well known mountain lakes, but you may be sharing it with horsepackers. One favorite is Glacier Lake, a 13-mile hike in from Wallowa Lake that sits at the foot of Eagle Cap. The Eagle Cap Wilderness is the largest in Oregon and has over 500 miles of trails, so you'll have plenty of backpacking routes to choose from.
The majority of Eastern Oregon is BLM and National Forest lands, and with just 6% of the state's population living out here, it'll feel like you're the only person for miles while backpacking. Two amazing and relatively untraveled mountain routes are the Elkhorn Crest Trail and Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Loop. Both of these will take you to high mountain lakes and provide a true sense of solitude. In Southeastern Oregon, the gorges into Steens Mountain go through aspen groves and along clear mountain streams. It's a long drive from almost anywhere to reach these spots, but well worth the trip.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon's only national park, is probably the most recognizable name of the places to backpack in Southern Oregon's Cascades, and if you haven't visited, it's well worth the trip. Intrepid backpackers can circle the lake on a multi-day journey with snowshoes before the road circling the lake opens in the summer. The area also features some of the best fishing and rafting rivers in the state, as well as trails running along their flanks. The Rogue River Trail can be done on a multi-day thru-hike with shuttles to pick you up at the end of the trail. Diamond Peak is another great, easy peak to summit with incredible views of the area and great backpacking along the lakes at its base.
The Oregon Coast Trail runs the length of the Oregon Coast. Much of it is on the beach, but sections are on roads and for the most part camping is done at campgrounds instead of at backcountry campsites. Luckily the campgrounds on the coast maintain hiker and biker campsites for those not coming in a car. Some of the better backpacking on the coast is done in the Tillamook State Forest, at the areas linking the summits of Kings and Elk mountains. Be prepared for a steep hike to these sites, an aspect that keeps most backpackers at bay and makes the area relatively untraveled, even though it's just a short drive from Portland.
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