Glaciers melt on the sides of Mount Rainier, and minutes later the milky water is running past White River Campground on the Sunrise side of the national park. Car camping at the 112-site campground is of the classic sort; kids gather to scramble over fallen trees and try in vain to dam the milky river with rocks, and rangers lead nighttime talks about tree rings and nurse logs. Loop C has a well-preserved 1920s patrol cabin, while Loop D has the campsite equivalent of a penthouse suite: sites directly on the White River. Hiking trails spiderweb from the campground into the park, including the epic 93-mile Wonderland Trail.
Everyone car camps in his or her own way. Some bring dogs, some bring bicycles. In one campsite it’s cold mac and cheese for dinner, while at the next they’re braising short ribs in a Dutch oven. Once night falls, the entire campground is clouded with wood smoke and the steady murmur of campfire chatter until, long after dark, the woods wind down with the growl of tent zippers and the hiss of water over the last embers.
Sunrise Rd, 5 miles from SR 410, Mount Rainier National Park, 360-569-6575; nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/camping.htm, $12
Johnny Creek: Icicle Road outside Leavenworth has more than half a dozen campgrounds, but this one boasts creekfront spots; try Ida Creek Campground for a second chance at a waterfront site if it’s full. Icicle Rd, 12.5 miles from Hwy 12, 509-548-2550; fs.usda.gov, $16–$19
Colonial Creek: The North Cascades are remote, but this campground is only a few miles from topaz-hued Ross Lake and the engineering-geek tours of the Seattle City Light dam. Sites in the south loop are on the shores of Diablo Lake. North Cascades Hwy, 25 miles from Marblemount, 360-854-7200; nps.gov/noca, $12
Hunters: Some 27 car campgrounds dot the shores of Eastern Washington’s multiarmed Lake Roosevelt, but Hunters has an ideal location just inside ponderosa pine country and just north of the dusty desert, Fort Spokane, and Grand Coulee Dam. 5168 Hunters Campground Rd, Hunters, 509-754-7893; nps.gov/laro, $5–$10
Next: Beach Camping
You can’t always see the ocean at Kalaloch Campground;
sometimes you’re behind the brush that lines the dunes, or sometimes the sun has set. But you can always hear the crash and swish of the Pacific waves and you can always smell the tang of salty sea mud. Oceanfront camping in Washington means long walks on sand, not trails, and nighttime campfires built not just for s’mores but to battle the bracing chill.
At Kalaloch the Olympic National Park follows a thin strip of land where most campsites are tucked under stick-straight Douglas firs. The luckiest campers pitch tents right where the sand begins, under shorter trees tangled and tilted from the wind. The Quinault name (pronounce it “CLAY-lock”) means “a good place to land,” and given the wrenching riptides and floating driftwood in the ocean, the sandy beach is indeed a good place to stay.
34 miles south of Forks on Hwy 101, 360-565-3132; recreation.gov, $14–$18
Sand Spots: Where to stay
Hobuck Beach Resort Pitch a tent in an empty field (no fire pits or picnic tables) just west of Neah Bay and south of Cape Flattery. The shared encampment is mere feet from a crescent of sand, some of the most remote car-accessible beach in the state. 2726 Makah Passage, Neah Bay, 360-645-3784; hobuckbeachresort.com, $20
Spencer Spit State Park There’s limited privacy in the seven walk-in sites on the Lopez Island sand spit, but only because they have uninterrupted views down to the beach. Head slightly inland for brushy drive-in sites and waterward for crabbing. 521A Bakerview Rd, Lopez Island, 888-226-7688; parks.wa.gov/687/spencer-spit, $20–$27
Pacific Beach State Park: This is certainly no wilderness: RVs crowd the small campground north of Ocean Shores. But many sites back up to the sand, and nearby restaurants offer a dinner upgrade. 49 Second St, Pacific Beach, 888-226-7688; parks.wa.gov/557/pacific-beach, $17–$31
Next: Boat Camping
It’s said that the two best days of boat ownership are the day you buy it and the day you sell it. In between are some pretty great days too, like ones spent basking in Central Washington sun on Banks Lake. Steamboat Rock State Park is named for the mesa-shaped basalt butte that dominates the skyline, and the park boasts seven ramps and 320 feet of dock space. Once the summer sun bakes the desert landscape, water recreation is practically mandatory.
