The Best Places to Camp in the Northwest
From deluxe tents in a vineyard to charming cabins on a lake, we’ve got camping spots for everyone
By Charlotte Austin, Jenny Cunningham, Kristen Russell & Roddy Scheer May 13, 2015
It’s the perfect time to make camp. From tepees in a vineyard and charming cabins on a lake to pup tents in meadows under star-crammed skies, here you’ll find camping spots for all levels of motivation, experience and outdoor passion. Read on.
Plunge into the serene outdoors at Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park
Story & photos by Roddy Scheer
There isn’t a better way to disconnect from the grid and reconnect with your soul than by visiting Ross Lake in the summertime. The 20-plus-mile course of this dammed section of the Skagit River is protected as a National Recreation Area within North Cascades National Park, and is truly a tonic for the spirit. While you won’t be able to “check in” on Facebook—there’s no cell phone reception and nowhere to charge your phone—you will be able to check in on overwhelming alpine vistas, huge old-growth conifer trees, fearless wildlife uncorrupted by civilization and some of the most pristine water you’ll ever swim in or drink.
The hard-won view of Ross Lake in Washington’s North Cascades
Of course, no one said getting away from it all at Ross Lake was gonna be easy. First, you’ll have to obtain a (free) wilderness camping permit from the National Park Service’s Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, which gets you exclusive rights to a specific campsite alongside Ross Lake (first come, first served; all the sites are great, but discuss with the assigning rangers how far up the lake you want to travel and whether or not you want to camp near others or on your own). Then pile back into the car and drive east on Highway 20 another 30 miles to the parking area for the Ross Dam Trail on the north side of the road.
Follow the sign at the trailhead at the back of the parking lot toward Ross Dam and hike yourself and your gear down a vertiginous mile. At the bottom, look for a single telephone in a kiosk and use it to call for the water taxi to pick you up and zip you across to the dock at Ross Lake Resort, your last taste of civilization or some facsimile thereof. (An alternative route would be to catch Seattle City Light’s ferry across nearby Diablo Lake—$20 for the round trip—and then ride in a flatbed truck with your camping gear and dozens of other vacationers to Ross Lake.)
When you finally reach the resort, you can rent a putt-putt motorboat, kayak or canoe to take you “uplake” to your destination. (Reserve your boat in advance with Ross Lake Resort. Motorboat, which fits four people plus camping gear, $115/day; canoe $38/day, doublekayak, $68/day. 206.386.4437; rosslakeresort.com)
While getting there is an adventure, once settled in lakeside, there are many ways to pursue your bliss. Read a book in the sun to the soundtrack of lapping lake water. Hike along the lakeshore and scout for chipmunks, deer and bears. Cast a line and try to hook a rainbow trout for dinner. Skim across the lake to Skymo Creek Falls and get drenched by a 50-foot torrent of liquefied snowmelt as it sluices its way into the lake. If the weather cooperates—85-degree sunny days are the norm in July and August—keep your cool by jumping in and out of the always-refreshing water all day long. You won’t mind leaving your lattes behind when you have glacier-fed lake water to keep you alert.
And if you’re really feeling inspired (and in shape), plan on making the arduous yet awesome hike up Desolation Peak to the still-inhabited fire lookout cabin once occupied by Jack Kerouac himself. Following the lead of fellow Beat writer (and Washington native) Gary Snyder, Kerouac signed on with the Forest Service to scout fires during the summer of 1956, spending 63 days drying out and wallowing in loneliness at this aerie in the clouds.
Even if you’re not on a Kerouac pilgrimage, you’ll enjoy the view from the top and feel proud of yourself for completing the grueling five-mile ascent up 4,400 vertical feet. If you’re lucky, the current fire lookout will be there to greet you and regale you with tales of life on high. Be sure to pack a few fresh snacks to hand off to this lucky public servant who has probably been living off freeze-dried “MRI” meals for weeks and might consider that beat-up banana in your pack to be the nectar of the gods. While mere civilians can’t spend the night in the lookout cabin, there is a free alpine campsite nearby for those wanting the full
Desolation Peak experience. (If you’re so inclined, ask for it when getting your other Ross Lake wilderness camping permits at Marblemount.)
