After returning from our 2 week Olympic Peninsula trip we spent two weeks at home before we got the itch to get out camping again. We headed out to Mt Hood National Forest for what was supposed to be an off-grid-campsite scouting trip… but things didn’t go exactly as planned…
Scouting for off-grid campsites
In Portland we’re fortunate to have the beautiful Mt Hood wilderness just 1.5 hours from our doorstep. Since the campgrounds we stayed at on our Olympic Peninsula trip were a bit pricey (about $500 for 2 weeks), we decided we wanted to try to scope out some free camp sites on National Forest land. I opened up our “Camp Free in Mt. Hood National Forest” book (an excellent guidebook for this type of thing!) and picked out a number of campsites that claimed to be large enough for a small RV.
The quality of roads in Mt Hood National Forest varies from semi-smooth paved roads to rough 4-wheel-drive-only dirt & rock roads. I didn’t want to tow Wobbles (the Airstream trailer) down a un-explored road and get stuck, so we decided that this trip would be a scouting trip. We would take only our van, aka Dimes, for a 3 night trip and determine which roads and sites might be suitable to bring Wobbles to in the future.
We had a guest checking out of our backyard AirBnB cottage that morning, so we spent the morning packing and waiting for the guest to depart so that we could clean the place before we left (and save having to pay someone else the $50 cleaning fee to clean it).
The drive out to Mt Hood was smooth and uneventful. The first camp site we had marked in the book to scout was near Trillium Lake— a lake with an amazing view of Mt Hood. There’s an actual campground next to the lake, and this free camp site was just a mile away from the campground. The site was huge— it was actually a dozen or so different camping sites along a large gravel parking area. Despite being a Tuesday, there were a few other campers already there when we arrived.
It was about 2pm by this time. We figured we wouldn’t camp at this site for the night as we still had time to scope out a few more sites before settling down for dinner time. We let the girls get out and ride their bikes around on the hard packed dirt, and then gathered the troops to continue our scouting mission.
An unfortunate turn
We pulled out of the large dirt & gravel parking area and started down the road toward the next potential site– about 1/2 mile away. We made it to the second site, although it turned out to be a dud. The entrance was rutted to the point that Dimes, with his low ground clearance, couldn’t make it in. Sarah was driving, and I jumped out of the van to help direct her as she performed a u-turn on the narrow forest road. She pulled the van hard to the left until it was nearly perpendicular to the road and then backed up. As she started forward again I yelled to her to turn sharp left to finish her turn. The van didn’t turn left, however, it just lurched forward straight, right toward the edge of the road!
“Sarah– turn sharp left! What are you doing? Stop, you’re going to go off the road” I shouted. She stopped right at the edge of the road, and I jumped into the van to find out what had happened. “The steering isn’t working,” she told me. “I felt a ‘pop’ and then it was suddenly really hard to turn the steering wheel!”
We had just had the power steering pump replaced a few months back, and it had been making some weird sounds since then (that the mechanics assured me would go away after a we drove it 500 miles or so)… When the steering went out, I had a pretty good idea that that pump was likely to blame. Besides the steering wheel being incredibly difficult to turn, there was a not-great-sounding new whirring noise as the engine turned.
I called the mechanics that had done the work and they told me to get the van towed to Portland. That would be a 1.5 hour tow and we didn’t have AAA or road-side emergency service insurance (something I have since corrected after having this experience!) . There was no way I was going to pay $500 or so to have the van towed that far, and besides it was still drivable, the steering was just ‘manual’ (and there was that bad sound).
By this time it was getting close to dinner time and since we were fortunately still so close to the first camp site we had visited we decided we could redeem what was left of our camping trip and get at-least one night of camping in. We would try our luck driving back to Portland in the morning.
Our one night of camping
The campsite, while far from being the most idyllic site, was a comfortable place to spend the night. We had a fire in the fire ring, and the girls were able to ride their bikes around on the hard packed dirt and explore the forest. I could imagine that on a weekend these sites would be party central and not very peaceful, but on this Monday night they were just lovely.
In the morning we ran & biked down to the Trillium Lake Campground and took in the majestic view of Mt Hood rising up over the serine mountain lake. What our free campsite lacked in privacy and seclusion was more than compensated by the proximity of such an awesome view.
After our morning adventures, we packed up and prepared to limp the van back to Portland. About 30 minutes into our drive was an auto shop, so we stopped to get their opinion about the noise that the pump was making. The news was good– it sounded like we had indeed lost our steering pump, and that it shouldn’t be dangerous to drive. The belt driving the pump also powered the cooling and alternator, so if the pump did completely seize up we would be broken down for sure … however, the brakes were not powered be this same belt, so we weren’t at risk of losing breaking power.