The stunning geology around Banks Lake is thanks to the Ice Age destruction wrought by the Columbia River, and now on the horizon there’s little vegetation beyond dry grasses and sagebrush. Under the placid lake surface it’s much livelier—fishermen pull bass, perch, trout, walleye, kokanee, and more from the water. The three clusters of lakeside campsites include 12 boat-in-only sites. Even the boatless get their cool-down thanks to a sandy swimming beach on the south side of Steamboat Rock. 51052 SR 155, Electric City, 888-226-7688; $12–$42
Boat Bases: Where to go
Blake Island: There are only two ways to the fabled island birthplace of Chief Seattle: via an Argosy cruise from downtown ($40) or personal watercraft. Human-powered boats (canoes, kayaks) can land on remote water-trail sites; hiking trails cross the 475-acre island to power boat docks at Tillicum Village and the ruins of the old Trimble Estate. 360-731-8330, $12–$31
Boundary Dam: Seattle City Light operates a free campground at the forebay, or reservoir, of a dam in the state’s northeastern Pend Oreille region— the concrete behemoth produces half of Seattle’s power. Only boaters can reach waterfalls that tumble down the waterway’s cliffs. Country Rd 62, 11.5 miles from SR 31, Metaline, 509-446-3083; seattle.gov/light/tours/boundary
Glacier View: RVs aren’t allowed on this small, lightly used campground at the end of the road on Lake Wenatchee’s south shore. Almost half the 23 sites are walk-ins directly on the lake, and a small-boat launch invites fishing, waterskiing, and cruising. Cedar Brae Rd, 5.2 miles from SR 207, 509-664-9200; fs.usda.gov, $15
The portmanteau glamping—like brunch or Labradoodle—is a tantalizing combo of two already-great things. At San Juan Island’s Lakedale Resort, the sum of glamour and camping is even better than the parts. The 16 canvas cabins have real beds with pillow-top mattresses and wood floors; one even has a shower, chandelier, and electricity.
A small lake separates the woodsy campground from Lakedale’s lodge, but the glamour doesn’t end where the camping begins. Pancake breakfasts, cooking demos, tie-dye parties—and sure the general store sells fishing bait, but also espresso and high-end wine. You won’t miss the deprivation-fueled satisfaction of regular camping once you’ve indulged in turndown service with hot water bottles tucked into the bed. You’ll never sleep in a pup tent again. 4313 Roche Harbor Rd, Friday Harbor, 360-378-2350; lakedale.com, $189–$289
Pampered Wilderness: The six canvas tents erected in the Olympia-area Millersylvania State Park are stocked with vanity tables, microwaves, and memory-foam mattresses—but just outside are state-park bathroom facilities and the buzz of a 168-site campground. Tall old-growth cedar and Douglas fir trees help the outside seem as regal as the interiors. 12245 Tilley Rd S, Olympia; pamperedwilderness.com, $145
Bull Hill Guest Ranch: Billed “as glampy as glamping gets,” two tents holding two queen beds each overlooking the barns and fence posts of a working cattle ranch. In-tent massages after a horseback ride dispel the entire concept of roughing it. 3738 Bull Hill Rd, Kettle Falls, 877-285-5445; bullhill.com, $215
Turkey Ridge Ranch: Living is easy from the shaded porches of the Spokane-area ranch tents. The ranch is home to llamas, alpacas, goats, dogs, a donkey—and a creature that’s half llama, half alpaca. A llampaca? 43054 Miles Creston Rd, North Davenport, 509-725-0830; turkey-ridge-ranch.com, $135–$200
Want to sleep in the Enchantments, a mountaintop fairlyland outside Leavenworth, between otherworldly rock formations and electric-orange larch trees? Get in line. Or, rather, get a permit, distributed by lottery by the Forest Service in late winter. Before the system was implemented, the Enchantments were crowded with raucous campers blaring boom boxes (it was a long time ago); the careful control has mellowed the clusters of backcountry sites.
For all the velvet-rope shenanigans, this gem of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is the quintessential backpack trip, a 19-mile parade of the Northwest’s greatest hits. Letting go of the outside world is easy—nay, necessary—on the lung-busting ascent of Aasgard Pass, an ominous slope that could double as a Lord of the Rings set. It’s a gateway to the Enchantment Basin, a plateau of tiny lakes under jagged mountains, all enchantingly named: Gnome Tarn, Sprite Lake, Dragontail Peak. The hike back down passes rocky slopes where mountain goats search for errant human food, then winds through sun-dappled forests. The spell finally breaks at a trailhead on Icicle Road. Stuart Lake Trailhead, 5 miles on Forest Rd 7601 from Icicle Rd, Leavenworth, fs.usda.gov/detail/okawen
Wilderness ways: where to go
Enchanted Valley: Olympic National Park’s version of enchantment is a valley ringed in waterfalls. It’s 13 miles up the East Fork of the Quinault River in a region claimed by bears and elk, and a three-story chalet sits in the valley floor, though usually boarded up for an extra dose of mystique. Graves Creek Trailhead, 20 miles east of Hwy 101 and S Shore Rd, nps.gov/olym
Indian Henry's Hunting Ground: Mount Rainier's signature wildflower meadows aren't only around visitor-clogged Paradise; a more private version sits near Devil's Dream and Pyramid Creek backcountry camps on the mountain's southwestern shoulder. The area's named for a legendary guide who hunted goats and possibly buried stolen Spanish gold in the verdant fields (but probably didn't). Longmire, 6 miles from Mount Rainier National Park Nisqually Entrance, nps.gov/mora
Salmo-Priest Loop: Cross into Idaho and (carefully, quickly) Canada in the very northeastern corner of the state, passing an old cabin, a lookout, and the South Salmo River in a 18-mile loop. It’s a favorite of hiking nonprofit Washington Trails Association, so the route’s been well maintained in recent years. Forest Rd 2022000, 13.4 miles from Forest Rd 22, Metaline Falls, 509-684-7000; fs.usda.gov/recarea/colville