While it might not have been easy getting yourself to the shores of Ross Lake (let alone hoofing it up Desolation Peak), going home will certainly feel like the hardest part of the experience. But your fond memories of your days off the grid will only have to sustain you for a year, as you’ll surely be back next summer.
- Hike or boat in
- No showers, but you have the freezing lake
- No toilets
- Campsites with fire rings, picnic tables, vault toilets and food storage lockers; some include a boat dock
- No reservations, but permits required
- Family friendly, if your kids are intrepid
If your camping fantasy features big sky views, a glass (or two) of Cabernet Sauvignon, the promise of a for-real bed come nightfall and more than a dash of hipster style, Chillville Walla Walla is your place. This one-year-old “campground,” counterintuitively located on the edge of the Walla Walla Airport, is home to three vintage Airstream campers tricked out with linens, dishware and big shade-giving trees, and a shared barbecue/party area and petanque courts. This is a good jumping off spot for hiking, biking and horseback riding, golf and winery tours, or maybe just lazy walks (it’s a half-hour walk to downtown and an even shorter saunter to the Walla Walla Winery Incubators and Burwood Brewing). Open March to November 2015, weather permitting.
Kick back outside your fully loaded Chillville trailer in Walla Walla; photo by zibby wilder
Trailers $135–$165/night. “Sweets” trailer is pet-friendly. Also two campsites are available for BYO Airstreamers. Loaner bikes available with reservations. 202.810.3460; chillvillewallawalla.com
The perfectly descriptive (if a bit shopworn) term “glamping” evokes images of dripping chandeliers suspended from safari-tent ceilings, luxurious throws draped over brass beds, and starlit nights dining alfresco. Add delicious wines to the mix, and
perhaps you have “wamping”—winery camping, the luxe-loving oenophile’s alternative.
Stretch the definition of camping in a deluxe tepee (with alfresco tubs) at Bed and Breakfast in Zillah, Washington; photo eric sines
If you like a few creatures with your comforts, you’ll love glamping at Cherry Wood Bed Breakfast and Barn, a real working farm in the heart of Washington’s wine country. Here, a luxe 22-foot tepee will be your home base for exploring the dozens of nearby Rattlesnake Hills wineries. Each tepee offers a soft queen-size bed, barbecue grill and mini fridge, water closet and open-air shower. Go wine tasting by horseback ($245/person; visits two wineries) or hop on a high-end hayride ($150/person; visits four wineries). April–October; starting at $225. Zillah, 3271 Roza Drive; 509.829.3500; cherrywoodbbandb.com
Indoorsy types will adore the canvas-sided “desert yurts” at Cave B Estate Winery & Resort in the Columbia River Gorge. These tents are anything but rustic, replete with comforts such as air conditioning, leather couches, private bath, mini fridge and a skylight for stargazing. In the vineyard—and just a short walk from the winery, spa and pool—is the ultimate camping amenity: a restaurant that serves three meals a day (no cooking required!). April–October; starting at $179/night. Quincy, 344 Silica Road NW; 509.787.8000; cavebinn.com K.R.
Stay among the vines in luxury yurts at Cave B Winery in Quincy, Washington; Courtesy of Cave B
Kid-Friendly Camping at Cape Perpetua State Park on the Oregon coast
Trade in computer screens for tide pools and giant redwoods
The best strategy when camping with kids: Pick a spot with built-in entertainment. Anything beachside will do the trick; toss in tide pools, churns and spouting horns—plus sweeping bluffs, old-growth forests and an interpretive center. Next stop: the kid-friendly wonderland of Cape Perpetua.
