Best Camping Spots: Roughing It
The Northwest offers myriad ways to commune with nature, but nothing surpasses sleeping outdoors.
By Seattle Mag July 1, 2010
A Family Affair
Where: North side of the Olympic Peninsula on the Strait of Juan de Fuca
Best For: Base-camp adventuring, tide pooling and family-friendly camping
Sea stars, swimming and s’mores, oh my! Salt Creek Recreation Area off State Route 112 on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula has a wealth of options for family campers who like to get to where they’re going and stay put. This Clallam County campground offers dozens of drive-in campsites with golden views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and also some of the best tide pooling in the Pacific Northwest at Tongue Point Marine Sanctuary a few wet footsteps away from your tent. On hot summer days nothing beats the heat better than a dip into Salt Creek, which meanders along the beach at Crescent Bay (right by the campground) on its way into the Pacific. Hikers, kayakers, surfers and photographers will find plenty to do in and around Salt Creek. And if the kids still have some energy to burn, the campground offers a playground, basketball hoops, a ball field and a volleyball court. Coin-op showers and firewood for sale (BYO s’mores) seal the deal: The living is sweet at Salt Creek.
Roadside attraction along the way: Grab a smoked-salmon sandwich, rent a kayak or rowboat and have yourself a floating picnic right on Lake Crescent, courtesy of the Fairholm Store, CafÉ and Marina (416 Lake Crescent Road at U.S. 101, about 30 miles west of Port Angeles; 360.928.3020), on the west end of the lake. The historic lakeside pit stop has been catering to travelers since 1890, when homesteader Caroline Jones first set up shop there.
Coordinates: Salt Creek Recreation Area County Park; 360.928.3441; clallam.net/CountyParks/html/parks_saltcreek.htm. Cost: $18/night for standard tent site, $24 for RV hookup site; 45 of the campground’s 90 sites can be reserved in advance (via Clallam County; see website for details) at least 14 days prior to the requested date(s); the rest are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Pitching a Tent Lakeside
Where: At the northwest foot of Mount Adams in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (near Randle)
Best For: Those who like it quiet—and don’t mind it a little rough
Bump up four miles of teeth-rattling gravel road and you’ll be rewarded with a little slice of heaven known as Takhlakh Lake. Sure, the amenities are meager (no showers or running water), but sipping your morning cuppa while gazing across a pristine lake toward towering Mount Adams makes even pit toilets tolerable. The lake’s remote location sets the serenity bar in the stratosphere (no gas-powered boats allowed!). There’s hiking nearby, and the little trail that rings the lake is a treat, too. Bring a kayak or a raft and plan on whiling away a day afloat. The fishing can be great here, especially early or very late in the season. Book this one early for next year (the location often sells out in February). Bonus points if you can nab Site 36 or one of the other lakeside locations; in heavy snowpack years, reserve for late in summer—the campground’s opening is sometimes delayed by snow melt.
Roadside attraction along the way: Get in the mood for going off the grid with a stop along the way at Pioneer Farm Museum in Eatonville (pioneerfarmmuseum.org). At this reproduction 1800s village, you can try your hand at the forge (fire! white-hot metal! hammers!), milk various critters and churn a little butter. Suddenly, dinner via Coleman stove seems très civilized.
Coordinates: Takhlakh Lake in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Reserve your site at this very popular campsite well in advance by calling 877.444.6777 or visiting recreation.gov. About $16/day. No pass required. Park information: 360.891.5001.
Kayaking off the Grid in the San Juans
Paddling Away from It All
Where: Outer San Juan Islands
Best For: Unplugging and keeping time by the paddle stroke
If kayak camping floats your boat, hop the next ferry or floatplane to Lopez Island and get out on the water—and away from the landlubbing throngs—in no time flat. The experts at Lopez Kayaks (at Fisherman Bay Marina; 360.468.2847; lopezkayaks.com) will outfit you with single ($35/day) or tandem ($70–$80/day) touring kayaks while dispensing wisdom regarding when, where, how and what—you already know why. If you’ve got only a night or two, head for Blind Island. Tucked into a bay near Shaw Island’s ferry terminal-cum-general-store, Blind’s 3 acres and 1,280 feet of shoreline can accommodate as many as four groups of kayak campers. Midweek, the place is likely to be all yours. Other options include Jones, Posey, Stuart, Matia, Sucia, Patos and James islands, each of which, like Blind, is part of the state park system and is a node on the Cascadia Marine Trail, a regionwide network of primitive oceanfront campsites that welcome self-sufficient kayakers looking for the ultimate getaway.
