10 great Western Oregon backpacking trips for younger kids

Zach Urness
Salem Statesman Journal

The most rewarding experience with children in the outdoors, for me, has always been backpacking.

Car camping is great, day-hikes are wonderful, and fishing trips are fantastic. But none of those capture the immersive quality of getting away from the road and carrying camp upon your shoulders the way backpacking does.

This seems especially true with younger kids. 

But picking the perfect spot for a first, second or third backpacking trip is not easy. You want a hike that's a few miles into the wilderness, but not so tough that it stops being fun. You want good campsites, ideally near a mountain lake, but not hoards of mosquitoes. And ideally, it'll have some extra things to do once you reach camp, whether it's swimming or fishing or day-hiking. 

It can feel like a lot. 

Here are 10 picks for good backpacking destinations for those younger in age (or looking for an easier experience). 

Two people helped out with this list: Bonnie Henderson, my co-author on "Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon," and author of the upcoming book "Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail."  And Franziska Weinheimer, owner and operator of the outdoors website Hike Oregon

Lower Twin Lake (Mount Hood area)

This mountain lake near Mount Hood checks just about every box for a good backpacking option with younger kids. It’s 4.2 miles round-trip with 660 feet of climb to a lake with plenty of campsites and a trail around the lakeshore. There’s also an easy option for a longer trek to Upper Twin Lake.

“It’s just about perfect as a backpacking destination with young kids,” wrote author Bonnie Henderson. “No surprise that it tends to be crowded on summer weekends. Aim for a weekday, or go early in the season (rhododendrons in bloom) or in early fall (bring warm sleeping bags).”

From Frog Lake Trailhead, go a few steps before turning right to join the Pacific Crest Trail, which you follow for 1.4 miles before picking up the Twin Lakes Trail. The trail tops out in another 0.1 mile and begins a descent. At the next junction, at 2 miles, go right to drop down to the lake. Follow the trail around the lake to find a campsite. Near the access trail the lake shore is muddy; go to the far side of the lake to wade in on a gravelly beach.

A pair of campers at Lower Twin Lake in Mount Hood National Forest.

Pamelia Lake (Mount Jefferson Wilderness)

A generation of children from the Salem area took their first backpacking trip to this beautiful lake below Mount Jefferson. That includes my 4-year-old, who took her second backpacking trip here last weekend.

The hike is a good length at 4.4 miles one-way. It’s an adventure but not difficult, with a gradual climb of 800 feet to the lake. It’s also a scenic hike through mossy old-growth forest along tumbling Pamelia Creek to a lake with a number of designated campsites and a view of Mount Jefferson from a southern shoreline that’s fun to explore in the fall when the lake level is low.

Fishing is decent on the east side of the lake, and there’s more challenging hike options to Grizzly Peak or Hunt’s Cove, a perfect spot for when the little legs start to grow and want more of a challenge.

From May 28 to Sept. 24, you need an overnight permit purchased on Recreation.gov to enter the trailhead. Pamelia Lake Trailhead is located 16 miles west of Detroit off Highway 22 and Pamelia Lake Road.

Rollie Urness, 4, hikes to Pamelia Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.

Bobby Lake (Waldo Lake area)

The mosquitoes are rough in June and July, so target this pretty lake near Waldo Lake during late August or September, according to Weinheimer.

A mostly level hike of 5 miles round-trip brings you to one of the best lakes in the state for swimming, says Weinheimer.

“It should be classified as one of the best swimmable lakes in Oregon because of the easiness getting in and out of the pristine blue-green colored water,” Weinheimer wrote on Hike Oregon.

The Bobby Lake is right alongside Forest Service Road NF-5897 (the main road to Waldo Lake), a total of 5.5 miles from the turnoff with Highway 58.  

After 2 miles of forested hiking on Bobby Lake Trail, you will cross the Pacific Crest Trail and continue straight a quarter mile to the lakeshore.

“When you see the lake you will also see some large flat tent areas where you can camp,” Weinheimer said. “If you want to enjoy a swim in the lake and a little more secluded camping, continue another quarter mile around the lake to the right until you see another campsite and a large rock that drops right into the lake. Where the rock enters the water, it creates a sandy bottom, making it a very pleasant entry point and a wonderfully warm shallow place for small kids to play.”

For full details, see this page.

A family of backpackers at Bobby Lake near Waldo Lake in Willamette National Forest.

