COVID-19 Updates and Travel Alerts

How to Have Fun—and Stay Safe—Outdoors Around the Willamette Valley

In the past, when "physically distancing" wasn't part of our daily vernacular, getting outside to explore was just an enjoyable excuse to reboot and enjoy the season. But with potential park closures, reduced services and the need to maintain a safe distance from other adventurers, it's a bit more cumbersome—and planning will be key.

So while it won’t be as simple as showing up to your favorite park or trailhead with a map (or app) in hand, you can still have a fun and safe outdoor adventure. We hope with these small changes and a little added planning you'll be celebrating National Trails Day —or really any day—outdoors in the Willamette Valley.

We want you to have the safest possible experience while enjoying the Willamette Valley outdoors—so we urge you to Take Care Out There when paddling our rivers and lakes, hiking in our forests and meadows, birdwatching in our wildlife refuges, and camping under the stars.

In so many words, all we’re asking is that you do a little advance planning, understand what’s closed, avoid crowds, and keep close to home so rural communities stay safe.

These graphics offer a good overview of how to safely make the most of your outdoor experience:

What does this look like in practice? Here are a few tips:

Time your trip right: If possible, you’ll encounter smaller crowds on midweek outings, rather than on the weekends. And if you can hike in the early morning or late afternoon/early evening, all the better. (Early morning and late afternoon excursions have the added bonus of being ideal times for wildlife viewing, as well.)

Have a backup plan: If you show up and your favorite park or trailhead is at capacity, please consider coming back another time; you’re never far from another great outdoor experience in the Willamette Valley. So if your favorite waterfall hike is too packed, for instance, try a less-traveled path down the road; the Oregon Hikers Field Guide and AllTrails are excellent sources for alternate ideas.

Don’t be shy about hiking in the rain: If you’re not hiking to panoramic viewpoints—or if mountain views aren’t on the agenda—don’t let the rain keep you home (as long as it’s safe). Even the occasional shower dampens the crowds, even as thick forest canopies keep trails mostly dry. Besides: If it’s raining when you leave your house, chances are good it’ll clear up by the time you reach the trail. (Be sure to bring the appropriate apparel and hiking boots, just to be safe.)

Ask a land manager for recommendations: Oregon State Park hosts and Willamette National Forest rangers are just a few clicks or a phone call away—these are friendly, thoughtful sources of outdoor knowledge who can usually steer you away from otherwise crowded areas.

If you’re looking to relax and enjoy some fresh air, you’ll find plenty of opportunities around the Willamette Valley. From forested foothills to rural parks, our open spaces offer easy opportunities for physical distancing without sacrificing the outdoor experiences that make our region so special. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

(Note: These parks were open and accessible at the time of publication—but given the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, that may have changed; before visiting, check the website of each park for the latest details and closure information.)

Champoeg State Heritage Area: The 620-acre park, also the site of where Oregon's first provisional government was formed in 1843, offers plenty of room to stretch your legs. Champoeg State Heritage Area's interpretive center is closed for now—but all bike and walking trails, the park's boat dock, day-use areas, and the park's disc golf course are all open.

Minto-Brown Island Park: Would you believe that Minto-Brown Island Park is larger than Central Park in New York City? It's true: The 1,200-acre park makes it easy to socially distance with 29 miles of trails, riverfront access, picnic shelters, and more. (Just be sure to wipe down picnic tables and other high-touch areas with wipes of sanitizer before use.)

Sarah Helmick State Recreation Site: The first state park in Oregon, just five miles south of Monmouth, sits along the floodplain of the Luckiamute River. In all, Sarah Helmick State Recreation Site offers more than 80 acres for picnicking, fishing, and walking in a bucolic forest of Douglas fir, cedar, and cottonwood.

This might not be the best time to hike the trails on your Instagram-inspired bucket list. The most popular trails will remain packed as long as they’re open, and we’d love for you to do your part by not adding to the crowds. Here are a few off-the-beaten-path alternatives to keep you busy and engaged.

(Note: These hikes were open and accessible at the time of publication—but given the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and our region's bouts with wildfire, that may have changed; before setting out, check the status of each trail at the listed websites or via phone call.)

North Fork River Walk: This single-file North Fork River Walk Trail follows the North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River—say that five times fast—and sports only 100 feet of elevation gain over the 7-mile, round-trip hike. The hike starts just beyond the Office Covered Bridge—at 180 feet, it's the longest covered bridge in Oregon—and passes through a peaceful forest before ending at an intersection with NF 685 and NF 1910. Several short spur trails down to the river shore offer ample opportunities for cooling off and sunbathing.

Santiam Wagon Road to House Rock: Between the 1860s and the late 1930s, the Santiam Wagon Road led settlers and their livestock to the wide-open pastures of Central and Eastern Oregon. The wagon road lost its luster when U.S. Highway 20 opened in 1939, but portions remain accessible to hikers today—including the Santiam Wagon Road to House Rock trail. One of the most intact sections of the old wagon road, the trail follows the South Santiam River, passes through an old-growth forest, and ends at a waterfall at House Rock.

McDowell Creek Falls Trail: When you need a quick getaway, the McDowell Creek Falls Trail offers a nice respite from the crowds. The easy, 1.6-mile loop follows the shores of McDowell Creek while also affording views of Royal Terrace Falls and the appropriately named Majestic Falls.

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