Quiet at low tide, the Devil’s Churn at Cape Perpetua in Oregon kicks up some serious spray when the tide comes in; photo: adam morath
Located about three miles south of Yachats, Oregon (a six-hour drive from Seattle), this small U.S. Forest Service campground is tucked along Cape Creek just before it reaches the ocean, so many of the 40 campsites are waterside (with a neighbor on either side); grab one if you can. Pitch your tent among old-growth coastal spruce. Let the kids shake off the road by putting their toes in the creek. Then head out to discover the many nearby natural attractions.
First, set off on the easy and well-marked Giant Spruce Trail, named for a massive, nearly 600-year-old Sitka spruce that stands more than 185 feet tall and measures 40 feet around. Kids will love the cool, crawl-worthy tunnel formed by the tree’s roots, which are aboveground.
Continue meandering through temperate rain forest to the excellent Cape Perpetua Visitor Center, which offers a phenomenal view of the ocean, short movies and souvenirs (an especially welcome distraction if the weather isn’t cooperating).
Pick up a trail map, then assess the whining situation: If the little ones are on the verge of a meltdown, head directly to the beach and giggle at the wigglies in the wave-pounded basalt tide pools. Search for sand dollars and glass floats, chase the waves, build a sand castle and gape up at the towering, tree-covered cliffs; Siuslaw is one of only two national forests that border the Pacific Ocean.
Back at the Visitor Center—if kid enthusiasm permits—follow one of the many trails that fan out from the Cape Perpetua trailhead. The Cape Cove Trail connects to the Trail of the Restless Waters and Devil’s Churn, where the pounding ocean explodes skyward during high tide. (Note: You can also see the churn from a viewing platform along Highway 101.)
Coax your sturdier hikers up the Saint Perpetua Trail, which offers panoramic ocean views as it ascends 700 feet to the top of Cape Perpetua. Eat your chocolate high atop the headland in a hobbit-y stone shelter, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s. From here, you can see 70 miles of coastline on a clear day.
Campground amenities are “rustic” (meaning: toilets and sinks, but no showers or electricity), but with wonders to explore on all sides and the babbling of the creek in the background, your simple site will seem plenty sweet.
Is it cheating to leave camp for coffee? We think not, especially when the killer cuppa comes from Green Salmon Coffee and Tea House (220 Hwy. 101 N; 503.547.3077; thegreensalmon.com), just a five-minute drive away in Yachats, an artsy little hamlet that makes a worthy day trip or a stop en route to the campground. Cape Perpetua Campground: About six hours from Seattle on Interstate 5 to Oregon Route 34 to the coast. May 15–Sept. 7. $22/night; one group site available at $115/night; reserve early and up to six months in advance at recreation.gov. Dogs must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times. KRISTEN RUSSELL
- Car access
- Flush toilets, no showers
- No electric hookups or water; unreliable cell phone reception
- Reservations required
- Family friendly
Old School Cabins
Jenny Cunningham reveals her favorite forest escapes
The Clackamas Lake Historic Cabin in Mount Hood National Forest; photo tyson gillard
I am admittedly not right in the head about Forest Service cabins. I have a huge crush on them. To me, they are that quintessential Northwest experience: a rustic, woodsy home nestled in ancient firs, river-rock fireplace blazing, and windows overlooking a moonlit lake or a meadow with bounding deer.
Amazingly, the Forest Service rents these cabins to the public! We have some boffo choices in our backyard, such as the two-bedroom Hamma Hamma Cabin in Olympic National Forest near Hood Canal. It’s a marvel of Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps “parkitecture”: an early example of the modern ranch house on the outside, crafted in 1936 with a breezeway and garage. On the inside, you will marvel at the warm paneling, beefy doors with swirling iron hinges and authentic handmade details.
If you like Hamma Hamma, you will swoon over Oregon’s Clackamas Lake Historic Cabin in a high meadow south of Mount Hood. Because CCC workers built this classic gabled three-bedroom house in 1933 for the boss ranger, it’s deluxe, from the massive basalt fireplace to the bathroom with a flush toilet and hot-water shower.