Blue Canyon Basin (Sky Lakes Wilderness)

The somewhat less-visited Sky Lakes Wilderness of Southern Oregon offers many charms unseen by people from the Willamette Valley. Among this land of lakes, the best for kids is easily Blue Canyon Basin located just outside the small town of Prospect and Butte Falls, northeast of Medford.

It’s a short and fairly level hike to Blue Lake — 4 miles roundtrip — the most scenic alpine lake here. If you can’t find a site here, fear not, just head down the trail to Horseshoe or Pear lakes, which both have sites. And if you want a longer trek, continue to Island Lake.  

As with many other Southern Cascade areas, visit in late August or September to avoid horrendous mosquitoes.

Blue Lake in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

Rogue River Trail (southern Oregon)

A river more famous for whitewater rafting also makes for glorious backpacking along the 40-mile Rogue River Trail. But fear not, you don’t have to hike that far — simply begin at the trailhead outside Grants Pass and hike as far as the little legs will go to a plethora of great campsites.

The one thing to be careful about is that the trail does have significant exposure — so keep the little ones close and on the trail. But the trail is beautiful from its beginning at Grave Creek Boat Ramp and Trailhead northwest of Grants Pass.

Short out-and-back camping options include Whiskey Creek (3.3 miles one-way), Big Slide (3.8) and Russian Creek (5.7) — although there’s plenty more just down the trail. See this map for all the details you’ll need: https://www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/rogue/files/rogue-trail-map.pdf

A hiker, not pictured here, died on the Rogue River Trail after a fall on Tuesday.

5 more options

Threemile Lake (Oregon Dunes): Go backpacking on the Oregon Coast by beginning at the Threemile Lake North Trail and exploring the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. A 6-mile loop begins here that can be turned into a backpacking trip, with the best sites on the beaches of the lake itself.

“The trail provides vistas of freshwater lakes, wet areas within the forest and ocean waves,” says Siuslaw National Forest’s website. “The trail wanders through a spruce forest with substantial tree size, stops at the serene Threemile Lake and ends at the ocean beach.”

You can combine Threemile Lake Trails and Tahkenitch Dunes Trail #1353 into an extended single loop trail of 6.5 miles.

Erma Bell Lakes (Three Sisters): Multiple swimmable lakes with campsites access on an easy forested trail is what you’ll find at this cluster of lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Access to the lakes was closed by the Middle Fork Complex this summer, but the area didn’t burn and should reopen next summer.

The trip is 4.5 miles round-trip and mostly flat. It begins at Skookum Creek Campground and passes a waterfall, travels through old-growth forest and reaches three pretty mountain lakes. There are campsites at Lower Erma Bell Lake, 1.7 miles from the trailhead, and Middle Erma Bell Lake, which has the easiest place to access the lake and my favorite sites. Just beyond, you can visit Upper Erma Bell, Williams and Otter lakes.

Lucy Urness at Middle Erma Bell Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

Blue and Happy lakes (Diamond Peak Wilderness): Often overlooked in the Diamond Peak Wilderness southeast of Eugene, Blue and Happy lakes are well named. The swimmable lakes and easy-ish hikes offer a lot for families, although once again, it's best in late summer or early fall to avoid mosquitoes. Coming in early July would not be as happy an experience at Happy Lake. 

The hike to Blue Lake is just 2 miles round-trip, while an addition to Happy Lake is 6.8. 

"These lakes on the west side of Diamond Peak frequently get overlooked, even though they are easy to get to and offer excellent camping and swimming opportunities," 

For full details, including directions, see this page. 

Blue Lake in the Diamond Peak Wilderness.

Islet Beach (Waldo Lake): From Islet Campground at Waldo Lake, follow the Shoreline Trail from the boat ramp to a collection of white sandy beaches bathed in sunshine and the azure water of Oregon's clearest lake. There's at least one campground near Islet Beach, the largest of the white crescent beaches on Waldo Lake's east side. 

A long sandy beach at Waldo Lake.

Marion Lake (Jefferson Wilderness): Another tried and true favorite in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Marion Lake has a lot of the same qualities as Pamelia Lake, except that it's about one mile farther and showcases views of Three Fingered Jack instead of Jefferson. It's 6 miles round-trip, although it can feel like longer since it's such a big lake and there's a lot to explore nearby. There are plenty of campsites, and good side trips include hiking to Marion Falls or climbing Marion Mountain. This one requires an overnight permit from From May 28 to Sept. 24 as well.   

The rock peninsula is visible across Marion Lake, below Three Fingered Jack. This photo is from April in the low snow year of 2015.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 13 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.