History of Oregon State Parks

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Devil’s Punchbowl

It began—more or less—with the view from the road. One hundred years ago, Oregonians decided the land along highways should be treed and scenic. Since then, a system of roadside rest areas grew to 254 park properties and more than 100,000 acres. The era of recreation was born. Today’s state park system showcases the best of Oregon’s landscapes: majestic viewpoints, roaring waterfalls, historic landmarks, and lakeside oases. These special places include 362 miles of beaches, preserved for public use by the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill. You can break a sweat on a long hike, idle with a golden sunset, and enjoy a close moment with family and friends around a picnic table. Some of your best memories were made in these special places. It’s no surprise, then, that when parks were in peril in 1998, you voted to dedicate a portion of Lottery funds to Oregon Parks and Recreation. During a global pandemic and unprecedented wildfire season, you realized more than ever: parks are essential. You’ve invested in them, helped care for them and kept them open to all. As you plan your next adventure in state parks, I invite you to do so with a long view toward the past. Each park’s story has a context in Oregon’s history, and a tie that goes back thousands of years before settlement. How we connect to the land today has certainly evolved, but the connection itself holds firm. Oregonians love to be outside. I also challenge you to look to the future. Recreation is very different today than when the first campgrounds opened in 1952. Can you imagine what recreation will look like 100 years from now? Together, we’ll shape that future. Because of you, Oregon’s parks are among the top in the nation. With your commitment, they will be here for the next generation to enjoy. Thank you, Oregon, for supporting state parks.

Director, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department

Samuel Boardman becomes first Park Superintendent. Blending stubbornness with charisma, his outsized personality drives the growth of the system from 6,444 acres on 46 properties in 1929 to 57,000-plus acres on 151 properties in 1950.

Oregon passes a law that empowers the Highway Commission to acquire land alongside highways—and keep them treed and scenic. Those small rights-of-way form the basis of the Oregon State Park system.



Sarah Helmick donates about five acres of homesteaded land to the Highway Commission. It is the first Oregon State Park.


The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrives. This innovative New Deal work program sent unemployed young men across the US to build and improve publicly-owned lands. For a dollar a day, they worked in 45 Oregon State Parks, planting trees, building roads, bridges, trails, and spectacular buildings of stone and cedar. In nine short years, it creates an enduring presence in Oregon, and its state parks.

1933 to 1942

1940 to 1945

Along with everything else, it seems, Parks rode the baby boom wave. Campgrounds went from blueprints to hardscape in record time, fueled by the postwar economy and newfound leisure time.


The war years brought gas rationing, declining attendance, and outright closures of coastal parks for defense purposes. Fort Stevens, guarding the mouth of the Columbia, was fired upon in June 1942 by a Japanese submarine. Barely in range, the shells from the sub severed some telephone cables.


Silver Falls and Wallowa Lake open overnight campgrounds.

As a nod to the increasing popularity— and economic importance of camping, the first permanent State Parks Advisory Committee is established. Rangers begin wearing uniforms.



The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act brings grant administration and widespread planning responsibilities to Parks.

The Oregon Beach Bill is signed into law. Parks later assumes responsibility for managing recreation along the 362-mile ocean shoreline. The State Historic Preservation Office is created.


Parks Department designates state’s first nude sunbathing beach at Rooster Rock State Park.

Friends of Tryon Creek State Park becomes the first (unofficial) “friends group” in Oregon, predating the park itself by a year or two.


1970 to 1973


Scenic Waterways Act passed. Parks takes on responsibility for statewide recreational trails system. Mail-in reservations begin. Willamette Greenway concept takes shape.


Campground hosts and volunteers become an integral part of park operations.

Parks’ funding from gas tax abolished.



Day use fees introduced at 21 parks.

State Parks splits off from ODOT, becomes the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Discovery Season camping discounts appear.



State Parks introduces yurts at coastal parks. They become wildly popular, and extend the camping season well into fall and spring at many parks. Yurtin’ For Certain!

A toll free reservation line begins, finally killing the old mail-in system of reserving campsites. Financial doom and gloom escalates, and the “parks in peril” campaign stirs up public support across the state. The specter of closing 64 parks does the trick, and emergency funding from the Legislature comes through.



In an expansive bit of carpe diem, Governor Ted Kulongoski launches his “park a year” program, which adds thousands of acres to the system over the next 10 years. New parks and big improvements to existing ones bring the idea to fruition.



Measure 66 passes, a constitutional amendment that (temporarily, until 2014) dedicates a portion of Lottery funds to State Parks for grants, new properties, and infrastructure repair. First State Parks Day celebrated.

Measure 76 passes, solidifying and extending Lottery funding four years before it was set to expire.

Lisa Sumption becomes the first female Director in the history of Oregon State Parks.



A global pandemic and massive wildfires in this cataclysmic year become a test of resourcefulness, leadership and unity.


Solar eclipse brings thousands of new visitors to the parks in its path. Intense logistical preparation pays off, and August 17 becomes a remarkable, happy memory.


Parks celebrates its first one hundred years, and ushers in the next.


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Courtesy Joan Amero Deschutes River SRA