Most Forest Service cabins aren’t so fancy—think of the experience as deluxe camping. You need to bring sleeping bags, food, towels, flashlight, drinking water, matches. But you can drive right up to most Forest Service cabins, so pack lots of fun stuff. Booking popular cabins can take some luck and craftiness, but they’re so worth it for old-house groupies like me and for people who like to have walls between them and the bears at night.
Hamma Hamma cabin, $60/night, 6 people max, no pets and no potable water on site. Clackamas Lake cabin, $140–$160/night,
8 people max, no pets. Reservations and information at recreation.gov.
Tents for Grown-Ups
Platform tents—a skipping stone’s throw from the Methow River; easton richmond
At the Methow Tents in Mazama, getting back to nature never seemed so civilized. This summer-only campground off State Route 20—tucked into a forest grove between the Rolling Huts and the roiling Methow River—features 15 safari-style, canvas-walled platform tents smartly arranged around a communal fire pit. Each tent comes with its own cots (BYO sleeping bags or bedding), windows, screens, and front yard with a picnic table and outdoor power outlet. A repurposed grain-shipping container—with a patina of rust and no roof—houses shared bathroom facilities complete with sinks, flush toilets and even showers.
Who knew what a thrill it could be to look up and see the sky while doing your business! Just a hop, skip and a jump away on the grounds, Kelly’s Restaurant serves up hearty local organic fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a vast selection of Washington state and European wines and microbrews, and perhaps the best espresso east of Seattle—not to mention all-you-can-consume Wi-Fi, which might come in handy (given spotty cell coverage in the valley) for looking up trail reports or the start time of the rodeos (in May and September) in nearby Winthrop.
First weekend of May through second weekend of October. $60/night/fits 2–6, $5/extra cot; $25/onetime charge for pets. methowtents.com R.S.
If the only thing holding you back from the backcountry has been the lack of bathing facilities, Olympic Hot Springs might be just your kinda wilderness excursion. An easy two-and-a-half-mile hike in from the newly refurbished parking area at the end of Olympic Hot Springs Road along the Boulder Creek Trail, a half-dozen or so thermal seeps, ranging in temperature from lukewarm up to a scalding 138 degrees Fahrenheit, invite hikers to test the waters—bathing suits optional, of course.
The swimmable Crystal Crane Hot Spring in Eastern Oregon; john williams
Frequent dippers can snag a camping spot within striking distance of the hot springs; you’ll need to obtain a wilderness camping permit on the way in from Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles. And don’t forget to budget some time on the drive back down to detour onto the gravel Whiskey Bend Road and check out the overlook of the former site of the Glines Canyon dam, which was removed in 2014 as part of the Elwha River restoration project. The ferry ride across Puget Sound (Seattle-Bainbridge or Edmonds-Kingston) and then another 80-ish miles on the road (U.S. 101 north to Olympic Hot Springs Road) gets you to the trailhead for Olympic Hot Springs in about three and a half hours. Overnight campers can get wilderness camping permits ($5/group and $2/person) on the way in at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center (Port Angeles, 600 E Park Ave.; 360.565.3100; nps.gov).
Oregon’s Crystal Crane Hot Spring is best experienced at night, floating on your back and counting shooting stars. This isn’t a hot spring that you just sit in—Crystal Crane is a 101-degree pond that’s big enough for a backstroke. The grassy field that serves as the tent campground is the best deal going: $20 a night gives you access to fire pits, the hot spring, bathhouse with flush toilets, and a nifty camp kitchen with a stove, fridge, tables and coffee at 7 a.m. every morning. And then there is the high and dry eastern Oregon location one sweet remove from Seattle (nearly 500 miles): crazy remote and yet a curious crossroads where your hot spring companions may be a boisterous heavy metal band headed east and a senior citizen church group headed west. Looking for privacy? Snag a site near the fence. Reservations required. 59315 Hwy. 78, Burns, Oregon; 541.493.2312; cranehotsprings.com R.S. & J.C.
Stehekin Valley Ranch might be the deepest you can get into wild Washington without breaking a sweat.
Get out a state map.
