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Close to home but a world away

Close to Home but a World Away: Camping 101 in Central Oregon  

A few years ago my family set up camp in a provincial park just a bit north of Whistler, in British Columbia. To our right flowed a white-green river of glacial water; behind our campsite was an enticing maze of downed tree trunks, and a little trail led off into the lush woods. To our left, a family from Great Britain occupied the next campsite. The mom stopped over to chat, mentioned it was their first time camping, and uttered a few sentences that have since become a long-running family joke.  

“Sooo…what do you dooo when camping?” she queried in her clipped English accent. “I don’t know what to do at a campfire! I’m booored!” Bored? That comment left my boys staring, open-mouthed, like fish out of water. They’d experienced many emotions while camping over the years, but boredom was not one of them. They silently gazed with real sympathy at this woman’s daughter, who was sitting quietly at the picnic table, before they ran off to play in the woods.  

Especially in our world of indoor comfort, digital games and computer-generated friends, childhood needs to be real, not virtual. To grow up without ever developing the capacity to entertain oneself without electricity, without learning to catch a toad or skip a stone or point out the little dipper—without those experiences, something important is lost.  

Camping gives kids the chance to learn all those things—but what if you, the parent, are not a camper? Fear not! Our camping issue will give you the full scoop on where to go and what to bring, to ease your family into the camping mode. We’ll cover destinations that are perfect for a daytrip or an overnight trip, each within an hour’s drive of Bend. This could be the summer that leaves your kids full of funny stories, great memories, and new outdoor skills. Plus, they’ll never be bored around a campfire.

Who says campers need to stay overnight? Camping is about the fun, and families that cringe at the thought of sleeping in a tent needn’t miss out. Many campgrounds can be found within an hour’s drive of Bend, all perfect for daytrips, where families can reserve a site, spend the day exploring, make a campfire, watch the stars come out—then pack the sleepyheads into the car to head home to their own beds.  

Packing for a camping trip is a bit like super-sizing a picnic. The well-stocked cooler is a given, with snacks and the ingredients to cook at least one meal over the fire (see sidebar on camp cooking.) Campgrounds have potable water on site, so refillable water bottles win out over single-use plastic disposables.  

Families that plan on camping several times over the summer save packing time by setting up one large tub to store other camping supplies. Essentials include a good first-aid kit, sunscreen and bug spray, garbage bags, flashlights or headlamps, paper plates, fire starting materials, and a tarp with rope, to string up to create a bit of shade. Day campers might even want to set up a tent, for a mid-day quiet spot for naps or reading.  

Got room left in the tub? Great! Fill that extra space with gear for kids to explore the great outdoors: buckets, shovels, fish or bug nets, a compass, binoculars, sketch pads and colored pencils (they won’t melt like crayons) and books—bird, bug, tree and flower identification guides.  

So the cooler is packed, the camping tub is ready to grab and go—and with a few more items you’ll be ready to hit the road. Campsites all have a picnic table and a campfire ring, but it’s BYO chairs to sit around the fire. Firewood is available for purchase at most campgrounds, but it’s cheaper to bring your own. Just remember that the Ponderosa pine, our most common tree, has bark that is incredibly fire-resistant. Swim suits, towels, and a sweatshirt for everyone, and…phew! You’re on your way!


Day-camping Destination #1: Elk Lake Campground

There’s no better spot to introduce your family to camping than Elk Lake, which is located 33 miles out of Bend, just off the Cascade Lakes Highway. At just under 5000 feet in elevation, the air keeps a cool crispness no matter what kind of heat is beating down in town, and it’s worth the drive just to take in the view of South Sister’s glacial fields rising over the royal blue lake water. Sailboats, small fishing boats, canoes and kayaks share the lake with swimmers and fisher-folk.  

Several campgrounds ring the lake: Elk Lake Campground is closest to the main road, closest to the Elk Lake Resort, and often the most crowded; Point Campground and Little Fawn Campground are both found a bit farther around the southern bend of the lake, and both offer a little more solitude. There is a $5 fee for day use of a campsite, and sites are first-come, first served. Sunset Beach, on the east side of the lake, is a beautiful spot with a perfect swimming beach, but it’s designated day-use only. There is no campsite, so fires in the evening are not an option.    

Day-camping Destination #2: Soda Creek Campground

Soda Creek runs out of the north end of Sparks Lake, another pearl in the string of high alpine lakes located along the Cascade Lakes Highway. The Soda Creek Campground is smaller and not directly on the shoreline, but overlooks the marshy meadow that makes up the northern end of Sparks Lake. This meadow is full of shallow, meandering creeks—a true paradise for small explorers to spend hours splashing through and jumping over the shallow streams, catching frogs, and sailing paper boats, all within sight of the campground.  

Soda Creek Campground makes a perfect base camp for several nearby hikes, ranging from flat and easy to intensely steep. The mellow, flat trail around Sparks Lake is wide enough for walkers and bikers, and easy for kids. At the other end of the spectrum, the Green Lakes and Devils Lake trailheads lead hikers to trails that eventually summit Broken Top or South Sister. Whatever the day’s activities include, plan to be back at the campsite by sunset, because you won’t want to miss the show: the sun setting behind the Cascade peaks, with the Soda Creek meadow golden in the late afternoon alpenglow—it could be the best sunset you’ll ever witness.  

Day-camping Destination #3: Tumalo Creek State Park

Bend’s happiest little summer oasis is tucked away on the north side of town, very close to the intersection of OB Riley Rd and Johnson Road. Unlike the sites at Elk Lake and Soda Creek Campgrounds, which are managed by Hoodoo Recreation and do not accept reservations, campsites at Tumalo State Park can be reserved by calling 1-800-452-5687.  

