Nearly anyplace you go in Oregon, you can glimpse wild country on the horizon. Even stuck in rush-hour crunch on a Portland overpass, you might spot the snow gleam of Mount Hood -- the city’s watchful signal peak -- or the dark, brooding ridges of the Western Cascades. Hikers and campers seeking solitude have much to choose from in this state of sagebrush seas, gnarled volcanoes and rainforest coast.
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Oregon is well-endowed with big, lightly populated, “back-of-beyond”-type country. Better than two-thirds of the population lives in the Willamette Valley, and much of the rest is concentrated in small cities and towns that are widely scattered amid emptier spaces. The Great Basin steppe and semi-desert of southeastern Oregon -- sometimes called the state’s “outback” -- is one of the least peopled swaths of the lower 48 states. The state’s numerous mountain ranges – the Coast Range, Klamaths, Cascades, Blues and Wallowas, as well as the fault-block mountains of the southeast -- still harbor plenty of isolated, rugged wilderness.
The most extensive opportunities for truly remote hiking and camping in Oregon exist on USDA Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acreage -- particularly in roadless federal wilderness areas -- although the state’s sole national park, Crater Lake, has a lightly used backcountry. Trails to subalpine lakes, waterfalls and other scenic destinations may be busy, but most regions have plenty of quieter routes. Those taking to long, strenuous ridgeline traces in the Mount Hood or Willamette national forests, for example, may be surprised at how much space they have to themselves despite the proximity of these Cascade Range wilds to the populous Willamette Valley. Off-trail hikers are almost guaranteed solitude, even in pocket wildernesses, but in many areas -- the severely steep, heavily forested Western Cascades, the deadfall-ridden canyons of the Northern Blue Mountains -- bushwhacking is a rigorous challenge. Backpackers enjoy the richest solitude for camping in Oregon, especially outside heavily used lake basins and other recreation hotspots. Primitive vehicle campsites are also available on many lonesome hinterland roads.
Regulations and Ethics
It’s important to abide by all backcountry regulations as well as basic Leave-No-Trace practices in Oregon wilderness. This ensures that you’re not intruding upon others’ appreciation of remote country and, more important, protects wild ecosystems from overuse and degradation. In most Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas, hikers and backpackers must carry a permit, often free of charge. If you’re not camping in an established backcountry site, try to use a previously established dispersed one to minimize impacts. Check with the appropriate managing agency to orient yourselves to a given area's specific rules.
Help in the event of an emergency in the Oregon backcountry can be a long way away. It’s essential to check with the agency responsible for the public lands you’re intending to explore ahead of time. Find out about road conditions, as some unimproved routes may be nearly impassable in bad weather. Share your route information with others -- friends and family as well as agency personnel -- so that, if trouble strikes, your general whereabouts are known to search-and-rescuers. Many wilderness trails are only lightly maintained, so expect plenty of debris and wash-outs, particularly in mountain forests. Rugged topography -- including potentially dangerous stream crossings -- and discombobulation are your chief concerns in Oregon wilderness, but remember that black bears and pumas roam most of the wild corners of the state.