Roadside attraction along the way: The world may be your oyster when you’re afloat in the San Juans, but to find some shellfish for dinner, paddle over to Westcott Bay Sea Farms (904 Westcott Drive, Friday Harbor; 360.378.2489; westcottbay.com) near Roche Harbor (just a mile as the seal swims from Posey Island’s prime Cascadia Marine Trail kayaker campsites). You can pick your own oysters, mussels and clams and pack them into your kayak’s storage hatch to prepare for dinner later, or the staff can pack ’em in dry ice and ship them home.
Coordinates: Camping on state park islands costs $14/night (with a 10-night limit) for groups of as many as eight (cash or checks can be deposited in drop boxes on the islands near primitive campsites). Washington State Parks, 360.902.8844, parks.wa.gov; Cascadia Marine Trail, 206.545.9161,wwta.org/trails/cmt/.
Alpine Lakeside Camping in the Shadow of Shuksan
Where: Right in the middle of the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie Wilderness
Best For: Lakeside solitude and world-class nature-photo ops
One of the many nice things about Lake Ann in the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie Wilderness is that you can hike to it in half a day, leaving plenty of time for afternoon R&R—swimming, sunbathing, berry picking—in a stunning alpine environment. The four-mile jaunt initially teases with an elevation loss of 800 feet into the wild Swift Creek valley, eventually gaining lost ground on the ascent to the saddle where Lake Ann sits perched one ridge away from craggy Mount Shuksan and its dripping year-round glaciers. As dusk pervades, alpenglow lights up the scene. Looking out the tent window and seeing shooting stars streak across a big sky interrupted only by a corniced Cascade peak is an iconic Northwest experience.
Roadside attraction along the way: Locals—the few that there are in this remote corner of civilization on the border of a huge trackless expanse—flock to Graham’s Restaurant (9989 Mount Baker Highway, Glacier, 360.599.1964; grahamsrestaurant.com) not only for the signature fish tacos but also for the only live music for miles around on select weekend nights.
Coordinates: Lake Ann is east of Glacier. While you don’t need a permit to camp alongside it, you will need a Northwest Forest Pass ($5/day or $30/year; available viawww.fs.fed.us/r6/passpermits/index.shtml) to park at the trailhead. Once you’re at Lake Ann, keep in mind that fires are prohibited and you must use backcountry stoves for cooking; party sizes are limited to 12.
Wanapum Recreation Area
A Sunny Oasis on the Columbia River Gorge
Where: Near Vantage, Washington, on the Columbia River Gorge, just west of the I-90 crossing
Best For: Sun seekers and concertgoers
S Sometimes Seattleites just need a quick hit of sun. That’s where Vantage—a manageable 133 miles southwest of Seattle—comes in handy. What this blink-and-you-miss-it town (population 70) lacks in the way of amenities it makes up for with a near guarantee of warm weather. Skip the desert (and all but deserted) town proper and head south to the Wanapum Recreation Area in Wanapum State Park, an astonishingly green oasis amid the dusty scrub, thanks to upkeep by the state. The 50 RV-friendly campsites (with boat ramp adjacent) sit on a bluff just above the Columbia River gorge. A grassy stroll leads to a verdant park with large shade trees, picnic tables and a sandy swimming beach—which during midweek you might just have all to yourself.
Roadside attraction along the way: Minutes north of Vantage, the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, a National Natural Landmark, offers a historical diversion for fans of fossils, petroglyphs and petrified wood (the Washington state gem!). Visit the interpretive center (open 10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily through September 15, weekends through October, closed in winter) to view preserved specimens of ginkgo, Douglas fir and madrone, or wander the park’s 7,470 acres to bask in geology and Gorge-ous views. Bring water—it’s hot out here.
Coordinates: The Wanapum Recreation Area is three miles south of Vantage. Take Huntzinger Road south along the river through dusty desert until you see the state campground sign on the left. Sites fill up quickly in the summer—especially if there’s a concert at the Gorge in George—so reserve a riverside spot ahead of time ($14–$21; reservations only taken May 15–September 15; 888.226.7688;parks.wa.gov/reservations).
It Takes a Village
Where: The southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park (near Packwood)
Best For: Families, first-time campers and fireside partiers
Throw down your Therm-a-Rest in an old-growth forest alongside a beautiful snow-fed river—and make dozens of new friends! Camping here is big fun, and everyone knows it. The huge campground features nearly 200 sites and its own ranger station, complete with mini-museum and gift shop. The Ohanapecosh River and several small forks snake through this campground, making for plenty of waterfront sites, swimming holes and stillwater pockets wriggling with pollywogs. At dusk, dozens of tiny bats swoop and dive over the river looking for nibbles. Bathrooms are spartan—but there are plenty of flush toilets and there’s hot, running water (but no showers). Evening ranger talks at the park’s amphitheater are goofy retro-cool; campfire slide shows span subjects from mountain critters to mountain climbing to yeti sightings.
