Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Stub Stewart State Park

Last summer, I heard a lot of hype about L.L. Stub Stewart State Park being the "outdoor playground in your backyard" or some similar business. Consequently, I arrived on the weekend of May 3-4, 2008 with high hopes and great expectations. Overall, I was disappointed with the park, though it did have its positive points. (As a side note, this is my first review and I may change the format. I'd appreciate any feedback on how to make this more helpful for you or on what was particularly meaningful. I realize there are endless factor to consider when choosing a campsite and I may have missed something!)

Versatility in activities seemed to be the park's main selling point. It boasts close to 15 miles of trails, of which almost all are open to hiking, biking, and horseback riding. This has its advantages and disadvantages. Bikes, and moreover horses, tend to be harder on trails. Horses, or organic ATVs as I affectionately call them, tend to make for muddier trails in the rainy season and dusty trails in the spring.

This was definitely the case here. A three and a half mile bike ride ended up turning into what felt like 10 miles. Between rough surfaces, mud holes, and some fairly steep slopes, a trip on a wheeled apparatus can become quite a challenge. However, there were several gorgeous views of nature as a reward for the efforts. In reality, unless you're a rather experienced mountain biker, I'd recommend sticking to foot power on these trails. Considering the balance between promised usability, variety, and scenic potential, I rate the activities as a 3.

Site Quality
Personally, I am a big proponent of national and state parks. I appreciate all the hard work that goes in to creating, maintaining, and funding them so they are affordable and accessible to the general public. I loathe to criticise them and it's therefore somewhat difficult for me to write this section, as I don't have much that's positive to say in this section. At a glance, the full sites and walk-in tent sites appear to be little gravel rectangles in a swath of unforested, unshrubbed meadow. The potential of having some degree of privacy at a camp site is a large consideration for me and there was no hope in any site. Tiny starts of ferns and Oregon grapes dot the "great plains" perhaps to someday offer definition for individual sites, but serve more as an annoyance at this point. Especially in the walk-in sites, it's hard to find a place to pitch a tent that's not on gravel, next to the fire pit, or on top of one of these starts. There were only two of twelve walk-ins that offered this possibility. There was definitely no hope of finding flat ground, so plan on bringing an air mattress or waking up stiff. Following the current trend in suburban building, the camp sites were snuggled right next to one another, giving neighbors very little breathing room. On the plus side, the walk-in sites were all close to parking, so it was no great hardship to transport gear to the site. There also seemed to be ample parking for whatever you choose to drive. Happily, water and restrooms were easily accessible from any given site. In my mind, the full and walk-in sites were like fraternal twins, except one was born slightly larger and with hookups.

Two walk-in sites with typical scenery for any given site

The hike-in tent sites deserve their own section. They, above any of the other site designs, boggle my mind. There is about a quarter of a mile gravelled hike in with a decent hill to scale. Typically, this is a good distance to get yourself away from vehicles and other sounds. However, no wheelbarrows or other handy methods of gear transportation are provided, so plan on bringing your own or camping very light, as lugging a typical setup would be grueling for your average camper. The sites are also considered primitive, having no individual fire ring and simply having brush cleared to bare dirt. Most of the sites did have a fair amount of distance between each other as well as ample underbrush. Each site had a picnic table, but a fair number of sites only had room to pitch a one-man backpacking tent next to the table.
A pair of pit toilets and two communal fire rings were available, but there was no water access. While I enjoy the idea of sitting around a fire and getting to know your fellow campers, I'm not sure if the occupants of 23 sites could comfortably cluster around them on a cold night. More than anything else, the issue of distance versus available resources drives me crazy. The sites would be very nice if you were backpacking, but who "backpacks" for only one-fourth a mile, stretches, and thinks, "What a nice place to set up camp?" Ultimately, the distance is too short for backpackers and too far for car campers. Between, in my opinion, utterly disappointing hike-in sites and traditional sites that I would call "a place to sleep," I can only give the site quality a 2.

This was definitely the park's strong point. The roads were impressively smooth and the signs were all visible, though due to gravel I would recommend against rollerblades. Every site was manicured and I was at a loss to find even a single piece of garbage on the ground. The bathrooms were extremely clean and didn't even have a faint suggestion of a smell. Even the fire pits were recently scooped out. The hosts were outstandingly friendly and helpful. I cannot say enough nice things about them. I believe the park has earned a 5 in this category.

Overall Value
Stub Stewart is actually at the high end of the price range as far as Oregon State Parks are concerned. Operating on the assumption that the average user is a resident of the Portland-Metropolitan area, it is highly convenient. However, it's not a park I would feel comfortable recommending to a friend for a heartily enjoyable night's stay. The trails are certainly enjoyable as hikes, but are unnecessarily challenging for casual bikers. The value of an overnight stay here is a 2.

Picnic tables are available at all sites. Flush toilets, drinkable water, and fire pits are available at the walk-in and traditional sites. Garbage and expansive recycling is only available across from the visitor's center. The park features a day use(shown below) area with convenient access to trails, restrooms, and picnic tables. There was no hope of having a shaded table, though. The tables are spaced across a grassy area. Parking was ample at the visitors center and camp sites, though there seemed to be limited parking for the day use area. The park also features cabins and a horse camp.

Miscellaneous Notes
Checks, credit cards, and cash were all accepted forms of payment. I really didn't check thoroughly, but at a glance, I didn't notice any cell phone reception. (If someone notices differently, please let me know!) There was no sign of pesky insects, though it is early May. The camping areas seemed clear of standing water, though, so I would guess the bugs won't be too bad here.

How hard is it to find?
The park is clearly signed, right off of highway 47. It's really hard to miss.

Will you go back?
For day hikes, absolutely. It is close to home and featured varying terrain(deciduous forests, mixed forests, coniferous forests, and marshland). However, I don't plan on going back to camp or to bike.

I am truly glad the state decided to reclaim these once disintegrating logging roads and morph them into a fun getaway near Portland. Especially if you hold loggers in contempt, the information about Mr. Stewart, the park's namesake, at the visitor's center is worth a healthy read. However, I have the distinct impression someone got a good idea for a state park, cleared out the space for campgrounds, then asked the question, "So how do we want to design this?" As is the case with many natural areas, with time there is room for improvement. I have heard speculation that as the foliage in the park grows, it will be fantastic in 5 to 10 years. I'm not quite that optimistic unless directed, specific effort is put into establishing a bit more of a forested, private campground. Considering this, my current rating is 3. Stub Stewart is a fun place to go for a day hike and I am looking forward to seeing it grow and mature over the years.


Jim said...

Nice review. Couple of suggestions:

1) More paragraph breaks. Since your blog template uses a fairly narrow width, I recommend dividing almost all of the paragraphs you have into two.

2) Pictures are worth a thousand words. You can setup a Flickr site (if you don't have one already) and post directly from Flickr into your blog (among other cool tricks). I know you will probably add pics to this, but I just wanted to get this on record. :)

3) Consider consolidating the links and summary into the bottom of your reviews. For example, you could have a "highlights" and "lowlights" section along with relevant links. That would help the casual reader get the point quickly.

Natalie B said...

Thank you for the review! My friends and I had this place on our list of possible spring break stops, so it's great to read such a detailed review. Much appreciated.

Megan Farnsworth said...

Thanks for your comment, Natalie. It really helped to peak my interest in maintaining this site! If you wound up dropping by Stub Stewart, please comment with your thoughts.

Otherwise, I hope you had a fantastic spring break!