To say that the Deschutes National Forest has seen higher use in recent years is kind of like saying that Central Oregon offers “some” outdoor recreation or that we have a “decent” craft beer scene: technically the truth, but nowhere near capturing the whole story.
In fact, the Deschutes National Forest saw a record 3.3 million visitors in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, and officials estimate that visitorship was a whopping 40% higher in 2020 — with few signs the surge will slow anytime soon.
It seems fitting, then, that the U.S. Forest Service has (after years of planning) announced the launch of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System. Starting in the spring and summer of 2021, a permit system will limit the number of day hikers and backpackers on trails throughout the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas of the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests.
Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer with the Deschutes National Forest, says the timing couldn’t be better.
Surge in National Forest Use Prompts Permit System
As Nelson-Dean explains it, all those additional visitors have dramatic impacts on how we enjoy public lands in Central Oregon. In some cases, those impacts are obvious: Nelson-Dean says that Forest Service rangers have reported a noticeable uptick in garbage left along trails, human waste and toilet paper scattered about (like at No Name Lake on Broken Top), trees being cut down for firewood, and unapproved fire rings appearing at unofficial campsites. Those changes don’t just ruin the beauty of Central Oregon’s outdoor spaces, Nelson-Dean says; they scare away wildlife and force animals from their natural habitat.
In other ways, the impacts of overuse are less obvious — but no less important. Heavier usage of certain trails, for instance, usually leads to hikers going off-trail to give each other space while passing. Over time, those quick (and well-meaning) interactions inadvertently widen the path, trample vegetation, and lessen the “wilderness” experience so many of us seek outdoors. “People just naturally kind of create a larger trail width and, of course, that impacts the overall experience,” Nelson-Dean says, citing the Green Lakes trail as an example of where paths have been widened over time. “It becomes more of a road than a trail.”
Those impacts are exactly what the new permit system is designed to address. By limiting the number of users on each trail, Nelson-Dean hopes nature can reclaim a bit of what made those trails so special — and so well-loved — in the first place.
Already, Nelson-Dean can point to another trail that benefited from a similar system.
Obsidian Trail Offers Template for New Permit System
In the early 1990s, the Obsidian Trail — showcasing the alpine beauty of the Three Sisters Wilderness in the heart of the Cascade Range — was overrun. Unleashed dogs romped around open meadows, human waste piled up, and campers angled for sites on the ecologically sensitive shores of mountain lakes along the trail.
A limited-entry permit system was put into place to address the crisis, making the Obsidian Trail one of only two paths in Oregon to restrict use in such a way. Decades later, the Obsidian Limited Entry Area boasts one of the most pristine landscapes in Central Oregon: Wide-open mountain views, thundering waterfalls, piles of glassy obsidian, and meadows covered in summertime wildflowers are just some of the highlights in the bucolic region.
Nelson-Dean hopes the newly permitted trails will eventually enjoy a similar return to their less-trampled states. “Our expectation is that those areas will improve,” she says. “The whole point of this permitting process is to maintain access while maintaining these areas for future generations.”
More inspiring stories, adventures, and tips & tricks for planning and experiencing the best Central Oregon has to offer.
The Three Sisters Mountains in Oregon
On a clear day from viewpoints throughout Central Oregon, the Three Sisters mountains command attention as the gorgeous snow-capped peaks seen to the west. Each of this trio of volcanic peaks reaches more than 10,000 feet in elevation, and have become a part of Central Oregon culture. The Three Sisters draw visitors seeking mountain climbers hoping to ascend the peaks, those seeking nearby hiking, camping and mountain biking, landscape photographers and anyone who appreciates a gorgeous view.
Local's Guide to the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway
Views of the Cascade Range abound all over Central Oregon, but are never more dramatic than from along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway—a seasonal highway that heads southwest of Bend and into the heart of the mountains. Along the way, visitors can swim or paddle in more than a dozen alpine lakes, admire views of the snow-capped peaks that seem to rise from their shorelines, camp under starry night skies and traverse some of the region’s best-loved hiking trails.
Camping In and Near Bend, Oregon
Bend is often called a paradise for any avid adventurer or lover of the outdoors, and the reasons are simple. Bend has incredible weather, boasting plenty of sunny days throughout the year, making camping in Central Oregon more enjoyable. Visitors and locals alike love to spend their time in amongst the many mountains, forests, lakes and rivers before resting their heads under the stars. Read on for some of the best camping around Bend and Central Oregon.