We continued along, and made it as far as the outskirts of Portland, when the whirring noise very suddenly ratcheted up a level to a much louder grinding noise. We pulled over on the side of the highway just at the end of an on-ramp. Should we keep driving? The thought crossed my mind that this was likely just the pump destroying itself, and that we may be able to make it further toward home .. but we also didn’t want to drive something potentially unsafe with the girls in the van. We decided we were going to get a tow.
As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t have AAA or any road-side-assistance coverage on any of our insurance at the time. However, our Airstream did come with a free membership to Coach-Net road-side-assistance. Dimes was our tow vehicle … we just didn’t happen to be towing at the moment. Maybe that would work? I called, and while they informed me that the coverage only applied while we were towing, they were still nice enough to assist me in finding a tow truck.
I helped Sarah and the girls hike off the highway on-ramp with our car seats and we called an Uber to take them home (only about a 20 minute drive from where we now were– we were lucky to be so close to home this time). I waited for the tow truck and went with Dimes to the mechanics.
As suspected, the problem was a faulty power steering pump. However, the upsetting part was that the mechanics knew that the particular pump (which they had installed) was unreliable– “Oh yea, you can either buy these pumps and replace them every year, or put in a good OEM pump.” Thanks a lot! On the up side, they replaced the pump for free under warranty and even upgraded us to the actually-reliable OEM pump.
Scouting trip, take 2
Since we had done so much work to prepare for our failed scouting trip, and since the van was still partially packed for camping, we decided we would try our trip again the coming Monday (we didn’t want to go on the weekend when there would be much more competition for prime sites).
When Monday came we loaded the van back up and headed out. Due to pre-existing plans, this trip would only be 2 nights instead of the 3 that the original trip was meant to be. We made the 1.5 hour drive back out to Mt Hood, and continued past the turnout to Trillium Lake that we had previously used. On that first day, we found two worthy campsites.
The first was almost perfect, excepting it being right off a “busy” (paved) forest service road. It had enough room for us to bring Wobbles in the future, and for friends to come and set up their own space. It had a beautiful stream with a perfect little “beach” for the girls to play on. All this, just a few feet off of the main road.
We continued on to scout a site that the “Camp Free” book had highlighted as a real gem. It was much more remote— another 45 minutes or so deeper into the woods on smaller forest roads— and it also had a stream, where as many of the other potential campsites were “dry” and had no easy water access. While we had brought plenty enough water for drinking and washing, there’s still something nice about camping next to water, especially in the heat of summer.
The site really was a gem! It was near the end of a dead-end road, had a picnic table that someone had lugged in and set up, and a large stone fireplace. Up at about 3400 ft. of elevation, the air was comfortably cooler than it was when we were down at lower elevations. A nearby stream gurgled creating pleasant background noise. We decided this was where would would spend our first night.
While the site was mostly clean (many of the campsites in the national forests can tend to turn into trash dumps from unrespectful campers), there was an old piece of plywood that someone had left behind that had a circle and a rectangle cut out of it. Sarah and the girls turned it into a fun piece of art!
At night it got quite chilly due to the elevation. We bundled up for the night. While Sarah put our youngest to sleep, I wandered with our older girl through overgrown paths in the woods. We ended up finding some nice climbing rocks.
In the morning we continued our scouting mission, intent on finding a few more good sites to return to in the future. The rhythym of our scouting day— drive, find camp site, spend a few minutes exploring, then hop back in the van— was difficult for our older daughter. At each site she wanted to stop for the night and set up camp. Although we didn’t stay at it, we did find one site with a tremendous view of Mt Hood, up at 4500 ft elevation.
In the afternoon, we dropped down to the lower elevation of Timothy Lake. Unike at our high-elevation remote campsite, the lake was fairly busy with people, despite being a Tuesday. The perimeter of the lake was dotted with pay-for-use campgrounds, and camping within the immediate vicinity of the lake was only allowed in these campgrounds. We visited some free campsites within the general proximity of the lake, but most were rather mediocre sites, laking easy water access, shade, or privacy.
It was getting late in the day, and we were tempted to call it a night and stay at one of these hot dry sites.. however, we decided to scout just one more— another site that the book had called out as particularly special, right on a river. It was another 30 minute drive to that site, but unfortunately it (and every other riverside site we had passed along the way) was taken. We had no choice but to keep driving. Site after site we passed was full (on a Tuesday!) until finally we found a river-side site that was available. The site was a bit trashed, and we spent some time collecting garbage. I whipped together a quick Mac’n’Cheese dinner, and then we started into night-time routines.
The next morning we packed out and returned home.
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3 Comments on “Mt Hood Off-Grid Campsite Scouting and a Broken Van”
Hi from PDX!! I love following your adventures!
What an adventure. Dealing with strange van failures was my least favorite part of touring life. Glad you were able to limp it most of the way home! The campsites sound amazing.
You guys rock! What an awesome experience!