How to Reserve a Campsite or Backpacking Trip in Washington
The great outdoors isn't Disneyland—but that doesn't mean hiking and camping doesn't require advance planning. Popular sites across the Northwest increasingly require some form of permit to access, with limited spots often distributed via lottery. Here's how to score the perfect campsite.
Mount Rainier National Park
Two of the park's major car campgrounds—Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh—accept advance bookings for the $20-per-night individual sites. Open late May through late September, the campgrounds have traditional national park amenities (yes to evening ranger programs, no to electric RV hookups). Reservations open up six months in advance on a rolling basis, but they go fast—fortunately about half the campsites operate under a first-come, first-served model. Miss out? White River Campground's 112 sites are entirely non-reservable.
Olympic National Park
Like Rainier's camping areas, the Hoh (in the rainforest), Kalaloch (next to the beach), and Mora (in the forest near the beach) campgrounds at Olympic National Park can be booked up to six months in advance. And like their Rainier brethren, they have no RV hookups, though Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort RV Park and Campground and Log Cabin Resort RV and Campground on Lake Crescent both do.
Washington State Parks
Of our more than 150 state parks, dozens have overnight facilities ranging from rustic boat-in campsites to furnished vacation houses. Reservations open up nine months in advance, for a season that runs May 15 through September 15 for all parks, while some have extended windows (like from early spring to late fall, or even year-round). Feeling like a roll of the dice? The state parks reservation page lets you search for all campsites ($12-45 per night, plus a reservation fee) or during a specific time window, from the shores of Alta Lake State Park to the wildlife-filled wetlands of Yakima Sportsman State Park.
Mount St. Helens
While climbing permits are required for our short, cratered volcano year-round, the daily number issued is limited from April 1 to the end of October. This year, they're all released for purchase ($15, plus a $6 fee) on the first day of the preceding month—so all April spots will open up on March 1.
Maybe it's the wildflowers, or just the killer views of the Columbia River—but this Gorge hike got so popular that the Forest Service began requiring day hiker permits (free but with a $1 transaction fee) on Saturdays and Sundays from April 23 through June 12. Half become available March 1, with the remainder releasing three days before each permit date. No luck? Riders of the first-come, first-serve shuttle bus from nearby Stevenson score a permit for free.
We haven't checked with the state lottery, but a backpacking permit in the Enchantments, a series of lakes and peaks near Leavenworth, might be the most elusive prize in Washington. From May 15 through October 31, a golden ticket is required to camp overnight in the area; in 2022 only six percent of applicants to the permit lottery lucked out. Lottery applications open on February 15, with results posted around March 17 (permits $5 per person, per day). The glistening mountain tarns and otherworldly larch trees are worth the hassle—may the odds be ever in your favor.
Wallace Falls State Park
While most reservations are now secured through websites—many use Recreation.gov, while our state parks have their own system—this park off Highway 2 still issues backpacking permits the old-fashioned way: by phone at 360-793-0420. Note that the backpacking sites are lakeside, not the dramatic waterfall itself.
Mount Rainier's dramatic 93-mile loop is like a mini Pacific Crest Trail—but you don't have to take a Wild-length sabbatical to hike it. Reservations for the Wonderland (and most backcountry sites at Rainier) can be snagged through a complicated lottery system that begins February 21; winners score a window (which will be sometime between March 21 and April 19) during which they can choose from available backcountry spots ($26 per trip). Anyone who doesn't win an early-access window can join the rush to pick through the leftovers on April 25 or try for a walk-up permit.
Olympic National Park
For overnights in backcountry areas that range from the beach to the high mountains, Olympic National Park opens permit reservations six months in advance, on a rolling basis. Some backcountry sites are non-reservable, meaning permits can only be picked up the day before a trip.
North Cascades National Park
Like Mount Rainier, our northerly national park is instituting an early-access lottery for 2022; starting March 3, individuals can enter for a chance to peruse all open advance reservations and take their pick. What's not snapped up in that process will open to everyone on April 26. Only 60 percent of wilderness permits are reservable, though, meaning the rest can be secured by walking up the day of or day before a backcountry trip.