In northeast Oregon and southeast Washington, the Umatilla National Forest has over 1.4 million acres of rugged landscapes and waterways to enjoy. The elevations vary from approximately 1,600 to 8,000 feet above sea level so you can see a large diversity of climates here. In fact, summers are typically hot and dry during the day and cool in the evenings. Winters are always cold, and the spring and fall can be mild during the day with freezing temperatures at night.
The forest got its name from the Native American word meaning water rippling over the sand. Lewis and Clark came through the area in 1805 on their way to the Pacific and gold was discovered nearby in 1851, bringing a crowd of settlements to the area. Today, more than 20 percent of the forest is still classifified as wilderness areas, divided into three sections: the North Fork Umatilla, North Fork John Day, and Wenaha-Tucannon. There are tons of recreational areas in the forest including state parks, campgrounds, and day use areas.
You can enjoy floating or whitewater rafting on the North Fork John Day or Grande Ronde Rivers or go boating on one of the lakes including the 145-acre Olive Lake, 97-acre Jubilee Lake, 70-acre Penland Lake, and the 24-acre Bull Prairie Lake. If you would rather stay on dry ground, try hiking, biking, or horseback riding on the 715 miles of trails. There are also 20 RV campgrounds in the Umatilla National Forest to choose from, and we have highlighted our top three favorites below.
The northeast Oregon and southeast Washington parts of the Umatilla National Forest are both easy to get to no matter what you are driving and where you are coming from. Just a short drive off Interstate 84, the southern part of the forest can be reached by taking Highway 395 or 26 while the northern section is off Interstate 82 to Highway 12.
On your way to the forest you are sure to pass through the Blue Mountains where you can take the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway. In fact, coming from the northwest, this 145-mile route takes you through some of the most amazing wilderness areas in the state. The Blue Mountains rise to over 9,000 feet and do look blue from a distance, which you can witness if you take any part of this road into the woods. Winding through the hills and canyons of Willow Creek Road you will need to pull over and take some photos of the wild and scenic river.
Traveling deeper into the woods to get to your campground you may need to take it slower if you are driving a large rig or towing a trailer. The roads are narrow and curvy so it is important to take your time and watch out for any wild critters that may happen onto the street.
Near Heppner, Oregon, Bull Prairie Lake Campground has 30 campsites open from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Each of the spacious campsites has a picnic table that seats eight, a campfire ring with a grill, and a large cleared space for sitting around the fire. The parking pads range from 24 to 47 feet in length and, since they are first-come, first-served, you should get here early to get a spot. You can find vault toilets and several potable water spigots around the campground.
With the majority of the campsites right on the 28-acre Bull Prairie Lake, you can enjoy a nice day at the beach while you fish for some of the hungry rainbow and brook trout. In fact, the lake has several floating docks to fish from. If you want to take a hike, the 1.2-mile Bull Prairie Lake Trail meanders along the lakeside and is ADA-accessible. Pets are allowed but must be restrained and supervised at all times during your stay.
The largest and most popular campground in the forest is the Jubilee Lake Campground, which has 45 campsites open from July until mid-October located near Weston, Oregon. Each campsite has its own picnic table, a fire ring with a cooking grill, and a large cleared area for sitting around the campfire. Parking pads range from 20 to 50 feet in length. The campground provides 17 potable water spigots and several vault toilets.
These are first-come, first-served so you have to get here early to get a spot, especially on weekends and holidays. Jubilee Lake is 90 acres and provides excellent fishing and boating opportunities. Swimming is allowed but there is no official beach or lifeguard. The 2.8-mile Jubilee National Recreation Trail loop is located here as well. Pets are welcome but must be restrained and supervised at all times.
High in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, the Olive Lake Campground has 26 campsites open from Memorial Day until mid-October. The parking pads range from 15 to 38 feet in length, and each site has a picnic table that seats eight, a fire pit with a cooking grill, and a large cleared area for hanging out around the fire. There are seven vault toilets located around the campground, but no drinking water available..
Olive Lake is about 225 acres and has room for boating, although no gas motors are allowed. Swimming and water play are encouraged but there is no actual beach or lifeguard. Fishing for trout and salmon is good here and trapping for crawfish is allowed as well. There are two trails including the 2.6-mile Olive Lake Loop and the four-mile Saddle Cap Trail. Pets are welcome; however, they must be restrained and supervised at all times while you are here.
Be sure to pack your hiking boots in the RV before heading to the forest so you can take a hike in the woods on one of the hundreds of trails here. The 2.7-mile Bennington Lake Trail in Walla Walla, Washington is popular and easy and the 2.6-mile Jubilee Campground Loop near Elgin, Oregon is great for all skill levels. If you want a challenge, try the 4.8-mile Summit Mount Emily Trail to Telephone Ridge in Summerville, Oregon or the 13.3-mile Ninemile Ridge Trail that has an elevation gain of 4,356 feet.
One of the best mountain biking trails in the west is right here in Umatilla National Forest. The 35.3-mile Umatilla Rim Loop Trail has an ascent of 3,514 feet and an average grade of 13 percent. The 2.6-mile Whoop De Doo Trail begins at Forest Road 52, has an ascent of 46 feet and an average grade of 10 percent. The Jubilee Lake Rope Swing Trail has an ascent of 1,425 feet and an average grade of 12 percent. And the easy 3.7-mile Howard Creek Trail has an elevation of 308 feet with an average grade of just two percent.
Located in the Blue Mountains, you will surely find some type of rocks to climb so make sure you pack your climbing gear. In fact, the Spring Mountain Crag in the northern Blue Mountains is one of the best in the state. This crag has a quarter-mile long, hundred-foot high andesite cliff, as well as plenty of camping opportunities here. The site is right off Interstate 84 on exit 243 and is about 4,500 feet above sea level open from spring through fall.
The Walla Walla District has plenty of winter fun with two large ski parks. The Bluewood Ski Area on the top of the Blue Mountains in southeastern Washington has almost 400 acres with 24 trails for every skill level. The Spout Springs Ski Area and Resort has both day and nighttime skiing with 11 ski runs, a T-bar, and two chair lifts. There are also 10 miles of cross-country ski trails. So, make sure you don’t forget to pack the skis in the campervan.
There are 127 marked and groomed equestrian trails in the Umatilla National Forest so go ahead and hook the horse trailer to the RV. From the short and easy 3.2-mile Rough Fork Trail #3227 to the challenging 16-mile Mount Misery Trail #3113, you can find something for everyone here. There are also five equestrian campgrounds, including the Coalmine Hill Campground, North Fork Day Campground, Oriental Campground, Godman Campground, and Panjab Campground, in case you want to stay the night or the week.
The Umatilla National Forest is a popular place for hunting in both Oregon and Washington, with over 30,000 hunters visiting every year. The state hunting units for Oregon include the Mount Emily, Starkey, Ukiah, Heppner, Fossil, and Desolation. In Washington there is the Grouse Creek, Walla Walla, Lick Creek, Wenaha, Tucannon, and Touchet. You can find mountain lions, bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and deer, as well as smaller game like squirrels, rabbits, and hares. Make sure you wear your hunter orange and carry your hunting license with you.