What Seattle's Density Problem is Doing to Your Summer Plans

Our state’s population is growing, but not the number of our state campsites

On a sunny summer weekend last year, I loaded my car with a tent, camping stove and border collie and hit the road, in hopes of finding a spot in a state campground near Deception Pass. As I drove, I was reminded of the trips with my family in our VW camper van in the ’70s. We would pick a direction and drive until we found a campsite—easily available anywhere in the state. At least that’s how I remember it.

As the sun started to set and I spotted the cozy glow of campfires through the trees, I realized I’d been driving all day, scouring campgrounds along the way, only to find that every site was reserved. That night, in a lonely motel where I found a vacancy, I made “city s’mores” in the microwave and drank hot chocolate from my tin camping cup while sitting on the couch. It wasn’t the weekend I had envisioned. When I returned home the next day, I went online determined to reserve a campsite. I found one—in late October.  

Seattleites love camping and the outdoors. It seems to be in our DNA. Washingtonians spend more than $1.5 billion annually on camping equipment and related outdoor activity costs, such as camping fees, according to a report issued last year by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. On average, we spend about 56 days per year doing some kind of outdoor recreation.

But with a finite number of serene wilderness areas and woodsy parks within the state, how long will we be able to enjoy camping before overcrowding makes it too much of a challenge?

Currently, there are more than 7 million people living in Washington state, and our population is growing—by more than 1.25 percent last year, the biggest jump since 2008. As numbers inch up, the effects are being felt everywhere, and the woods are not immune.

Reservations at Washington State Parks campgrounds are up 5 percent over last year, which equates to about 9,000 additional reservations for all facilities. And this is without adding any new parks or campsites to our state system, says Kayce Rodriguez, Washington State Parks reservation manager. “Every year, reservations have been steadily increasing since I’ve been here in 2010.” Park staffers speculate that the increase could be due to the easy-to-use reservation system, but other factors may be in play. Demand for campsites soared during the recession, since camping is more affordable than many other vacations. And once people tried camping, they may have been permanently converted.  

Today, the state has 80 campgrounds scattered over 125 parks. The last time a new park with campsites opened was in 1997. No new campgrounds are scheduled to open anytime soon, and adding spots to existing locations can be tricky when there isn’t room to grow. “It takes five to 10 years to purchase and develop a state park,” says Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Washington State Recreation Conservation Office. “You have to seek funding, find willing landowners and get the neighbors to agree.” Cottingham worked on the 2014 Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation, a state task force established by Governor Jay Inslee to explore participation in outdoor recreation, and to consider its social and economic benefits and ways to enhance the industry.

One of the task force recommendations focused on how to sustain and expand the state’s parks budget. Since 2009, the budget for parks has declined each year. A push from the Legislature was intended to make state parks more self-sustaining, partially from revenue earned via the Discover Pass—a fee-based pass instituted in 2011. It gives Washington residents access to the state’s parks and other recreation areas. General tax support for the parks system went from 75 percent to 25 percent beginning in 2009, when the recession hit, according to Mark O. Brown, vice chair of the governor-appointed Washington State Parks Commission. This resulted in a backlog of routine maintenance in the parks and the elimination of one-third of its full-time staff positions.  

The parks system received $21 million in general funds for the 2015–2017 biennium, compared with $10 million in the prior biennium. Still, this is not enough to raise the parks budget to a healthy level, says Brown. Deferred maintenance projects from previous years currently exceed $480 million. Campers may not find a ranger as easily, and most staff members are still trying to do multiple jobs at once. A current proposal to generate more funds focuses on adding cabins, but not campgrounds, to state lands.

It takes enormous resources to create new parks as well as to support the existing ones. Cama Beach Park, a 134-acre Camano Island park with historic beachfront cabins (but no campsites) that opened in 2008, stands out for Cottingham. From the park’s conception to purchasing, developing and ribbon cutting, it took 15–20 years, she says.  

Veteran northwest campers like Gail Stringer, who has lived here since 1990, have favorite campgrounds and campsites that they count on each year. Stringer says that competition for those sites has reached a crescendo in the past five or so years. “You have to be so ahead of the game now to get a decent campsite and you need to sign up in January unless you want to end up in the back 40 or near the restroom,” she says.

With no influx of new state campsites in the near future, what’s the solution for Seattleites yearning for a weekend underneath the stars?

If you’re willing to take a chance, you may be lucky enough to score a first-come, first-served site in one of about 20 state campgrounds that don’t take reservations. And there are, of course, other options: sites in national parks and forests, county campgrounds—and campsites on Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land. The latter are all first-come first-served, no reservations required. All you need is a Discover Pass and some luck. There are no other fees, even for remote places like Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands.

Last year, DNR completed photo documentation of all 71 campgrounds (dnr.wa.gov/go) on a state map so campers could find those once-hidden backcountry sites. DNR staff has also received reports of higher demand for campsites in the past few years, especially on weekends. Additional usage is seen as a good thing—it keeps eyes on the location, which can help decrease vandalism, says Brock Milliern, DNR statewide recreation manager.

But, if you’re someone like Gail Stringer, who has a definite place in mind, reserving far, far in advance is your best strategy. Using the state reservation system—and signing up when reservations open, exactly nine months prior to your desired date—is the best way to wind up with a campsite you want.

Savvy campers scope out the spot they want a season in advance, cruising through campgrounds to jot down prime campsites, and then hit the reservation window when it opens.

Another strategy is to plan a camping trip during the week, when demand for sites is lower, says Rodriguez. As a lifelong procrastinator, my campsite research wasn’t enough to motivate me to reserve a great spot months ahead of time.

So I’m back to taking my chances. I’ll be the one driving slowly down the meandering loops of the campground, staring enviously at the organized campers, before resigning myself to another night at the Motel 6.

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