Tumalo Creek bubbles through the campground, and at the peak of summer it’s not too deep for kids to swim, not too shallow for floating, and just the right temperature to spend all day in an inner tube floating from one end of the park to the other (then hopping out to run the tube back up to the starting point.)  Many summer birthday parties take place at Tumalo State Park, where parents can drop by to pick up kids as the party winds down with s’mores around the campfire.


This is a spot that proves you don’t need to go far for a memorable camping experience. If day-camping leaves your family itching to try a multi-day overnight trip, Tumalo State Park has a yurt available to rent. Yurt reservations are made at the same number given above, and spots fill quickly.



So you’ve made a couple daytrips, your camping tub is stocked, and you’re ready to try camping for a weekend. Multi-day trips have great advantages over day-camping: Only a few more items need to be packed, and in return, your camping trip stretches into a real getaway. There’s no need to rush off; instead, the evenings ease into priceless moments when the kids are giggling and murmuring off to sleep in the tent while parent hang at the fire.  

Unless, of course, that Hallmark moment includes hordes of mosquitoes, pouring rain, or a sudden onslaught of the stomach flu (all of which has occurred in the years my family has spent camping.) Sometimes the unexpected makes for a great story; sometimes it makes you want to head home! For that reason, we’ve kept all our suggestions for multi-day camping destinations to within an easy hour’s drive of Bend.  

As mentioned above, the packing list only grows by a few items to extend your daytrip into an over-nighter. A tent, of course, plus sleeping bags and sleeping mats—which can range from a thin foam pad to a full-on air mattress. You’ll want a clothesline, to hang up wet suits and towels, and a bright lantern for the inevitable late-night visit to the outhouse, which most kids (and some adults) prefer to have well-illuminated before using. Headlamps work great for kids in the tent—they’re hands-free and point right where a kid wants to look.  

Campers can get by for most meals without cooking in pots or pans, but if coffee or tea is a critical element to your morning, you’ll need a way to heat water. Heating water over a campfire takes a while, and really, who wants to build a fire before having coffee? A more efficient way is to use a propane camp stove, and a small pan that fits the stove—these are available at many outdoor stores in Bend. Another option is to bring a hotpot and plug adaptor for the car outlet.

Overnight Camping Destination #1: Paulina Lake Campground

This campground is a must for any budding geologists in the family, because how cool is it to sleep inside a volcano crater? Located twenty-four miles south of Bend, just off of Highway 97, this area is part of the Newberry National Crater Monument. Paulina Lake and its twin, East Lake, sit inside the five-mile wide caldera of the massive Newberry Volcano. The last eruption occurred 1300 years ago, but the area is considered dormant, although enough geothermic activity is present to produce hot springs around the lake.  

The campground sits on the southwest tip of Paulina Lake. The recreation options could fill several days: hiking to the summit of Paulina Peak, exploring the Lava River Cave, or hiking around the lake to find the small hot springs along the northeast shore of the lake. Many families head to Paulina Lake for the excellent fishing, and camping on-site gives you an early-morning edge on the crowd. With its deep, clean water, and rich ecosystem, Paulina Lake is home to a variety of fish, including trophy-sized Brown Trout and Kokanee.


Reserve a campsite online at www.recreation.gov or by phone at 1-877-444-6777. One special caution: black bears have been sighted in the Newberry Crater area. Bears only come into campsites if food is available, so before turning in for the night be sure all food is packed away and the cooler is stored in the car.


Overnight Camping Destination #2: West Cultus Lake Campground

Take your camping up a notch by heading to the one campground in Central Oregon that can only be reached by boat. Cultus is one of the larger high lakes, and one of the few where more powerful boats and waterskiing is allowed.


Start at the boat launch at the regular campground at Cultus Lake, and load your water craft—ski boat, fishing dinghy, zodiac, or canoe—whatever can carry your family and your gear across the lake to the West Cultus Campground. Be sure to check the signs for rules on parking fees or passes before you leave your car, as the lot is patrolled regularly.


The West Campground is most easily recognized by the lineup of boats anchored along the beach. The actual campsites are set back off the beach in the shady woods, out of site from the water. Despite the logistics required to access this campground, it’s a popular spot and fills up quickly on weekends.


The sandy beach is great for swimming, and numerous trails lead out from the campground. Hikers can head up to the summit of Cultus Mountain for a panorama view, or hike around the lake to Cultus Lake resort for an ice cream cone.


Overnight Camping Destination #3: Waldo Lake Campground

We’ve saved Waldo Lake for last, and you should too! Waldo Lake is not to be missed, but schedule this trip for late summer to avoid the mosquito hatches that can plague campers well into August. It’s the second largest lake in Oregon (Klamath Lake is number one) and the second deepest (Crater Lake is deepest) but Waldo ranks first for water clarity, and possesses a turquoise hue that seems almost unreal.


Waldo is located between Bend and Eugene, off Highway 58. Three campgrounds line the east side of the lake: North Waldo Lake, Shadow Bay, and Islet Point, which is often the least crowded. The trail around the lake stretches 22 miles, and passes through forest that is recovering from a large wildfire that burned fifteen years ago.


The best way to experience Waldo Lake is by kayak or canoe, to take in the amazing color and clarity of the water. The water clarity is so extreme that the lake naturally supports only a low number of fish, and the lake is no longer stocked, so this is not the destination for anglers. Bring your camera instead of a fly rod, and plan on bringing home trophy photos of the lake at sunset, of Diamond Peak shining beyond the lake, and of your kids learning to paddle on one of the cleanest lakes on the planet.