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Plan Now, Camp Later: Reserve Early for the Best Northwest Campsites

by Lauren Braden

in Camping and Outdoors

Skip the last-minute scramble before your summer camping trip by reserving your Washington state yurt or tent site early. Get more free advice on Northwest camping by subscribing here – it’s free.

Plan Now, Camp Later: Great Northwest campsites that need reservations, and ones that don't.

Remember the spontaneous camping trip? You’d wake up, have a yearning for fresh mountain air, pack the gear into the trunk and just go. The problem is, if you attempt that on a summer Saturday nowadays you might be going a lot further than you’d planned, stopping to check each and every campground for miles to find a vacant site. The era of spontaneous weekend camping is truly bygone.

Car camping has exploded in popularity in the Pacific Northwest, particularly among families eager to get their kids outdoors and folks looking to save some money on vacations. From nearly all perspectives, this is a wonderful thing. But it does mean if you want a prime riverfront site or a cozy yurt in August, reservations are your friend.

The reservation systems can be a bit bewildering. Reservations aren’t accepted for every campground—while most state park campgrounds accept advanced reservations, most national park campgrounds do not. Land management agencies vary in which reservation system they use, the camping fees charged, and how far in advance you can book a campsite.

The tips below will help you navigate this process on Washington state public lands with ease. It’s well worth the trouble to plan your summer camping trips now, and come that sunny weekend in August you can be rest assured you have a site to camp in. We’ve also included a few suggestions for great campgrounds that don’t accept reservations, but often have availability if you arrive by noon on a Friday.

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Washington State Parks Campgrounds

Cama Beach State Park CabinsFor family camping getaways, you can’t beat our Washington State Parks. More than 60 state parks have camping facilities, and they range from prime waterfront views at Lake Chelan to the 19th-century historic military compound of Fort Flagler. Close proximity to urban areas is a big draw of state parks, as well as other amenities particularly attractive to families, like short, maintained hiking trails and coin-op showers. Camping fees range from $12 (very primitive) to $36+ (for full RV utility hookups). Standard tent sites are $22-$25. Note: You don’t need a day-use Washington State Discover Pass to camp or rent a cabin/yurt.

For folks who prefer a roof over their heads, several state parks rent cabins, yurts and platform tents as rustic camping alternatives. Most of these are available to rent and reserve year-round. Yurts and cabins have simple and comfortable furnishings and also have electricity and heat. Rental fees range from $49-$82.

HOW to Reserve: Reserve state park campsites, cabins or yurts online (a $6.50 reservation fee is added to the total cost of your stay) or on the phone at 1-(888)-CAMPOUT (an $8.50 reservation fee is added). You can view photos of most campsites before selecting the one you want. Note that a $5 fee will be added for reservations made by non-residents of Washington state. All of these reservation fees are non-refundable.

WHEN to Reserve: Most Washington State Park campsites and rustic dwellings are reservable up to nine months in advance. Summer weekends may fill many months ahead. Prime waterfront campsites, yurts and cabins go early, so reserve as far in advance as possible.

No reservations? A handful of Washington State Parks are always first-come, first-served, including Beacon Rock, Bogachiel and Lewis and Clark.

Top Campground Picks for Families

Lake Chelan State Park by Josh BateLake Chelan State Park, North Cascades. A summer vacation on Lake Chelan is a must-do for many Washington families, and Lake Chelan State Park is pretty much the epicenter of all that family fun. In other words, make your campground reservations early. Or alternatively, visit this park in the spring (it’s one of the earliest spots to melt out in the North Cascades). The park comprises 127-acres on the ponderosa pine-forested south shore of Lake Chelan, including 6,000 feet of public shoreline. Many of the campsites have lakeside views, and kids will love the expansive lawns for play. 

Penrose Point State Park, Puget Sound / Key Peninsula. A bit off of the beaten path, Penrose Point is adored by families for shady campsites, a waterfront picnic area and a shallow swimming beach. Its long sand spit offers lots of exploring for the kiddos.

Cama Beach State Park Cabins. The most popular cabin rentals in the state park system, these restored historic fishing cabins are neatly strewn along the shoreline of Camano Island. They book out well in advance for summer weekends, but don’t despair–you’ll still have a good shot at mid-week dates this summer or fall weekends. Choose from their 24 standard cabins ($49-$74, shared bathroom/shower in a separate building) or 7 deluxe cabins ($71-$98, these are slightly larger and include a bathroom). Cabin amenities include electric heat and lights, refrigerator, microwave and sink. Guests should take along their own bedding, pillows, towels, cookware, dishes and utensils. Reservations for these cabins cannot be made online; call the park reservation line at (360) 387-1550.

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National Parks Campgrounds

Ohanapecosh CampgroundNational park campgrounds are scenic, well-maintained, and have nature trails nearby. Some even offer family nature programming.  For advanced planners, however, they are less attractive because few campgrounds accept reservations. Book a site at one of the few that do, or take your chances with the masses on busy weekends.