See the long index finger of Lake Chelan pointing northwest to the tiny outpost of Stehekin? It’s accessible only by boat or float plane; a ranch bus picks you up at the shore and takes you nine miles into Courtney country: private land owned by the pioneering Courtney family surrounded by Glacier Peak Wilderness, North Cascades National Park and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
Just to give you a feeling for how wild this place is, from the bus we saw a fawn tear across the road pursued by a bear. And yet when you get to the ranch, there are plenty of creature comforts: tent cabins with real beds; nonstop food, including legendary baked goods; and, as of last summer, a cute little massage building and staff masseuse. Ask for tent cabin number 5 for a front-row seat on the pasture, where the deer and fjord horses play. Tent cabins, $100 per person/night, all food and bus transportation included. Dogs $25/night and must be accompanied at all times (bears, remember?). Chelan-to-Stehekin boat trip: Lady Express, $61 round trip/2.5 hours; Lady of the Lake, $40.50 round trip/almost 4 hours. 800.536.0745, stehekinvalleyranch.com J.C.
If getting something useful done is more your idea of a good time than lounging by the pool, a “vacation” with the Washington Trails Association (WTA) might be just the ticket. Volunteers spend their time on the eight-day backcountry trips restoring trails and doing other important work to facilitate access to some of the most resplendent wilderness destinations in the Lower 48. WTA provides all the food and logistical support for the week; volunteers bring their own camping gear and a positive attitude. Each trip costs $205 for WTA members ($245 for nonmembers) and can be reserved online at WTA’s website (wta.org). R.S.
Discovering the Lewis & Clark Trail
Charlotte Austin retraces the last 146 watery miles of the Lewis & Clark Trail in a kayak
Charlotte Austin packs dry bags full of food and gear at Beacon Rock State Park in Washington; BRYAN AULICK
I am folded into a boat that is bobbing down the Columbia River, paddling hard with the current. The muscles in my arms are tight from exertion; to my left and right are the steep rocky walls of the Columbia River Gorge. We see bored bald eagles and glistening salmon and fat curious sea lions. The sky is big and beautiful, and each twist in the river promises new adventure. We ignore our Gore-Tex gear and fiberglass boats, and tell ourselves, we are the Corps of Discovery.
My friends and I are kayaking the Columbia River from the Bonneville Dam to the Pacific Ocean. After passing through the Gorge, we will paddle through Portland and Vancouver, then turn northwest toward the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge. When we end our trip in Astoria, after six days, we will have retraced the last 146 miles of the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark expedition on a route now called the Lower Columbia River Water Trail.
Water trails are marked routes on navigable waterways (rivers, lakes, canals, coastlines) for people using small non-motorized boats (kayaks, canoes, rafts, or rowboats). In other words, they’re hiking trails—on the water. In America, the National Park System established a National Water Trails System to protect and restore the country’s rivers, shorelines and waterways—or, in the words of Chris Hathaway, deputy director of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, “…by increasing access and educating locals about opportunities for outdoor recreation on shorelines, we’re trying to make these rivers sexy.”
Photos by BRYAN AULICK
The beauty of this route is that it’s eminently customizable (and necessarily so, since there are so many variables from day to day including weather, boat type, experience and fitness): Put your boat in the water somewhere downstream of the Bonneville Dam and paddle as far as you please. Some people opt for day trips; other paddlers give reports of completing the 146-mile trail in hand-built wooden canoes. At a Thai restaurant in the town of Saint Helens, a waiter told me that his father and a golden retriever navigated the entire route on a stand-up paddleboard.
Keeping your eyes peeled for spontaneous adventure is part of the fun of any trip but along this route there are a few things to keep on your radar:
The (floating!) Puffin Cafe, which is perched on a tiny wooden deck in the Port of Camas-Washougal in Clark County, Washington. Paddle up to the dock, disembark, and order the homemade salsa sampler. Washougal, Washington, 14 S A St.; 360.355.1522; www.puffincafe.com
You’ll see Portland’s I-205 pass over McGuire Island, but the beaches are boat-access only. Look for great blue herons, build a bonfire and savor a snippet of wilderness in the city.
