Pacific Valley proved to be cathartic, peaceful getaway

COTTAGE GROVE – My wife and I escaped some of the heat that has tormented the Willamette Valley this past week. We went camping. There was a reason behind this movement to the wilderness. My wife’s old husband had passed away and their kids wanted to take his ashes to a place they had enjoyed camping together as a family when they were small.  

The location was high in the Sierras (8,000 feet), off Highway 4 in Alpine County, Calif., known as Pacific Valley. When they had been there 20 years ago it was pretty low-key. Often they were the only campers at the site. It is an official USDA Forest Service campground and it is open after the snow melts on a first-come, first-served basis.  

It had been about 20 years since they had last been there together so some changes were to be expected. Most notably was the presence of a CampGround Host and several more new campsites. Currently there are 19 sites equipped with a picnic table and a fire ring. Pit toilets and a hand water pump complete the amenities at this spartan campsite.  

Since the kids had to work we had the tough job of showing up midweek to secure a site. We took the scenic route through the Oregon Outback along Highway 31 and got to see some different and arid scenery. While we didn’t have time to check out the evidence of Oregon’s violent volcanic past by exploring Fort Rock and the Hole in the Ground, we did stop at as many of the interpretive kiosks as possible.

In taking in the vast dry landscape we committed to coming back to investigate the evidence of a bygone time preserved in the volcanic rocks, fossils, and petroglyphs of former eons.

We arrived at the campground mid-afternoon on Wednesday and were lucky to have our pick of three available sites. We parked at the first uninhabited one and completed our survey of the rest of the campsites on foot. Leaving Amy to “hold” our preferred site, I moved the truck to take possession, then went back to the fee payment area to seal the deal by filling out the paperwork and dropping it along with the fees into the payment tube.

With a deep sigh of relief we set about setting up our camp and that soon being done sat at the table and listened to the wind and gurgling of Pacific Creek as the only sounds in the huge silence we were experiencing. What a pleasant change. Even in a small town like Cottage Grove there is noise that you get used to, like traffic from the I-5 and the occasional loud muffler. Here in the mountains it was an almost oppressive silence. Not that I am complaining. I am not. It was wonderful to let the quiet wrap around us and started the decompression of leaving civilization behind.

The next morning after exploring the meadows across the creek which were in full bloom with wildflowers, Lupines being the most prominent, we started out for a short walk. The clouds had built up and things were looking like rain. We had driven through some heavy rain and hail the day before so we weren’t really surprised. Several hiking parties hurried past us, beating their way back to their vehicles. A few drops started falling but we thought we would go a bit further when a cowboy on a horse riding past us down the trail paused only to say, “You’re heading the wrong way, it’s really coming down up there.” Pressing on a bit more proved his words true as we got dumped on and by the time we made it back to camp we were soaked through.

A friendly neighbor camper confirmed that the weather pattern was a daily afternoon shower so we started our hikes early in the morning and watched the clouds build up, turning more gray and ominous while we were in the mountains. We learned to get back in time to get under cover before the rain and lightning started. Precipitation ranged from a fairly light shower to a frog strangler that sent rivulets of water through the campsite.

We made acquaintance with the friendly Camp Host. If you haven’t had experience with a hosted campsite, you will undoubtedly do so in the future. Many of the former primitive campsites operated by federal, state, and local agencies now employ these volunteers. In exchange for a free campsite and other considerations they serve as eyes and ears for the site. They welcome guests, answer questions, offer advice, do some cleaning and maintenance at the site, and generally work to keep the campgrounds safe and secure to make sure everyone has a good time.

He was interested to hear my wife’s experiences of camping there years ago and to compare notes. His comments on the current situation were pointed, “This damned virus has ruined this peaceful spot. It used to be that it only filled up on the weekends, now it is usually full by midweek, going camping is about one of the only things people are allowed to do. And all day there are “lookie-loos”, driving through either hoping for a spot or just checking it out.”

Another thing we enjoyed was getting away from the news. It is hard not to be affected, so a week’s break was most welcome. Even if you can’t get away, you can turn off the media for a bit and take a refreshing break.

So if you are in the mood to get away from it all and get back to the beauty of nature and soak up some healing peace and quiet in wide open clean air, here are some considerations.

Know before you go, not all sites are open due to Covid. I will list some internet resources at the end of this article for checking to see which sites are open, if reservations are accepted, and what to expect, bring, or avoid.

Even in your favorite secret spot, there are likely more visitors than normal as more people are trying to escape sheltering in place, same as you. Early to midweek are more likely for you to get a spot without a reservation.  

The same common-sense recommendations that keep you safe at home apply to camping. Don’t gather in large groups (there was a six-person, three-tent, two-vehicle limit at the campsite we stayed in), pack it in – pack it out; that is, your food, water, garbage (small communities near camping areas are often having a hard time with Covid to have enough supplies for their residents, so please bring as much as you can from home), provide your own protective gear, masks, sanitizer, toilet paper for using facilities available at your site, stay six feet apart and avoid crowding at trailheads and parking areas, and lastly stay home if you feel in any way sick!  

Some other advice is to stay nearer to home than you would normally would (advice we didn’t follow, but we had our reasons). This minimizes your exposure to the virus by travel into areas where it is more prevalent.

It doesn’t seem like camping if you don’t have a campfire. We were lucky in the sense that with regular rains we didn’t have fire danger; in fact, we were barely able to keep our fire going with the damp wood available.  

With the intense heat drying out the forests it’s important to follow any fire restrictions in place. If fires are allowed, have a bucket of water ready, make sure the area around your fire area is clear of combustibles, and you have shovels, damp cloths, and other fire-suppression supplies on hand. Any winds should signal not to light a fire or put out one you have going. You don’t want to have a forest fire on your conscience, Smoky wouldn’t like that. Neither would local residents, whose property may be in the fire’s path.

If you are looking for a break from isolation in town, I recommend some solitude in the woods as a restorative tonic in these Covid times. 

Contact Dana at [email protected]


Here are resources for the five jurisdictions residents could encounter in a short drive from Cottage Grove for camping. I have selected the most general site but you can maneuver from there to find your specific needs.

– Dana Merryday 

* U.S. Forest Service:   

* U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: 

* Bureau of Land Management: 

* Lane County: 

* State of Oregon parks check status:



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