Camping is basically the official sport of Washington state; we'll brave a few bugs and a little dirt for jaw-dropping mountain views, serene forests, or beachfront sites. Finding a place to throw up your tent can be hard during sunny summer weekends, so follow our tips for securing your own plot of wilderness. Or, in winter, you can try the always-uncrowded world of snow camping. Whether you're a hardy dirtbag or a camping newbie, the great outdoors is waiting.
Mountains and Forests
Sometimes you need an escape strategy that doesn’t involve dark, twisty mountain roads. Though Denny Creek is technically located between the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-90, 50 easy freeway miles from Seattle, it’s relatively quiet and close to family-friendly trails. And there’s no shame in bailing in the middle of the night. Reserve sites in advance, since convenience means crowds.
Three mineral pools pumped full of thermal waters make Sol Duc Hot Springs the warmest overnight spot in the chilly Olympic National Park, even though little sun makes it through each site’s mossy forest canopy.
Mount Rainier’s other campgrounds book up with advance reservations, but we won’t take “full” for an answer. All 112 spots at this walk-up wonderland in Mount Rainier National Park are first come, first served, and rangers handle entertainment duties with free weekly history presentations. (Yeah, it's on a river, but it's going in the mountains category because the Rainier views are a big draw.)
With primo placement between Longmire and Paradise inside Mount Rainier National Park, there’s hardly a bad spot in the 178 heavily wooded campsites. The five group sites, especially F1, provide ample parking and privacy for crews of a dozen or more.
Mount Rainier National Park’s biggest campground boasts both old-growth forests and a dry east-of-the-peak climate, and almost every site on Loop C borders a river or creek. Try the Grove of the Patriarchs trail nearby; the name of this trail sounds like something out of an Arthurian legend. It boasts 1,000-year-old trees and a suspension bridge, and it’s flat enough for tiny tots and nonhikers.
There are way more than 30 trees here in the Teanaway Community Forest north of Cle Elum and plenty of sunshine. The community forest ownership (rather than, say, a national park) means it's a bit more anything-goes, with lots of hunters setting up their own base camps on the forest roads around the campground proper. Both woodsy and easy to reach, there are plenty of trails nearby from chill to a real workout.
If you waited until a sunny Friday to dust off your pup tent, head to the huge Heart O’ the Hills campground outside Port Angeles, inside Olympic National Park. Its 105 sites take a bit longer to fill, and the lack of a flashy lake or peak helps, too. The E Loop sites reach the farthest into the old-growth forest.
The primitive campground in Olympic National Park doesn’t have potable water, paved-road access, or RV hookups. Or, best of all, many people. A hike to abandoned homesteads and a 212-foot Douglas fir requires fording two treacherous rivers. There are only 20 sites and all are gravel; take your pick.
Call it the secret of the peninsula; the Staircase area on the southeast corner of the Olympic National Park offers relatively quiet access to the thick forests for which the park is known. Located more inland than Lake Cushman, it's usually less of a party scene than the lake.
Deep in north-central Washington, 5.5 hours from Seattle, Curlew Lake feeds both the human anglers and the bald eagles and osprey that crave fresh trout from its waters. Nearby and overseen by the bigger park is Ranald MacDonald’s gravesite—but don’t mistake him for the scary clown hawking Big Macs. MacDonald was a nineteenth-century half-Native American man from Astoria, grandson of a great chief, who sailed the world before tricking his way into Imperial Japan. He taught English and befriended locals years before the closed country opened to Westerners. Today his grave is marked with a sign dubbing it the “smallest state park in Washington.”
Lakes and Rivers
All summer, local guides lead horseback rides out of the park just east of the Cascades; views from the horseback trail reach from a green carpet of forest around the lakeshore to a sharp wall of mountains behind it. Lake Wenatchee’s activity options outnumber the hours in a weekend; besides the horses there are boat launches and snacks at the park store, a golf course just outside the park boundary, and bike trails through the surrounding mountains. Kayaks line the beach, ready for rental.
Crowds nearly clog the river at Salmon La Sac near Cle Elum throughout summer. But just a few miles beyond the masses, Owhi Campground boasts 22 walk-in tent sites—all the convenience of car camping without having to look at the back of your 4Runner. Every site is on quiet Cooper Lake, warm enough for a brisk swim and angled toward a killer mountain panorama.
Campgrounds mean firepits and picnic tables, sometimes even flush toilets and RV hookups. Dispersed camping means anything outside a campground, which is allowed on forest service land but not in national parks. The proper campgrounds along the Mountain Loop Highway east of Granite Falls fill quickly, but clear patches along the road make an ideal first step into eating off a log and—gasp—using nature when nature calls. Many have handmade fire circles, but fire bans may apply. Look for clear spots in the trees and set up camp at least 100 feet from the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
It’s not just that this hundred-year-old state park in the San Juan Islands offers campers a lake. It’s that it has one with paddleboard, paddleboat, kayak, and canoe rentals, plus Lopez Creamery ice cream for sale across the street from woodsy campsites. Orcas Island’s view-riffic Mount Constitution (with a new visitor center) just up the road is a mere bonus.
As the only overnight option in the heart of North Cascade National Park, location is reason enough to love Colonial Creek. Even better: The relatively secluded site enjoys more than world-class views; rangers present regular history programs, and Diablo Lake boat tours begin just down the road—find out how Monkey Island got its name (yep, real monkeys).
