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Hike of the Month: Champoeg State Park

March 14, 2020

by Paul Gerald, Board Member, Trailkeepers of Oregon

Distance: 3.4 or 5.8 miles – or less!
Elevation gain: 120 to 300 feet

A great way to welcome spring is to get yourself, and your kids if you have them, out for a short, easy walk, or just a day in the park. You might want something that isn’t too challenging, that provides a little variety, and that can easily be cut short if the weather turns sour. If all of that sounds good right now, then a visit to Champoeg State Park, on the banks of the Willamette River, might be in order. It’s a short drive from Portland; its trails are nearly flat and often paved; it offers other activities like disc golf, boating, and a playground; it’s suitable for all levels of interest and ability; and while you’re there you can learn something about Oregon history by walking in the footsteps of some of its earliest European settlers. The Field Guide features two hikes, the Champoeg Loop and the out-and-back to Butteville Store; and don’t even worry about the distances listed, as both of these easy strolls can be as short as you’d like.

A paved trail passes between two big Douglas firs and bridge guardrails in a forested area.

One of several stretches of paved trail in Champoeg State Park; these make it easy for people with walkers, strollers or wheelchairs to enjoy the woods and river. (Photo by Paul Gerald)

One of the nice things about these trails is that they are all as close to flat as you’ll find in the Northwest, and many of them are paved. So if there are still muddy spring conditions elsewhere, most of Champoeg (pronounced like shampoo-y) will leave you with dry feet. In fact, if you’re pushing little ones in strollers, riding a bike, or piloting a wheelchair, you can have a lovely and smooth visit to the woods and river here. The Butteville Store hike, to the longest continually operated store in Oregon (since 1863!), is a park bike path that connects with a road. Only the last quarter mile into Butteville is unpaved, and that’s along a protected shoulder of a two-lane highway.

A spider web glistening in the sun.

Champoeg hikes are about the little things along the trail, like this spider web glistening in the afternoon sun. (Photo by Paul Gerald)

Hiking in Champoeg isn’t about grand views or being in wilderness. It’s about peaceful strolls among trees along a river – and about stopping to appreciate the little things. March in Champoeg’s woods will be all about wildflowers, especially trillium, that perennial harbinger of spring. So, since you’re not banging out big mileage on a spring conditioner hike, stop to enjoy the flowers, the spider webs, the fish jumping in the river, the birds scurrying in the brush, the deer in the fields early or late in the day. Bring a picnic and grab a table in the day-use area. And if you make it all the way to the Butteville Store, reward yourself with an ice cream and/or a hot drink!

A tall evergreen tree stands next to an open field, with forest and hills in the background.

It’s not just forest and river at Champoeg; there is plenty of open space, as well. This is actually the former town site. (Photo by Paul Gerald)

Champoeg isn’t just a hiking destination; it’s a state park with facilities, from a museum to campgrounds and yurts to a boat ramp. And it also offers wide-open spaces so often lacking this time of year, when the Cascades are still snowbound and the coast still cloudy and rainy. Champoeg was once a town, founded in 1850 and wiped out by the Great Willamette River Flood of 1861. The former town site is now a large field (pictured above) where street posts mark the locations of former intersections. Now this field and others offer a chance to get out of the woods and soak up the sunshine if you’re so lucky. There are also designated pet exercise areas in the park and a 19th -century barn that’s worth exploring.

A bench faces out past the trunks of trees onto a peaceful stretch of river with leafless deciduous trees and conifers on the opposite bank.

One of several benches along the Champoeg Loop Hike looks out over the Willamette River. (Photo by Paul Gerald)

The Willamette River is your constant companion at Champoeg, even when it is just out of sight. Along either of these hikes, you will catch a glimpse of it through the trees, see boats motoring along it, hear the laughter and shouting of swimmers from private docks across the way, and if you’re lucky, maybe see a salmon or a steelhead leap from its waters. In the 19th century, steamboats plied the Willamette from Portland all the way to Eugene, and the recently restored landing at Butteville, very near the store there, was the busiest between Willamette Falls and Salem. But today the river near Champoeg is just a deep, peaceful pool, visible from multiple viewpoints along your hikes. Several side trails on both hikes also lead down to the shore.

A small stone obelisk stands in a paved courtyard with large coniferous trees in the background.

A marker along the Pavilion Trail, part of the Champoeg Loop Hike, marks the location of the famous 1843 gathering. (Photo by Paul Gerald)

Even before there was a town at Champoeg, when French Canadian fur trappers and American farmers were first settling among the open prairies along the river here and trading with the Kalapuya people, a seminal moment in Pacific Northwest history occurred on this site. In 1843, at a time when jurisdiction over the vast Oregon Country was disputed, a group of white men gathered and voted in favor of forming a provisional government for an area that stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains and from the 49th parallel to the California border. Today an obelisk marks the spot where that vote occurred. (It also honors only the settlers who voted “yes.”) A pavilion nearby was built for the 58th anniversary celebration in 1901, when the monument was unveiled by the last living voter from 1843, François Xavier Matthieu. Nearby you can also find an old cottonwood, now an Oregon Heritage Tree, which appears in photos of the 1901 celebration.

COVID-19 Alert: This article was posted before strict guidelines came into effect regarding use of the outdoors. All Oregon state parks are now closed to the public, and hiking is no longer recommended as an appropriate activity. Stay at home, stay healthy, and find ways to exercise that comply with social distancing guidelines. Champoeg State Park will still be there when the all clear is given!

See the Champoeg State Park Loop Hike and Butteville Store Hike in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide for more details and trailhead information.

Paul Gerald: paul.gerald@trailkeepersoforegon.org

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