Merrill Lake Campground
Drive time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
FREE IS ALWAYS a good price. But the no-fee policy at Mount St. Helens’s Merrill Lake seems like nothing short of stealing when you consider all has to offer: nine campsites nestled beneath a canopy of firs (site 7 has the most privacy and space); a 344-acre lake teeming with coastal cutthroat, brown, and rainbow trout (catch-and-release fly-fishing and non-gas motor boats only, please); and close proximity to St. Helens’s vast network of trails. But considering that just a few miles down the road, less savvy campers will be fighting for tent space at the pretty—but crowded—Beaver Bay and Cougar campgrounds on Yale Lake, we can live with the crime.
Vitals: Open March to November; 9 sites; no fee; vault toilets; fire pits; picnic tables; dogs allowed
Beaver Bay Camp
With 63 sites on Yale Lake, Beaver Bay is busier than Merrill. But the 3,800-acre lake’s recreation opportunities keep most people away from their campsites anyway.
Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park
Drive time: 3 hours, 15 minutes
OK, SO WE FUDGED the three-hour limit. But the extra 15 minutes are well worth it for a campground with all the family-friendliness of Dirty Dancing’s Kellerman’s Mountain Resort (and none of the foxtrot lessons). Snuggled along Highway 101 just south of Florence, Honeyman is Oregon’s second-largest campground. Not that you’ll need to worry about overcrowding: with 40 miles of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area to the south and west, and 8 miles of sandy beach nearby, plus the park’s own two massive lakes (Cleawox and Woahink), there’s plenty of elbow—and paddle and sandboarding—room for everyone. Cleawox Lake, which is stocked regularly with trout, even sports a concession stand just steps from the water’s edge. Here, on hot summer days, dripping mobs of water-winged swimmers wait (with joyous hands and hearts and voices) for hot dogs, ice cream, and other treats.
Vitals: oregonstateparks.org; open year-round; 187 sites; $21; firewood; drinking water; flush toilets; showers; fire pits; picnic tables; dogs allowed; reservations available
Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park
The seven walk-in sites are the gems of this place, located just north of Heceta Head.
Carter Lake Campground
Carter Lake is a great base camp for exploring the dunes, with excellent fishing and boating.