Of the Olympic National Park’s many campgrounds, Kalaloch is the only one to take reservations, though waterfront erosion has erased some coveted bluff sites. Spot D29 is, according to the Kalaloch Visitor Center, “the hottest site. Everyone wants it.” Besides a killer ocean view, it's got an easy-to-back-into parking spot.
It’s okay to be bored by trees. Coastal Fort Flagler, on an island just east of Port Townsend, blends the nature stuff with nineteenth-century artillery batteries, now overgrown relics perfect for exploring. Two campgrounds, one on the lower beach and another in the upper forest, have 61 tent sites and 55 RV spots, and history experts lead weekend tours of gun emplacements and a 1905 military hospital. No army ever invaded Puget Sound, but you can’t say we weren’t ready.
Thank the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal work relief program in the 1930s, for many of the trails, fire lookouts, and beautiful stone lodges in the nation’s parks. Thank Whidbey’s Deception Pass for its stunning CCC-built bridge, quaint CCC museum, and rentable Ben Ure Cabin ($91), which sits on its own island. Ideal for when you want beaches, but forests and a splash of history too.
Sporty Scenic Beach outside Bremerton features two volleyball courts and horseshoe pits, plus a dog-friendly beach and shellfish harvesting grounds when populations are healthy. Paved trails through a scenic rhododendron garden offer wide accessibility.
Okay, technically the campground here is on an inland lake within Olympic National Park, though it has only 15 sites; some private campsites sit just outside the park boundary. But the beach, a three-mile hike away, is among the Olympic coast's most beautiful. A 300-year-old indigenous village was unearthed under a mudslide, and many of the artifacts sit in a museum in the Makah Reservation to the north. Overnights on the beach are allowed with a permit from the national park, but are limited.
It can be terrifying to wander far from the cozy embrace of the family minivan. What if you need its shelter? Its heated seats? The headlamp you forgot between backseat cushions? Placid Barclay Lake, just 2.2 fairly flat miles up from a trailhead near Highway 2, is just far enough from civilization to count as a backpacking trip but close enough to make beer runs. Somewhat remote lakeside sites with the appetite for bigger adventures.
It’s 14 miles round trip to this breathtaking alpine meadow near Longmire, so an overnight stay at Pyramid Creek or Devil’s Dream Backcountry Camp is recommended. A nineteenth-century Native American guide once hunted goats here, but he’s best remembered for the rumors that swarm his memory—some say he once killed a medicine man and cached stolen Spanish gold on the mountain.
The backcountry sites here are the park’s most popular, and not only because they sit between the charmingly named Fryingpan Glacier and Panhandle Gap just east of Rainier. A riverside ramble and a steep uphill slog lead to a stone shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934; the six campsites are just beyond.
When Seattle feels like an average day inside a pizza oven, Shi Shi Beach on the Pacific coast is blessedly chilled by the wind off the ocean, plus it’s the best sunset theater in the world. Headlands bookend the Olympic National Park beach, a popular backpacking destination, and even on crowded summer weekends there’s room for dozens of tents along the bleached driftwood perimeter. Head south past Point of the Arches for fewer crowds and more tide pools. Don't forget an overnight permit and a bear canister rental at the Port Angeles Wilderness Information Center; since access is through the Makah Reservation, closures may apply.
In 2005 an acoustic ecologist claimed that the quietest square inch in the world was in the Olympic National Park forest near the Hoh River Trail, but that’s only when backpackers don’t settle on the hike-in sites that overlook the rocky Hoh River. If the few official clearings every few miles fill up—at some the guests are gear-hauling lamas and mules—the gravel bar on the river itself is up for grabs.
Claim It: Most sites in the first 10 miles of the flat trail are first-come, first-served, but overnighters need a permit from the trailhead visitor station.
The tiny finger of land that pokes into the Columbia River just north of I-90 includes a campground managed by the county. The 55 newly remodeled sites boast ample distance, clearly designed by someone who doesn’t like bumping slide outs with the neighbors. A golf course takes up much of the rest of the peninsula, though swimmers may prefer the Thousand Trails campground just inland, home to a pool and hot tub.
The term “rock” undersells the enormity of the basalt butte that rises out of Banks Lake in the middle of Grand Coulee. Boaters flock to the sizable campground—with 136 full hookup sites with water—that can handle some longer RVs. Trails trace Northrup Canyon across the highway, and the towering Grand Coulee Dam and its summertime laser light show is a short drive north.
Rimrock Lake makes a case that we should appreciate the southern half of Washington’s Cascades for more than volcanoes like Rainier. The six-mile lake west of Yakima doesn’t look man-made, though it was created by damming the Tieton River. Plentiful kokanee salmon make for good fishing, and Silver Beach Resort boasts its own swimming spot and boat launch. Waterfront sites, all non-hookup, make a case for going unplugged.
As at Maryhill State Park, the rolling Columbia serves as this private campground’s main attraction, albeit with a bit more shade (some peach trees remain from its orchard days) and a private swimming lagoon. More than two dozen sites abut the river. Stars and even the Milky Way pop in the night sky in these parts—thanks to a dearth of city lights—particularly a few miles up Highway 97, near the newly refurbished and public Goldendale Observatory.
Prime waterfront spots on the Pacific coast remain elusive, even with Washington’s ample shoreline. More than a dozen pull-ins face the wide sandstrip south of Westport, with dozens more a short ramble from the waves. Surfers flock to the break, and constant winds keep kites aloft year-round.
Find more of our favorite Washington RV campgrounds here.