Photos by BRYAN AULICK
By the time you paddle into Portland, you’ll know exactly what gear you forgot to pack. Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe is the best place to pick up missing equipment, get advice from the pros and indulge in a quick humblebrag. Bonus: You can paddle directly up to the shop dock—and there’s a Taco Bell within walking distance. Portland, 200 NE Tomahawk Island Drive; 503.285.0464; aldercreek.com
There are plenty of places to camp for free, but the Vista Park Campground is nestled on a sandy dune and boasts the best view of the river. Bring quarters for a hot shower and cash for firewood, and enjoy panoramic views of the Columbia River Estuary. Skamokawa, Washington, 13 Vista Park Road; 360.795.8605; vista-park.org
When you finally paddle into Astoria, head directly to the Wet Dog Café for a burger and a local IPA from the Astoria Brewing Company, which is located next door. If you ask to be seated on the outdoor patio, you can watch locals order hamburger patties for their four-legged friends. Astoria, 144 11th St. 503.325.6975; wetdogcafe.com
Planning your trip
The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (estuarypartnership.org) maintains an interactive online map that helps paddlers find campsites (from primitive pullouts with no facilities to fully loaded RV parks) and develop a float plan. If you are new to paddling, check with your local kayak shop for safety advice, season-appropriate gear and a discussion of the tidal influence on the river’s speed.
There are two guidebooks on the market, and serious paddlers will want a copy of each: The Lewis and Clark Columbia River Water Trail: A Guide for Paddlers, Hikers, and Other Explorers by Keith Hay and Paddling the Columbia: A Guide to All 1200 Miles of Our Scenic and Historical River by John Roskelley.
In praise of Slackpacking
Kristen Russell reveals her secret for camping without the misery
If your heart yearns for high, wild adventure—but your knees yearn for ibuprofen—chances are you’ve written off backpacking as an unachievable dream. After all, hauling all the gotta-haves to the backcountry takes strength, courage, logistical genius, $2,000 worth of ultralight gear and—if you’re Cheryl Strayed—at least five toenails.
brooke pennington/getty images
But it doesn’t have to be that way. After years of car camping next to other people’s barking dogs, boom boxes and thrumming generators, my kids and I wanted to get a bit farther off the grid. It was 10 years ago, and we weren’t ready for the Pacific Crest Trail (the kids were 5 and 8), but we figured we could work something out if we were willing to forego a few (OK, most) luxuries.
Easing in by teaming up with a more experienced family (my sister’s) helped. So did dialing back a bit on expectations for comfort and cleanliness, sure. But what made all the difference—and what made the following decade of backpacking not only doable but desirable for this distinctly non-rugged family—was a method I discovered. Lazy, limping and logistically challenged people, I give you: slackpacking.
If necessity is the mother of invention, Pinot Grigio is the mother of slackpacking. It started in 2005: I was gamely loading up for what I thought was a traditional backpacking trip. I was apprehensive: How could a single mom and two little kids carry all of this gear? In a moment reminiscent of Wild, I packed the cute little miniature frame packs (beanie baby, pillow and 12-ounce plastic bottle of wine—don’t judge), then watched as my kindergartner toppled backwards in slow motion. It seemed there were going to be some very, very tough choices made about what to leave behind (not the children).
That’s when it hit me: Why haul it all in one trip? What if we carried in only what we needed for a single night, then hiked back to the car the next day for supplies? It seemed so obvious, but I hesitated to tell my sister my plan; she, her husband and two kids are hardcore outdoorsy. Which brings me to the first rule of slackpacking: Ignore any smug or condescending comments from ultrafit, die-hard backpacker friends. You won’t be seeing much of them where you’re going, anyway—you’re only hiking two or three miles at most. You’re doing it your way, and practicing the version of nature worship that works for you. Smug takes a back seat to keeping it real.
