PRINEVILLE RESERVOIR — From the front porch of my log cabin at Prineville Reservoir State Park, I could see filtered sunlight reflecting off the frozen fringes of the meandering lake.
I could see a red-tailed hawk soaring low over the snow-speckled foothills of the Maury Mountains. I could see more than a dozen mule deer huddled together in a juniper grove above the lakeshore.
But I could not see another human being. And that was just fine with me.
During the summer season, the 75 deluxe and rustic cabins in 13 Oregon state parks are booked weeks — and sometimes months — in advance. They provide a modest level of comfort to park visitors who may not mind sharing bathhouse facilities, but who would skip tent camping for a padded mattress and a solid roof over their heads.
In winter, these cabins see relatively few visitors. Although vacation periods, including the recently concluded Christmas-New Year holidays, may be heavily booked, the times between are quiet. As most parks have fewer than a half-dozen cabins — some of them with private baths and partial kitchens, others with no more than two beds and a table — it isn’t hard to find isolation if you look for it.
In Central Oregon, three parks have cabins. La Pine State Park has the greatest number, with 10 cabins — five of them rustic, five of the deluxe variety — rising above the January snow overlooking the Deschutes River.
Prineville Reservoir has a trio of deluxe cabins high on a bluff above its main campground, with three more under construction and projected to be open by Memorial Day. Another three deluxe cabins are at The Cove Palisades, nestled above the picturesque shore of canyon-enclosed Lake Billy Chinook near Culver.
Of the baker’s-dozen Oregon state parks with cabins, four are off U.S. Highway 101 on the Pacific coast. Three more sets of park cabins are in the Portland-Salem area, with another three in the northeastern part of the state.
Just the basics
If you’re considering a stay, here’s what you might want to know:
Rustic cabins have minimal furnishings — two double beds (or a double and a single), a table and chairs, electric heat and lighting. Most of them are 13 feet square. Deluxe cabins are a little bit deeper and have five- or six-foot porches, some of them covered. You’ll need to bring your own bedding or sleeping bag, as the cabins have futon-style mattresses only.
Deluxe cabins are better suited for longer stays, as they have rudimentary kitchen facilities — a refrigerator, sometimes full-size, and a microwave oven — plus full bathrooms and more bed space. Including bunks and a futon sofa, they can sleep five or six. Some also have TVs, although you can’t expect reception; the camp host may have VCRs and movies for rent.
You’ll need to bring your own groceries, utensils and cookware. Outdoor barbecue grills, fire pits and picnic tables may be seasonally practical. Only at La Pine and Stub Stewart parks are a couple of cabins set aside as pet-friendly ($10 extra by reservation).
Cabins may be rented as many as 11 months ahead, but no fewer than two days in advance. Rates vary ever-so-slightly between parks, with deluxe cabins priced between $56 and $82 and rustic cabins $36 to $43. Lower prices are in effect between October and April.
The first Oregon State Park cabins were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1930 at Silver Falls State Park, Oregon’s largest and oldest state park. These four rustic one-room cabins are within the main 100-site campground. Ten newer, two-room rustic cabins — half of them handicapped-accessible — were built in the late 1990s on a loop beside the South Fork of Silver Creek. All share bathhouse and shower facilities.
State park cabin construction has accelerated in recent years. In addition to the three now under construction at Prineville Reservoir, 10 are being built at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, while cabins at Cape Lookout State Park near Tillamook are being increased from three to six. All are scheduled for completion in May.
“That’s what the public wants,” said Sheri Miller, call-center manager for the parks’ Reservations Northwest division. “The way people are camping has changed dramatically. We are looking at what their needs are now.”
Complementing the cabins are a popular system of yurts — heated, domed tents with plywood floors and lockable wooden doors. These may be found at 18 parks, 14 of them on the coast, for rates between $35 and $41. (Umpqua Lighthouse State Park also has a half-dozen deluxe yurts for $56 to $76.)
Willamette Valley region
Silver Falls, a 40-minute drive east from Salem, is a great place to experience the cabin system at any time of year.
The biggest attraction at Silver Falls is the park’s system of trails. More than 24 miles of hiking trails and a four-mile bike path weave through the reserve’s 9,000-plus acres of fir-and-cedar forests, meadows and canyons. The 8.7-mile Canyon Trail winds along Silver Creek and its 10 waterfalls, including impressive South Falls (177 feet high) and remote Double Falls (178 feet). The trail actually passes behind four of the falls, where ferns and mosses grow prolifically in the misty spray.
The only Oregon state park with more cabins than Silver Falls is the state’s newest. When it opened in 2007, L.L. “Stub” Stewart State Park was the first new full-service park to open in Oregon in three decades. Located 31 miles west of Portland between Banks and Vernonia, it features miles of hiking and biking trails through rolling former timberland.
Stewart Park has 12 one-room cabins and three two-room cabins, all of them rustic despite their new construction. But they are more spacious than rustic cabins at other parks — 16 feet square rather than 13, plus a six-foot porch. The two-room cabins are 16 feet by 24 feet.
Midway between Portland and Salem is the Champoeg State Heritage Area. The site of Oregon’s first territorial capital has six rustic cabins on the south bank of the Willamette River, sharing bathhouse facilities with a good-size campground. In summer, interpretive tours of the original 1850s town site operate from a visitor center and museum; numerous trails beckon hikers and bicyclists.
On the Pacific coast, four state parks have cabins, and a fifth will join the list by Memorial Day.