Visit C Loop and gawk at the devastation left by the storms of 2006; a giant mudslide and logjam have forever changed the course of the Ohanapecosh River. Spend a day exploring the exceptionally beautiful Silver Falls Trail, a few miles of forest hiking that pay off with big-time waterfall drama. Or do the laid-back loop through the Grove of the Patriarchs, a boardwalk woven through a jaw-droppingly beautiful collection of old-growth giants.
Bonus points for scoring one of the park’s four walk-in sites (C 18–21); a 100-yard downhill gear struggle nets you a natural sound buffer from the boisterous fun above. Other great sites: all of E Loop, where generators aren’t allowed.
Roadside attraction along the way: Take in panoramic views of the White River Canyon at Mud Mountain Dam, just a short detour off Highway 410 in Enumclaw (experiencewa.com; search “mud”). A playground and wading pool let road-weary tots blow off steam; restless adults will like the quarter-mile-long nature trail that connects the upper viewing area to a deck farther down the canyon wall. You’ll also find picnic tables and shelters, hiking and mountain biking trails, and the occasional elk.
Coordinates: Ohanapecosh Campground in Mount Rainier National Park. Reserve up to six months in advance at 877.444.6777 or recreation.gov. About $15/day. No pass required. Park information: 360.569.2211.
Nature’s Light Show
Paradise and the Perseids
Where: The ultimate Northwest lodge experience on the southern flank of Mount Rainier
Best For: Lovebirds and astronomy buffs
The Perseid meteor shower is one of the best for viewing with the naked eye, with more than 60 sparks an hour at its peak (August 12 this year). A crescent moon should make this year’s show especially spectacular—if the weather cooperates. The best way to view Mother Nature’s fireworks? Far, far away from city-light pollution. If you’re camping at nearby Ohanapecosh, you’re practically there; another 45 minutes up the mountain lands you at the recently renovated Paradise Inn, an excellent home base for hiking and meteor-gazing. Rooms are small and basic—no TV or telephone—but no matter; you’ll spend your time lounging around in the lobby area, made grand by its soaring, gorgeous fir-beamed ceiling, floor-to-ceiling fireplaces, and comfy handmade log furniture. Sneak out after dark (10 p.m. or so) and take a shivery-fun flashlight hike up one of the nearby paved trails. Unroll your sleeping bag, uncork that Nalgene bottle, lie back and count the shooting stars.
Roadside attraction along the way: Stop just short of Paradise at the brand-new $21.2 million Henry M. Jackson Visitors Center (nps.gov; search “Henry M. Jackson”), a compact “green” structure with fir-buttressed 60-foot ceilings, floor-to-roof windows and views of Mount Rainier and the jagged Tatoosh Range. The Paradise Camp Café offers upscale cafeteria fare; the second-floor exhibit area includes displays about local flora and fauna, cool volcano facts, and a mini-theater that loops a movie about the park’s natural history.
Coordinates: Paradise Inn in the Mount Rainier National Park. Summer rates start at about $140/single (bathroom down the hall); suites as much as $250/night. Reservations: 360-569-2275 ormtrainierguestservices.com.
EXPERT CAMPING RESOURCES
These local resources will help you make the most of your time in the great outdoors.
Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping & Boating with Babies & Young Children by Jennifer Aist ($16.95; April 2010, Mountaineers Books) — Tried-and-true advice for taking infants and toddlers into the wild.
Backcountry Cooking: From Pack to Plate in 10 Minutes by Dorcas Miller ($17.95; March 2010, Mountaineers Books) — Move beyond mac ’n’ cheese with 144 quick trailside recipes.
Camping Washington: The Best Public Campgrounds for Tents and RVs ($18.95; June 2009, Mountaineers Books) — Local writer Ron Judd rates more than 500 local campsites.
Sleeping Bag Yoga by Erin Widman ($12.95; June 2008, Sasquatch Books) — Tent-friendly poses aimed at increasing flexibility (and, thus, hiking mileage).
Head to Seattle-based AllRecipes.com and search “campfire” for dozens of creative al fresco recipes, from grilled trout to sugared doughnuts to a big ol’ flame-broiled breakfast.
REI (222 Yale Ave. N; 206.223.1944; rei.com/seattle) offers countless classes for the public. This month, check out:
An equipment and technique overview to increase your confidence on the trails. 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 20. 7 p.m. Free.
Learn how GPS can help you better navigate your outdoor adventures. 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 21. 7 p.m. Free.
Originally published in July 2010