Visit Bend staffers share their top spots for camping in Central Oregon
There might still be snow in the mountains, but Bend locals and visitors alike are already tidying their camping gear and getting ready for nights spent snoozing under the stars.
To help give you some ideas, we asked Visit Bend staff and volunteers to name some of their favorite camping spots around Central Oregon. Here’s what everyone had to say
Name: Tawna Fenske
Position at Visit Bend: PR and Communications Manager (and regular author of this blog)
Campground of choice: Swamp Wells Campground
Tell us about it! While I love spending time on Central Oregon’s lakes and rivers, I prefer quieter spots when it comes to camping. Swamp Wells offers that, with the added bonus of being close to town (12 miles) and offering easy access to nearby lava tubes like Boyd Cave and Arnold Ice Cave.
Operated by the U.S. Forest Service, Swamp Wells Campground is technically a “horse camp,” and you’ll see hitching posts and the occasional pile of horse doody lying around. But we’ve frequently had the place to ourselves and had a dandy time exploring the high desert terrain on our own two feet. At nighttime, the stars are incredible, and you’ll likely hear coyotes howling in the not-so-distant distance.
Facilities out here are rustic, with just a vault toilet and no running water. The upside is that it’s free, which makes it a nice place to be if you’re trying to stick close to Bend and don’t have much money to spend. Be careful with fires, and heed warnings and restrictions during periods when campfires are banned altogether.
Name: Kevney Dugan
Position at Visit Bend: Executive Director
Campground of choice: Point Campground on Elk Lake
Tell us about it! This is a great lake for standup paddleboarding, skipping rocks, and camp fires under the stars. It has a boat launch and pit toilets, though no running water, so bring your own.
Get there early and take the spot all the way at the end. It’s close to the boat ramp, but the boat ramp isn’t busy so it’s fine. This is a great place for kids to play in shallow water. It has awesome views of Mt. Bachelor to the east and South Sister and Broken top to the north.
Our favorite activity is paddleboarding to the north end of the lake for a treat at the Elk Lake store. If you’re ambitious, go out at night when the lake is calm, the stars are out, and you will have the whole lake to yourself! This campground remains quiet even though it is busy. Bring firewood.
Names: Chip and Josefa LaFurney
Position at Visit Bend: Volunteers
Campground of choice: Lower Palisades Campground on the Crooked River
Tell us about it! This campground is run by the BLM so it’s very basic and has no facilities, although it does have an outhouse.
It’s only an hour’s drive from our house (Overturf Butte location). Our favorite campsite is number 11, and it’s RIGHT on the river and close to the outhouse. The stars out there are absolutely incredible! Chimney Rock is close by for hiking, as is the Prineville Reservoir where we took the canoe (the Reservoir is 5 miles away).
Insider tip? GET THERE EARLY. You can’t reserve and it does fill up. We got there at noon on a Friday and got the site we liked, but it was pretty full by about 4 p.m. We met the other campers and they brought firewood and we hung out by their fire. There were other campgrounds very close and we checked them out but found this one to be the best.
Name: Nate Wyeth
Position at Visit Bend: Marketing Director
Campground of choice: Wyeth Campground
Most of my favorite camping spots are dispersed and backpack-in only, but for a more accessible option, I like Wyeth Campground because, well, the name. It’s also less busy than most other popular spots, and although there are only five sites, it still fills up less quickly than campgrounds on the nearby Cascade Lakes Highway.
Besides the name, I love that it’s on a beautiful section of the Upper Deschutes, and still very close to all of the great hikes along the Cascade Lakes Highway. As the sites have a mixture of sun and shade, it’s a great place to just be lazy all weekend, maybe wet a line, and toss the ball in to the river for the pup. The best sites are 2 and 4 and are on the water.
In terms of facilities, it’s pretty bare bones, with pit toilets and a boat ramp, which means you’ll have to bring your own water and firewood (there’s no buying it onsite). On busy weekends, it does fill up quickly since there are only a few sites.
Name: Linda Orcelletto
Position at Visit Bend: Visitor Information Specialist
Campground of choice: Dispersed camping
Tell us about it! I think we all go camping to get away from the urban sights and sounds. So our favorite spots aren’t in campgrounds, but dispersed areas that are close to water. For some reason the air is fresher, food tastes better, sleep is deeper and the stars shine brighter when you are surrounded by trees instead of RVs, tents, and other folks.
Camping in areas outside campgrounds requires extra care such as bringing your own water, a porta potty, a roll up table, and being conscientious enough take your trash with you. Unless there is an established fire ring, no fires are allowed. Even then, make certain to check on fire regulations. Always bring enough water. This type of camping isn’t for everyone (especially large groups), so if you are new to this type of camping, check out this link so you know before you go.
Go early (or during the week) so you aren’t disappointed if your site is already taken. Most dirt roads aren’t maintained and require high ground clearance vehicles. Most of all, follow the rules of leaving no trace so others can enjoy the tranquility of the spot after you leave.
For tips and information on dispersed camping on U.S. Forest Service land, check out this link.
Name: Lisa Sidor
Position at Visit Bend: Visitor Center Manager
Campground of Choice: Sparks Lake
Tell us about it! Last summer, my husband and I kayak camped for the first time at Sparks Lake. The lake was low, and we had to portage a bit, but ended up having the lake to ourselves.
Camping at Sparks Lake varies with one campground near the Cascade Lakes Highway, dispersed camping along the forest service road to the lake, and dispersed camping by boat along the lake’s shores.
If you pull up on the western shore, you have a beautiful view of Mt. Bachelor. Bring your own water and firewood. Weekdays are best to avoid crowds at the launch ramp.
Normal lake levels will see more kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddle boarders out exploring. Sparks Lake is wonderful to explore, with lots of nooks and crannies. The lake drains into the aquifer by fall, and you can see where the lake is draining. There are several places to camp along the shore, but you need to bring everything in by boat. Don’t forget all the necessary permits for water craft and your Northwest Forest Pass!
Name: Hank Therien
Position at Visit Bend: Group Sales and Special Projects Manager
Campground of Choice: Little Crater Campground
Tell us about it! The campground is on Paulina Lake and is a great home base to explore the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The sites are big enough to accommodate RVs, and there’s a dump station on site. There’s also running water, fire rings, a boat launch, and more. You can even reserve ahead through this link.
This campground sees heavy summer use, so stick to shoulder season times to avoid crowds. Be sure to arrive early, because this campground tends to fill by Thursday afternoon for most weekends.
If you can get your hands on one of the last campsites that you come to near the campground turnaround, you will have quick access to a trail that will lead you to a pair of natural hot springs on the opposite side of the lake.