In Washington, only Mount Rainier National Park has campgrounds on the reservation system. During busy summer months, Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock accept reservations for about half of their campsites up to six months in advance and at least four days ahead of arrival. The remainder of their sites are always first-come, first-served. Reserve sites at Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh campgrounds by visiting the Recreation.gov or call 1-(877) 444-6777. Camping fees are $12-$15 per night. Mount Rainier’s other campgrounds, White River and Mowich Lake, are always first-come, first-served. None of the campgrounds at North Cascades National Park and Olympic National Park accept reservations, so an early Friday arrival on summer weekends is strongly encouraged if you want to snag a site.

Top Campground Picks for Families

Colonial Creek CampgroundColonial Creek Campground, North Cascades National Park. This awesome campground doesn’t accept reservations, so arrive before noon on a Friday for the best chance at getting a spot for the weekend. Camp along the shores of blue-green Diablo Lake under the looming, glaciated crags of nearby peaks. Several trails leave right from the campground, including a kid-friendly stroll along Thunder Creek. Interpretive staff are on hand for family programming in the evenings.

Ohanapecosh Campground, Mount Rainier National Park. Kids love the magical old-growth forest and the wild river that runs right through the middle of the campground. Hike the little half-mile nature loop trail from the campground through enormous Douglas firs and hemlocks to the bubbling waters of the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs. This campground is huge with several loops, 188 sites in all, and all single sites are $15 a night. About half the sites can be reserved in advance here.

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National Forest Campgrounds

National forests campgrounds are the most numerous type of camping available throughout Washington state, and the least likely to need reservations far in advance. These campgrounds vary greatly in whether they accept advanced reservations, how much a campsite costs per night, and amenities offered—some are quite primitive.

National Forests with campgrounds that accept reservations include Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and some areas of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (for instance the popular Cle Elum / Salmon La Sac region and the Icicle Creek region near Leavenworth). To reserve a campsite in one of these forests, visit recreation.gov. You will need to create a free member account to make a reservation. There is no separate reservation fee, just the cost of the campsite per night. Most campgrounds allow reservations up to 6 months in advance.

Campgrounds in the Olympic, Umatilla and Colville National Forests are always first-come, first-served.

Top Campground Picks for Families

Takhlakh Lake Campground, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Mount Adams. The first thing you’ll want to know is how to pronounce it: TOCK-lock. Next, you’ll want to know that Mt. Adams will loom so closely above your lakefront campsite that you’ll want to reach out and touch it. Bring mosquito repellent (crucial in early summer) and your trout fishing pole. Vault toilets are available, but bring your own drinking water or a filter.  Reserve here.

Nason Creek Campground, Lake Wenatchee. Skip the crowds camping on top of each other at Lake Wenatchee State Park and opt for this nearby national forest campground, complete with flush toilets and potable water. You can walk from here to Lake Wenatchee State Park if you want a shower, canoe rental, horseback ride or ice cream cone. The sites are big, most are right on the creek and feel very secluded. No reservations – these sites are first-come, first-served.

 

This article was adapted from Camping Planner: Book Now to Get the Best Washington State Campsites This Summer which first appeared on ParentMap.com.

 

Camping Washington by Ron Judd published by The Mountaineers BooksCamping Washington: The Best Public Campgrounds for Tents and RVs (Mountaineers Books) by Ron C. Judd

We’ve always enjoyed Ron Judd’s unique writing style, and it shines in this thorough and humorous guide to Washington’s public campgrounds, from state parks to national forests. Judd’s guide takes the guesswork out of finding a suitable site with a campsite rating system, icons for tents and RVs, quick-reference maps, clear driving directions, and reservation information. And although Ron is an avid RV’er and we are tent campers (with Airstream aspirations), this guide is totally great for tent sites, too. With more than 500 public campgrounds to choose from, this guide provides campers with enough options (and witty one-liners) to satisfy for years to come. Highly recommended. Buy it.

 

Pacific Northwest Camping by Tom StienstraMoon Pacific Northwest Camping: The Complete Guide to Tent and RV Camping in Washington and Oregon (Moon Outdoors) by Tom Stienstra

If all you want is a comprehensive guide to every campground in the Pacific Northwest with little fanfare, this delivers the basics. Each campground listing has a short description and all the basic info you need about potable water, hookups and all that. It includes listings for private campgrounds (like KOA) which we don’t typically use. The book starts with about 75 pages of good ‘ol basic camping information, from how to light a stove to camping lightly on the land, making this an especially good choice for a novice camper. There are easy-to-follow maps with driving directions to each campground. Buy it.

 

Photos: Family vacation by librarygroover, Lake Chelan State Park campsite by Josh Bate, Ohanapecosh campsite by djwudi. Child camping by The Real JonesNow.
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