So your slackpacking adventure begins: You, your friends and kids hike in a couple of miles with all you need for a night or possibly two and set up camp. You enjoy a few amenities that wouldn’t be possible on a “normal” backpacking trip, such as a lightweight hammock, inflatable water raft or freshly cooked and frozen (not freeze-dried) meat.
After a day or two at base camp, it’s time for a “serenity hike,” which involves at least one adult taking off alone with an empty daypack for a leisurely trundle back to the car. There, your cooler is packed with fresh fruits and veggies, precooked and frozen meat, more wine. You grab trail mix, candy surprises for the kids; maybe you change into a clean shirt and socks. Then you hike back to camp, refreshed and restocked.
If you’re thinking that’s a chore, you’ve never camped with small children. There’s usually no shortage of volunteers for the serenity hike. Just be careful that you don’t accumulate too much back at camp or you’ll have to hike out in phases, too (never as much fun).
Back at your site, avert your eyes as zero-body-fat thru-hikers trek past with their towering packs; or better yet, give them a jaunty tip o’ the Chardonnay (if your arm’s not trapped in your hammock). You hold that head high: You are a mighty backpacker.
And it barely even hurt! Who’s smug now?
Sublime Slackpacking Spots
Hyas Lake, Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Central Cascades.
This flat two-mile hike leads through old forests to a pool in the middle of the Cle Elum River known as Hyas Lake. The lovely lake is primo for swimming, fishing or just standing on the shore staring up at Mount Daniel and Cathedral Rock towering above. Score one of the waterfront campsites if you can (hiking in midweek is your best bet, since these sites can’t be reserved). Plus: A premade biffy (read: primitive potty) means you can leave the shovel behind, saving precious weight. Minus: This is also a popular horse trail, which means…yeah. About two and a half hours east of Seattle. Take Interstate 90 east to exit 80. Follow State Route 903 north for 15 miles, right at fork, continue to Cle Elum Valley Road. Trail marker at 12 miles.
Sheep Lake, South Cascades, Chinook Pass. You’ll gain a bit of elevation (400 feet) on this pleasant hike along a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, but you’ll also gain glorious wildflowers in summer. The trail rings Sheep Lake at the 2.4-mile mark; here’s where you set up camp (lakeside, if you’re lucky) and start fending off the hilariously persistent gray jays (aka “camp robbers”), who will attempt to steal your food, your wallet, your first born. Next day, after the serenity hike, the hardier among you can continue along the trail for another 1.4 miles up nearly 1,000 feet to arrive at Sourdough Gap, a break in a rocky ridge that rewards you with grand views of Mount Rainier, Naches Peak and your camp below.
Plus: The views! Minus: You’ll need bug spray. The real stuff. From Enumclaw, drive east on State Route 410 for about 50 miles to Chinook Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail parking lot; take the Pacific Crest Trail. K.R.
Jenny Cunningham lets the horses (and the guides) do the heavy lifting in Washington’s Central Cascades
Have you ever felt like a pack animal hauling your gear up a mountain? Well, here’s a thought: Hire a horse and wrangler and let them do the heavy lifting.
Riders along Mad Lake in the Entiat Mountains; courtesy of icicle outfitters
Every summer and into fall, Icicle Creek Outfitters offers horse-packing trips into heavenly meadows on the sunny side of Glacier Peak, north of Leavenworth (about three hours northeast of Seattle). My posse of gal pals chose the June trail ride because it was the shortest, at two nights, and boasted the added enticement of singing cowboys.
I was nervous when I first hauled my city-slicker butt (CSB) into the saddle, but with 12 miles to cover, I got past that and into the rhythm of the trail on board an Arab mare with a sprightly rocking-horse walk. Clippity-clop, clippity-clop, aspen leaves flickering in a hot breeze, antlered deer, laughing creeks, my redheaded friend Sarah smiling on a redheaded mule—there were details traveling at the speed of a horse that you won’t find going 65 miles a hour. And horse packing doesn’t hurt like backpacking—not at first, at least.
