I’d have laughed you off the planet if you told me I’d make campervanning at national parks an annual trip. Don’t worry I’m already eating my words. Everyone, myself especially, is still coming down from the high of our most recent trip: Oregon. When you think you couldn’t top something … Volume 3 sends it straight to the stratosphere. Enough jabbering, here’s how we managed 1200 miles, over eight days, with four grown adults in one campervan chasing waterfalls, hot springs, and a breathtaking coastline.
Admitting that our route for this trip was a tad bit AMBITIOUS is an understatement. I hadn’t taken into account just how large the state of Oregon is (98,466 square miles … larger than the UK!) Where would our sense of adventure be if we didn’t bite off more than we could chew?! The following is the shortlist of sights we wanted to see (who doesn’t love a list):
- Mount Hood
- Silver Falls State Park
- Tamolitch Falls
- Bigelow Hot Springs
- Toketee Falls
- Umpqua Hot Springs
- Crater Lake
- The coastline from Bandon -> Cannon Beach
We wanted a mix of beautiful hikes followed by soaks in hot springs and end with scenic drives along the coast. Good mates, food, and beer, the perfect recipe for a memorable trip. In the end we racked up about 1200 miles which might be a lot to some travelers, but we’re seasoned, this isn’t our first go around. The boys and I were ready.
For an an adventure like this choosing the right rig for the job was super important. Comparing our first outing to this was like jumping from a Motel6 straight into the Ritz Carlton. In all fairness our first rig did the job and served us well! VAN1 was CHEAPER than dirt to rent and had unlimited miles, which later would proved an important factor in decision making of future rigs, we needed something more.
What we wanted this time around (another list, hell ya):
- Compact (last year’s rig was a Class C (24 foot) where this time around we opted for a Class B (22 foot))
- AWD system for off-road terrains/hard to reach places
- Gasoline > diesel due to cost at time of trip
- Enough sleeping space for four-five adults
- Inconspicuous and stealthy, but we kind of fudged this a bit — more on it later
The shopping list was created, choices narrowed down, and entered the Vansquatch:
A turbocharged-AWD Ford Transit van sitting on duallies with rugged off-road tires, solar panels, an awning, ladder and overall badassery one group needs for a week long stint in the Oregon wilderness. Literally had everything we needed, minus a pooper, but sported a mobile shower unit (life saver), and we loaded up goods for the week and ventured out. WHOOOOOSH!! — me anytime I stepped too heavy on the gas pedal and the turbo kicked in. This would be a FUN week.
Chasing Waterfalls … and Hot Springs
Don’t you want to go chase all the waterfalls and relax in natural hot springs?! This was my sales pitch to my friends on this year’s location. Didn’t take much more convincing than that for them to hop aboard Campervan Volume 3. I did as much research as I could on Oregon and the destinations that follows are equal parts planned, discovered and literally ‘fuck it’ by the seat of our pants.
Mount Hood — Ramona Falls
After driving through Portland’s rush hour traffic, moving at a snail’s pace, we made it to our first boondocking campsite of the trip. The skies finally cleared of the ominous red hues, from all the wild fires, and shown Mount Hood in all its glory, a fantastic backdrop to our first night’s camping. I couldn’t park the rig fast enough to get out and watch the sunset against the mountain. Needless to say the boys were alright.
In case you don’t know what boondocking is here’s the basic lowdown: free campsites with no amenities of an actual campsite. This means you must dig holes for your poops and bring out what you brought in. Please be respectful of nature above all else.
The great thing about boondocking is seeing how many other rigs pull into camp while you were asleep. In the morning while the coffee was brewing I took note of a full sized yellow bus (converted into a luxury condo on wheels), other sprinter van conversions, some old timers (solely their rigs, not their age) with pickups and teardrop campers hauled out back. Myriad of different folks from different strokes of life enjoying one thing: the outdoors.
Caffeinated and emptied we made way to our first hike of the trip: Ramona Falls trail. A sweet almost 7 miles out and back trail lending itself to an amazing wilderness backdrop. The road to the trailhead was a bit dodgy, but nothing those duallies in the back couldn’t handle. Most if not all the parks in the Oregon State Parks system implement a day-use permit fee. If you haven’t snagged a permit beforehand make sure you drop your $5 into the bin and be on your way.
A rather smooth hiking trail it was filled with rolling mountain sides surrounding our 12 and 6 o’clock, sweet elevation gain, hell even a river crossing! For a majority of the trail you are walking beside the Sandy River which adds nicely to the surreal sounds of nature around you. Getting up as early as we did allows for having the trail mostly to ourselves. We did see a few hikers here and there but it wasn’t overly crowded.
The reward for this first hike was Ramona Falls … wow! Please don’t let my lack of adjective words take away from the beauty of these falls, they were in fact picturesque. Hardly anything could have topped that morning’s view, but a Hop Valley IPA put up stiff competition. We took it in, first one of the trip, laughing, cheering, sharing old stories in front of new backdrops. After a few photos, beer in the belly, chopping it up with other hikers, we packed up and got to getting.
Was the hike hard? Absolutely not. Worth the 7 miles out and back? You bet your damn ass it was.
