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Van Go

Van and small trailer camping in Oregon’s outdoors

From colorful deserts to pristine coastlines and pine-covered mountains in between, Oregon’s diverse landscape offers many impressive areas to explore. To truly be immersed in these environments, we often camp right in the middle of it all. But what if staying in one spot and sleeping on the hard ground, with only a thin layer of nylon between you and the outdoors, just isn’t your idea of a good time?

Instead explore Oregon’s landscape with the comfort of a real bed and the ability to move easily from place to place on a whim. Van camping, or vamping, and small trailer camping make getting away for a weekend, or maybe even a few months, a whole lot more convenient and flexible. Vans and small trailers provide safety and protection where a tent cannot, and without the limitations or expense of staying in hotels. Additionally, vans and trailers are usually much cheaper than an RV, and easier to maneuver.

Cascade Journal interviewed seven expert vampers to learn why this is an exciting way to see Oregon, and to identify some of the best vamping spots in the state.

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On the Road Again

Rachel Goldfarb and James Campbell have been traveling the states, including Oregon, for several years now, living full-time in their 1976 Volkswagen Westfalia, which they fondly call Sunshine. At this point they could really be better described as van-dwellers than house-dwellers.

“We love the endless possibility of the open road,” says Goldfarb. “We want to see things we’ve never seen, and touch the world while we are young and free.”

Not everyone is completely enticed by the thought of leaving everything behind and living the nomadic life, however. Vamping works equally well on a weekend-to-weekend basis—just ask Ashley Mersereau and Justin Baillie. Their 2006 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which they call Eddy, is ready to go whenever they get the urge to travel.

“Sprinters are great because there is enough head room to stand up as well as a lot of space to customize your living arrangement,” says Mersereau. “It’s small and cozy but it’s amazing how functional it can be if you make sure everything has its own place. It is freeing to have everything you need with you and be able to travel on a whim and just pull up somewhere and go to bed.”

Small trailers are another smart choice for overnight travel. Robert Johans is owner and creator of Nest Caravans, a startup in Bend, Oregon, that produces one-of-a-kind small travel trailers that are safe, convenient and a little more luxurious than the standard camper or trailer.

“I believe camping simply means taking a break from normality, enjoying the great outdoors and reconnecting with nature. Because of the convenience and security provided by trailers, even a relatively inhospitable location can be made perfectly comfortable,” says Johans.

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Get Out the Map

Which spots in Oregon are particularly well suited for vamping?

Gale Straub and Jon Gaffney, yet another pair of van-dwelling explorers, suggest visiting Cape Lookout State Park on the Oregon Coast.

“This park is beautiful,” says Straub. “You can camp right by the ocean, walk the beach in the morning, and hike in the forest all day.”

Located about 20 minutes southwest of Tillamook, the campground here is particularly ideal for vamping as it is open year-round. You will also find hot showers at the campsite, easy beach access and hiking trails with views of the ocean and Netarts Bay. Cape Meares Lighthouse and the legendary Octopus Tree are also a 25-minute drive north and worth stopping to check out.

Goldfarb and Campbell, the owners of Sunshine the van, suggest the Umpqua National Forest, located about two hours southwest of Bend. Like Cape Lookout, the area offers a lot to do and see. It also allows dispersed camping, or camping outside of a developed campground, which allows for more flexibility in choosing a location to spend the night—ideal for vampers.

“Entering a rainforest midsummer, with its emerald moss and oversized ferns, made us feel like we were somewhere in the tropics,” says Goldfarb. “With dispersed van camping abundant, we were in heaven and didn’t leave for over a week.”

If you are more comfortable with a campground, the Toketee Campground is only an eight-minute drive from Umpqua Hot Springs and 30 minutes from Crater Lake National Park, making it a great spot to spend a few nights.

Close proximity to Mt. Hood and iconic Multnomah Falls make the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area another perfect vamping location.

“This one is a no-brainer,” says Straub. “Being able to wake up and head over and see several waterfalls on a relatively short hike is pretty darn awesome.”

She suggests Eagle Creek Campground, the first Forest Service campground built in the United States, which provides easy access to famous trails like Eagle Creek and the Historic Columbia River Gorge Trail.

For those seeking more privacy, the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, south of Burns, is a great vamping location as it is road-accessible, yet considered by the Bureau of Land Management to be one of the most remote and wild areas left in Oregon. And there are plenty of places to soak your road-weary bones.

“There are a lot of hot springs here, which is always a deciding factor for me,” says Mersereau. “The contrast of desert is appealing too—a nice break from the rainy coast where I am from.”

In Central Oregon, the Ochoco National Forest has several van-accessible campgrounds that offer a wide range of appeal, from mountain lakes to meadows and even potential glimpses of wild horses. If you’re not a fan of official campgrounds, you can disperse from the crowds and make your own.

“One of the great things about the Ochoco National Forest is that free dispersed camping is allowed for 14 days,” says Straub. “We stopped here so we could access the Painted Hills early the next day. They were so alien and beautiful. It was amazing to see them in person.”

Walton Lake Campground is a popular spot in the Ochocos. The area offers trailer-accessible camping, fishing on the lake and has access points for the Round Mountain and Walton Lake hiking and biking trails. It is also an hour-and-a-half drive from the ethereal Painted Hills, which are are renown for their natural beauty and geological magnificence.

Van and trailer camping make Oregon’s diverse environments easier and more fun to explore. With so many options and so much terrain to cover, it can be tough to know where to start. Goldfarb offers advice for those new to vamping: “Take the back roads, stop often and be spontaneous,” he says. “You cannot always plan a good time; sometimes you must instead let the good time come to you.”

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