Beginning in the south, Alfred A. Loeb State Park, 10 miles northeast of Brookings on the Chetco River Road, has three rustic cabins in a 200-year-old laurel (myrtlewood) grove.
The cabins overlook the river near a ¾-mile trail that leads to the northernmost redwood grove in the United States. (Cabin users should note, however, that Loeb Park closes Monday for six weeks while a water-tank liner is replaced.)
Cape Blanco State Park, nine miles north of Port Orford, is best known for its lighthouse, which was built in 1870 on Oregon’s westernmost point. Eight miles of trails meander from the park’s four rustic cabins, through woodlands and wetlands, to bluff-top views of the Pacific. The lighthouse and a historic homestead are open for tours between April and October.
Umpqua Lighthouse State Park is less than a mile from the bustling fishing port of Winchester Bay, a few miles southwest of Reedsport. Two rustic one-room cabins, with covered porches, and a half-dozen deluxe yurts with bathrooms and TVs overlook a small freshwater lake at the edge of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. The towering dunes provide myriad recreational opportunities, while the 65-foot lighthouse is open for summer tours.
Cape Lookout State Park, located on a wooded sand spit, is a highlight of the spectacular Three Capes Scenic Loop south of Netarts in Tillamook County. Its three deluxe cabins have kitchen facilities, bathrooms and TVs with VCRs; three more are due for completion in May. A highlight is the 2 1/2-mile trail through old-growth forest to the end of Cape Lookout, offering great views of Cape Kiwanda to the south and Cape Meares to the north.
At Fort Stevens State Park, west of Astoria and just south of the mouth of the Columbia River, 10 deluxe cabins are under construction in the south campground. Nearby, the 1906 wreck of the Peter Iredale, buried in the beach sands, is a main attraction in what was a prime military installation from the Civil War through World War II. The 3,700-acre park encloses three freshwater lakes, 15 miles of trails and several wartime gunnery displays.
In the northeast region of Oregon, there are rustic park cabins at Emigrant Springs State Heritage Site, 26 miles southeast of Pendleton off Interstate 84; Farewell Bend State Recreation Area, four miles from Huntington, also off I-84; and Unity Lake State Recreation Area, near Unity on state Highway 245 between Baker City and John Day.
Nestled in old-growth pine forest, Emigrant Springs was once a popular stop for Oregon Trail travelers at the summit of the Blue Mountains. Visitors can explore Oregon Trail interpretive sites by foot in summer, by ski or snowmobile in winter. The park has six rustic one-room cabins, each sleeping five, and a “totem cabin” duplex with bunk beds on both sides.
Farewell Bend spreads along the upper reaches of Brownlee Reservoir, directly across the Snake River from Idaho. It was here that Oregon Trail emigrants left the river for their final push to Oregon City. Trail ruts may still be seen nearby, and numerous plaques describe the site’s historic significance. Those who stay at the park’s pair of rustic cabins also enjoy water sports on the adjacent reservoir.
Unity Lake has two rustic cabins on a quiet reservoir surrounded by juniper and sagebrush. A High Desert oasis on the Burnt River, the park is a good place to enjoy water sports or to stay a couple of nights during a visit to the pioneer community of Union.
Last week, I paid visits to all three sets of state-park cabins within an easy hour’s drive of Bend.
At The Cove Palisades, I found the trio of deluxe cabins to be occupied by families enjoying a holiday-weekend respite. Although the paved road into the adjacent marina and campground was gated and locked for the season — only reserved guests may pass through — I parked outside, next to the serpentine reservoir, and walked a few hundred yards for a glimpse of the site.
The cabins sat just above the lakeshore, looking upon both sides of a submerged canyon famous for its bald-eagle population. Two children played outside, enjoying the last days of their school vacation under the watchful eyes of their parents.
Although there was no snow at The Cove, at least two feet covered the ground at La Pine State Park, east of U.S. Highway 97 between Sunriver and La Pine. The 5 1/2-mile road to the cabins was well-plowed, but side roads — including the track to the “Big Tree” (Oregon’s largest ponderosa pine, 29 feet around) — were closed for the season.
Nonetheless, I was impressed by the wintry scene. Five rustic cabins and five deluxe ones stood on opposite sides of the park hosts’ trailers — two couples live here all winter — and a big log meeting hall. In front of one of the larger cabins stood a sturdy snow cave, the handiwork of Christmas visitors, I was told.
Still, my favorite was my overnight oasis at Prineville Reservoir. To get there, I had traveled 16 miles southeast, through ranch country, from downtown Prineville, turning off state Highway 380 on Juniper Canyon Road. The road rose steadily before dropping to Antelope Creek and the reservoir, which extends for 18 southwest-flowing miles behind Prineville Dam on the Crooked River.
During the prime May-to-October, occupancy is high at 67 sites in the primary campground and 30 more at Juniper Point, 2 1/2 miles by car (or 1¾ by foot). There is moorage for 32 boats, a fishing pier and fish-cleaning station, swimming and volleyball facilities, and much more.
But I still think I prefer the winter. When I tire of gazing upon the wonderful scenery and local wildlife, I can hike and rockhound for jasper and agates in nearby outcroppings. If I prefer — and, in evening, I do — I can settle back on the cozy sofa in my heated cabin and read or write, without the disturbance of television or noisy neighbors.
It’s a little touch of paradise ... for a mere $60 a night.