The hardest thing about horse camping is getting off said horse, then stumbling stiffly away with your tent and sleeping bag, feeling like a really short Gumby. Yes, you have to set up your tent, because the guides are busy getting the horses bedded down. But once you’ve set up a home in the woods, the pampering begins!
While you savor cold beer, cowboys build a campfire, and the cook rustles up soul-satisfying Dutch oven dinners, such as roast beef and veggies followed by a “dump cake,” a backwoods name for a yummy berry cobbler—no freeze-dried food on this pack trip. After dinner, gather around the flames, and as the sun sets behind the piney ridge, rough wranglers serenade you with sad songs and sensitive poems about the gal who got away on their favorite pony.
The next morning your alarm is the “yip, yip, yip!” of coyotes telling you it is time for cowboy coffee and Dutch oven bacon, eggs and French toast that will fuel you for the trail. On the second day of our trip, the wranglers divided us into two groups, and my friend Elizabeth talked me into going on the more advanced “off-trail” adventure. It wasn’t as rough as it sounds. When you follow the wrangler cross-country, your horse’s hooves sink into the talcum powder sand of the Cascade Mountains’ eastside slopes, and you bounce up the mountains in a kind of soft, slow-motion moonwalk. Eventually, you reach the top, where you can see it all: rugged ranges zigzagging down through orchards to desert.
On day three, when your CSB is screaming for mercy, you’re as happy as your horse to get that first glimpse of the ranch. After the cowboys help you off your high horse, you pop a couple of aspirin and by the time you take that first delicious shower back home, you are already thinking, “Maybe next summer, my posse and I will take that longer backcountry trip to Mad Lake.”
Singing Cowboy Ride, June 19–21, $600. Four Lakes Ride, August 24–27, $800. Outfitter’s Horse Drive, October 2–4, $600.
Prices include all meals. 800.497.3912; icicleoutfitters.com
- Your horse carries the load but that doesn’t mean you won’t be sore
- No showers or toilets, but cowboys do the cooking
- Established campsites with fire rings
- Family friendly
Ohanapecosh group campground at Mount Rainier National Park; tyson gillard
The happy chaos of group camping offers multiple advantages for the lazy and the logistically impaired: 1) You can share cooking and cleaning duties with the other families, giving you that rarest of camping commodities: “me” time. 2) Kids have built-in entertainment (each other), so again, “me” time. Options for group campsites are limited and highly prized, so if you’re in the mood to mosh camp, get organized early and make a reservation. It helps if you can be somewhat flexible about dates. Here are a few local favorites.
Orcas Island, Moran State Park, Mountain Lake (site no. G1; as many as 60 people). This sunny spot with a lake view sits in a hollow all its own, with a reasonable bathroom (no shower) nearby, and doorstep access to two of San Juan Island’s greatest hiking trails: Mount Constitution (rigorous hike to the top) and Mountain Lake (easy). $142/night; reservations at 888.CAMPOUT (888.226.7688) or parks.wa.gov
San Juan Island, San Juan County Park (“hiker/biker/kayaker” site; as many as 20 people; no vehicles). Boasting incredible views of passing ships, orca whales and Vancouver Island, this campground on the west side of the island teems with people in the summer (and sells out quickly). The one big group site here comes with one big caveat: You can only use it if you arrive by foot, bicycle or kayak. Seriously! The campground is 10 miles from Friday Harbor, so consider loading up your bikes to score that gorgeous beachfront site. $10/person/night; reservations at 360.378.8420 or sanjuanco.com/parks
Ohanapecosh Group Campground, Mount Rainier National Park (12–25 people). There are two big, wooded sites at this popular, rustic (read: no shower) Mount Rainier campground: Group 1 on Loop A, and the superior (closer to the river) Group 2 on Loop C. This is your father’s car camping, with goofy-cool nightly ranger talks, squeal-worthy nightly bat feedings at the river, and magnificent old-growth and waterfall trails. $40/night; reserve up to 12 months ahead at recreation.gov. Campsites are closed until 6/24/15 for maintenance. K.R.