After a parking lot lunch of sandwiches we left the Mount Hood area and headed east towards Abiqua Falls some 80 miles away. This was probably one of the longest drives because we were just on back country farm roads the entire way! Brutal was putting it lightly as the roads were reminiscent of the 1800s, I’m still coming down from self-induced vertigo. Almost had an incident of a propane canister falling out of the shelves and careening onto Tony’s head.
One long, windy and dusty road after another we turned onto what seemed like the trailhead for Abiqua Falls. The roads getting down here were TERRIBLE. Potholes the size of craters, craters the size of the Grand Canyon, a wall of dust kicking up in every which direction, nervous passengers with eyes piercing into the back of my skull around every bend. We were off-roading now, boys!
As much as I love a good wheeling I decided it was best to park our 22 footer off on the side and walk to find the rest of the trailhead. A half mile later we turned a corner and saw a Geo Metro making it FARTHER than our off-road luxury home. I kind of died inside. Bravo, Metro, bravo.
Two miles into the yellow dirt road a terrible feeling came over me: where the fuck is the trail head?! Nothing to indicate a trail was even remotely near us, panic ensued. There were two women who walked past us and I thought it should be up ahead. Up ahead came and went. More panic. What do you do when you can’t see any markers? Send up a drone of course! TK took flight and the four of us gawked at a tiny screen with bated breath.
Trees. Trees. And more trees. Nothing in sight. The drone landed and I was defeated. I wanted things to go as SMOOTH as can be for my mates, knowing how precious little time they can take away from their own lives to be here with me. I decided we should cut our losses and head to our next campsite for the night and we all consented. Just then Tony found a minuscule weathered path off the side of where we can hear rushing water. A sense of adventure curiosity came over us as we outweighed the risk rewards and ‘what could go wrong’ scenarios in our minds.
A few minutes into this “newly” discovered trail we were presented with ropes descending some realllllly shifty looking rocks. Here’s the adventure we were looking for. Abiqua Falls kept calling the background and between it and us were two sets of repelling ropes. Without hesitation my eagerness got the better of me and down I went, rope in between my legs, curiosity in my eyes. Before TK and Quang got to where Tony was I was already off the rope, hollering back up to GET DOWN HERE!
Once all four sets of feet were firmly planted on terra firma we followed the rushing water sounds into a vast opened valley. Our efforts of trying to find the trailhead for the waterfall, our defeat in finding said trailhead, has now led us to the TOP of Abiqua Falls overlooking everything that was glorious. Were we alone? You fucking bet. There was no time wasted getting into the water that pooled right before feeding the fall below. Though icy at first dip, numbness soon faded away as we acclimated to the water. Our sore muscles relished in the cold. That thundering sound of water raging over the falls echoing off the lush green mountainside was completely and utterly visceral, I can still hear it reverberating in my mind.
Knowing how narrowly close we came to missing out on this altogether we just smiled is disbelief of where we were. The takeaway here was something I had forgotten over the years: always keep a positive attitude. Because you never know when you’ll find ropes that leads you to a waterfall.
Next stop was a short sprint (95 miles) from Salem, OR towards Tamolitch Falls. The first half of the trail was mainly flat forest fauna with a slight elevation change. Once you cross the footbridge the surroundings lends itself to a block field of lava rocks. I highly suggest not falling on these, they aren’t forgiving. The second half does have meteoric rise in elevation, be aware. You’ll have the echoes of the McKenzie River accompanying you on this hike.
Tamolitch Falls’s Blue Pool at the end of the trail was the draw and it surely didn’t let down. Looking down from atop you can stare for hours into its crystal blue waters. Due to gigantic lava flow from Belknap Crater it buried 3 miles of the riverbed above here some 1,600 years ago. Except during rare floods, the McKenzie was left to percolate underground through the porous rock to underwater springs inside Tamolitch Pool.
We were blessed with not getting lost this time (it would’ve been a miracle had we) and found the side trail that led itself towards the pool. Our descent wasn’t treacherous, but you have to be mindful of your step, one slip and you’ll need new ankles. Did you think we were just going to stare into the water once we got down? Off went the hiking boots, on went the swim trunks as we dived head first, literally, into the most FRIGID water this body has ever felt. IT WAS DAMN F#%^&*G GLACIAL.
Ever been punched straight in the kidneys and lost all function of your lungs? Remember letting a balloon loose and it sailed everywhere? That was my lungs. Meanwhile you’re frantically trying to make it ashore wondering why you were so dumb. Invigorated, revitalized, fortified should cover how I felt. Glad I checked this off my bucket list. Recall me saying it was a dumb idea? I jumped in again.
Bigelow Hot Springs
Unbeknownst to us (hardly, I planned it) nearby to Tamolitch Falls laid Bigelow Hot Springs (also having other alias) where we headed to next to chill and of course warm up. This is the first natural hot springs that a few of the guys would’ve enjoyed so I wanted to make the most of the occasion. There were plenty of parking before the trailhead and it was marked quite clearly. We opted for the right trail since it splits … going entirely on my gut (which proved to be utterly wrong.)
