This U.S. National Forest Has 7 Major Volcanic Peaks, Ancient Tree Groves, and Beach Camping

There's a lot to explore in more than 1.6 million acres of Oregon forestland.

Mount Jefferson reflected in Russell Lake at Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Oregon

James Dustin Parsons/Getty Images

The Willamette National Forest is expansive, encompassing eight wilderness areas and seven major volcanic peaks across more than 1.6 million acres of preserved wildlands. It's a wilderness to rival all wildernesses, with near-untouched terrain that can be explored by bike, boat, car, or foot. And while the landscape itself is wild, with old-growth forests, high mountain lakes, and jagged peaks, it's surprisingly accessible — 30 minutes east of Eugene, Oregon, and under two hours south of Portland, Oregon.

The year-round adventure destination in the center of Oregon has a little something for everyone. In the summer, there’s hiking, biking, rafting, and fishing, and during the winter, there’s skiing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding. You can camp year-round, enjoy scenic drives through the wild landscape, or gape at one of the volcanic peaks rising above the hills and rivers: Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, Diamond Peak, and the Three Sisters.

Scenic Drives in Willamette National Forest

West Cascades National Scenic Byway, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

VW Pics/Getty Images

Willamette National Forest has more than its fair share of scenic roads, including the West Cascades Scenic Byway, which skirts the northern half of the Cascade Mountains and provides plenty of pull-off points with views of alpine lakes, towering waterfalls, and dense, ancient forests. If tackling the full, 222-mile byway feels overwhelming, you can camp, hike, and bike along the way.

Proxy Falls near McKenzie Pass, Oregon

Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images

Another popular drive is the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, an 82-mile loop around two mountain passes. The route has plenty of places to stop and stretch your legs or cast a line. Along the loop, you’ll also see old-growth Douglas fir and red cedar forests, lava fields, crystal-clear mountain lakes, waterfalls, and snowcapped volcanoes and glaciers.

Hiking and Biking in Willamette National Forest

As you might expect from a forest this size, Willamette National Forest has more than 1,700 miles of trails. There are single-track routes for bikers, horseback riding trails, and both heavily trodden (and rarely used) hiking paths that crisscross the protected forestland

If you’re on the hunt for wildflowers, check out the Iron Mountain Trail, home to more than 300 species of flowering plants and ending at an expanse of bare volcanic rock. Meanwhile, mountain views are abundant in the Willamette Pass Trail Area, which has paths for hikers, bikers, and horses, including the scenic Diamond Creek Falls Trail, Salt Creek Falls Trail, and Vivian Lake Trail.

Koosah Falls in McKenzie pass, Oregon

estivillml/Getty Images

Those looking for water access should head to the McKenzie River Ranger District, where you can hike the Waterfalls Loop Trail and see the state’s stunning Sahalie and Koosah falls. 

Willamette National Forest Camping

Like everything else, the camping within Willamette National Forest is plentiful. There are more than 70 developed campgrounds with amenities like fire pits, toilets, RV hookups, and water, plus numerous primitive or dispersed campsites where you won’t see another tent for miles.

Sweet Home Ranger District sits in the middle of Willamette National Forest and is one of the area’s most popular summer camping spots. Within Sweet Home, you’ll find House Rock Campground, which is perched in an old-growth forest near a river confluence. Most of the campsites are situated on the river, and hiking trails leave right from the campground. The nearby Trout Creek Campground has a similar vibe, with access to the Menagerie Wilderness, which is popular with hikers and backpackers. 

Detroit Lake with Mt. Jefferson in the background, Oregon

GarysFRP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, camping abounds on Detroit Lake, located southeast of Salem, Oregon. Five campgrounds can be found around the lake — known for its trout fishing — including a boat-accessible campsite on Piety Island. Down south, on Waldo Lake, the lakefront camping is enhanced with sandy shores — at least at Islet Campground, which has great beach access, a boat launch, and plenty of hiking trails. 

When to Visit Willamette National Forest

Willamette National Forest is open year-round — even in the winter. During the cool winter months, head to Santiam Pass for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, and dog sledding. If you’re up for it, you can even check out Hoodoo Ski Area for some downhill skiing and boarding. Willamette Pass is another winter hot spot, with downhill boarding at Willamette Pass Resort and plenty of cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and sledding.

In the late spring and summer, the national forest begins to open fully, drawing hikers who want to see the wildflowers and nosh on freshly picked huckleberries. As the weather begins to cool, the crowds tend to disperse and visitors are often treated to wide-open trails and clear fall days.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles