One of the many wonderful things about living in Portland,Oregon is its’ proximity to Mt. Hood National Forest and a candy store of easily accessible camping, hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing activities. The wilderness is literally in Portland’s (and my) backyard.

Just one hour away is Tollgate Campground, one of the first of many on the way to picturesque Mt. Hood. Wedged between Highway 26 and the Zig Zag River, it is only yards off the highway, but the white noise of the cascades makes you forget how close you are. With the natural buffering offered by the canope of old growth Douglas Firs, Rhododendrons and the rush of the Zig Zag River, senses are calmed and the journey to relaxation begins. In no time, there is a shifting of gears from the usual high speed pace to a calmer idle.

Along the banks of the river, tents sit upright and tall, like nervous children on their first day of school. A slight breeze makes 80 degrees feel wonderful, the sun gently warming the ground. There is ample space between each campsite allowing for a sense of solitude. Trails run along the Zig Zag between campgrounds nearby provide easy access for shorter hikes, bird watching or meandering along the river. If I feel more energetic later, there are more hiking opportunities up the road at Government Camp.

Needs for cooking on the campfire can be easily met by purchasing wood from the camphost onsite. For me, part of the lure of camping is building my own fire, stoking it to just the right intensity and using my one cast iron pan to cook everything perfectly. Nothing compares to the smell of maple bacon and eggs sizzling amid the flames and curling smoke. Or for dinner, fresh fish, asaparagus and potatoes paired with my favorite wine. It is easy to bring a little simple elegance to an old wood picnic table with a tapestry tablecloth and local wildflowers in a makeshift vase. Though it all takes more time, I am content because in this small oasis, it is the journey, not only the meal, I crave. But, not to worry. If all this sounds like too much work, there is a short trail to several diners and a restaurant with live music.

With art supplies laid out on the table, I am ready if the creative urge hits me. And, as the afternoon sun casts a soft focus lens on the forest, the desire to capture the tranquility I feel inside on paper helps me push the paint brush around. My stressful thoughts wash away and my body sinks more comfortably into my skin. Time matters little here. How the painting turns out is irrelevant. The journey is the cure!

Like black ink on hand pressed paper, night falls upon the campground and delectable smells drift through the air, vestiges of each site’s favorite camping fare. People play cards to the light of the lantern, melting s’mores over the fire and laughing. Much earlier than usual, sounds give in to the silence of the forest and they fold themselves away into the warmth of a sleepingbags. It will be cold tonight they say, about 40 degrees. The bright light of the battery lantern projects a shadow shape of me reading onto soft walls of the tent. With my 3.5# chihuahua, my great defender, safely tucked in the bottom of my mummy bag, I focus on the quiet, the babbling of the river , the periodic crack of an ember. Breathing deeply of the chilly air helps me ease into a pre-sleep fog, thoughts becoming more random and eventually, drift into deeply relaxing sleep.

At dawn, the sun breaks through the mesh in the top of my tent revealing the cathedral of trees surrounding my tiny abode. My mind goes through a litany of possibilities for the day. Relieved that the restroom is next to my site, I quickly make a beeline there and then wash my face in the cold, crisp water spicket not far away. The water tastes great, a little earthy but refreshing and I am excited to start the day. After the best maple bacon, eggs over easy and toasted Dave’s Killer bread ever, I determine that today, I will hike at Government Camp, and combine Crosstown Trail with Skiway and Wally’s to make it longer. Then, close up camp and meander home, so much the better for the effort!

A large map of the entire area at the Enid Lake Trail, accessed from the Glacier View Snow Park, gives a solid visual sense of where you are. The trails are well marked with blue diamonds and signs at each intersection, naming each trail and its’ length and connecting loops. As you hike in and out of sunshine and forest, the delicious scenery draws you further down the trail, such a treat to be in touch with the natural beauty of the forest. The trails I chose were perfect in difficulty, length and filled with the tranquility I was seeking. Nature is like a medicine, reaching to the roots of what ails us and applying a balm. I have been “touched” in the needed places of the soul and am rejuenvenated!

Having done this many times before, closing up camp is quick work. One more visit to the river to tide me over when I’m back in the “other world” and I’m off, memories in tact with a revived heart.

On the way home, my mind replays the brief but impactful weekend, amazed that so much can change “inside” in so little time. No stressful weeks of packing, expensive airline or hotel tickets required. Just a little planning, minimal gear and a desire to enjoy our beautiful backyard jewel…Mount Hood National Forest.

Keeping your “Quick Camping” gear organized and ready to go makes these getaways worry free and doable at short notice. Although reservations are sometimes required, often recommended, there are campgrounds that reserve some sites on a first come, first served basis.

mthoodinfo.com has extensive information about hiking, biking, rock climbing, campgrounds, wildlife watches, restaurants, events, you name it. Muddycamper.com has information about campgrounds with pictures and descriptions of each. Go to www.reserveamerica.com to reserve your site.

Muddycamper.com is a great resource for locating the campground that meets your needs in short order. Reservations, which are suggested, can be made at www.reserveamerica.com.

Kim Elizabeth MacQuarrie. freelance writer, lover of inspirational travel and all things delectable in the Pacific NW. She looks forward to exploring more locally, regionally, and globally.