After the first mile marker and no sight of a hot spring within reach my doubts started setting in, sounds familiar? We decided to give it another half mile before calling it quits. Wouldn’t you know that it came and went in the blink of an eye. Feeling like I just got TKO’ed in the first round we headed back to the parking lot, but not before we foraged some chicken of the woods! Totally ran into these babies by chance and I got way too excited. We snagged some in our bags and rallied after a small setback.
TK on the other hand was not so easily swayed into defeat. With the hot spring carrot dangling in front of us he split left at the trailhead and what did he find? The damn hot spring! With a thumbs up from me to the guys at the car, the ubiquitous sign for grab more beer, we jubilantly met with TK standing beside the lone hot spring. It was a magical way to end the day soaking with your buds in a thermal spring with the McKenzie River’s cold rage in front of us.
NOTE: Some hot springs in Oregon are clothing optional … you have been told!
Tokeetee Falls & Umpqua Hot Springs
We woke up from a super restful night boondocking early as the next day had us driving a whopping 178 miles (some 3.5 hours) towards Toketee Falls and Umpqua Hot Springs. It’s during these long drives that the best conversations can be had with your companions. I appreciate the co-pilot musical chair and will forever be grateful for the long stints on the road with good mates. That being said driving through the rolling hills of Oregon was majestic. Around every bend was something to ooh and ahh about. Opposite this spectrum was witnessing how the destructive force of wildfires can be really damning to your soul. I’d no idea just how bad things were until we’re driving through affected regions, which was basically almost everywhere.
Toketee was a short trail, less than half a mile, but it had a nice surprise to it that we hadn’t anticipated. At the lookout platform you’ll be presented with gorgeous views of the waterfall and let me say that it was GORGEOUS. When I arrived late with TK I noticed that Quang was gone. Tony informed us of the hole in the fence and down Quang went. I peered over and wouldn’t you know it? Another set of repelling ropes. We repelled once already so a second time was a no brainer. Previously mentioned you should be extra careful when doing these types of things. Getting air flighted out is not good on your vacation resume.
Once again all four sets of feet firmly planted on the ground we criss crossed some fallen tree trunks and followed the guiding sound of water thundering down from above. Cue all the songs about taking your breathe away because this was the bees knees. I think we all collectively looked at each other in wild amazement that this was actually right in front of us. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to start the day. Was it worth the climb down? My answer will always be YES. Oh did I mention it was a double waterfall? Because it is.
With our hearts filled we headed back to the rig and went chasing a hot spring to even out the afternoon. Nearby was Umpqua Hot Springs ($5 fee, small price for paradise) which hosts several geothermal pools on the side of a hill overlooking the North Umpqua River. It was the perfect spot to just relax for an afternoon. Also, you can find your perfect Goldilocks pool by trying each one, with the hottest at the top and cooler towards the river. Don’t be scared if you see a little bit of nudity — it happens here too.
Crater Lake National Park
One thing I wished we had more time for was Crater Lake National Park — it’s been one of the top parks on my list for quite some time. Not far from Toketee Falls we decided to disperse camp about five miles outside of the park. Their campgrounds were nearing full but we wanted to be away from the crowds in the hopes of stargazing on a quiet evening, which worked out perfectly.
We beat the rush in the morning driving into the park and getting us prime views of the crater before anyone else was awake, even the gift shop. It was brisk being a smidge over 6,000 feet up, our breathing visible. What shortened the trip to Crater Lake was simply the long haul drive we had to the Oregon coast later that afternoon. Sometimes you have to sacrifice some things and this was one of them.
The lads and I opted to hike Garfield Peak trailhead and drive counterclockwise around the rim. The hike saw elevation gains of 1,000 feet and more with continuous switchbacks. This was oddly reminding me of the Grand Canyon hike and I got scared for a moment remembering how tough that was. In stark contrast this wasn’t as bad as I thought and we all made it to the summit relatively easy. Once at the top you couldn’t get a bad view if you wanted to. Simply put it was stunning. From this vantage point you can see why it is the deepest lake in the continental US at 1,943 feet, just take my word for it. Yes, you can swim in it in designated areas though I bet it’s as cold as Tamolitch Falls (Blue Pool.) Still, it bewilders me to think that 7,700 years ago it literally blew its top off and the lake was the result. Nature is wild.
At 32.93 miles the Scenic Rim Drive hosts more than just cars, you’ll see a bunch of runners and bikers along the picturesque route. The drive itself for us was short because we only made stops at Phantom Ship Overlook, Cloudclap Overlook and Merriam Point. Another sweet pin in the cap that is Crater Lake National Park, I was thrilled to have spent some time here at all to be honest. If we ever get a chance to come back and enjoy it longer than just a morning you can bet a lottery ticket on it.
Amazing trip so far isn’t? This marks the halfway point of our adventure which makes it a great stopping point both for you and I. These few days has already taught us all a bit of something that I think will stick with us for the duration of our lives. We ventured through the inland wilderness of Oregon with nothing but our love for the outdoors and it rewarded us ten folds. During the first half we had little to no cell service and relished in having a vacation away from our devices. Cheers to the many conversations had under a star studded sky.
Next we tackle the Oregon coast!