This website is intended as an adjunct to the paperback book 'Camp Every County, Washington' by Brendan J. McDonald, available on Amazon.com. Included on this website are photographs and texts which could not be included in the paperback edition, where you will find full narrative versions of each section found below.
Prologue and Challenge to Camp Every County Washington
Many say there are two Washingtons: Eastern and Western. In reality, there are 39 Washingtons - one for every county
Ever notice how most people have one or two favorite campgrounds to which they return year after year, never trying anything new? My three "campanions" and I found ourselves camping on alternate weekends at Manchester S.P. and Scenic Beach S.P. on opposite sides of Kitsap County. Month after month. Year after year. We saw mountains, saltwater, and even our native wild rhododendrons. That was the Washington we knew. We also knew there had to be much more. But I hated traveling far from home since I still worked full time. Gary had a genuine rattlesnake phobia, and it took considerable prodding to get him to camp in Eastern Washington. Tom hated crowds and would camp in only the most private of campsites. And John. Well, John hated just about everything (a South Boston thing).
So we decided to expand our horizons. We bought just about every camping handbook on the market, but rarely found satisfaction. They told us nothing of the experience of camping at these places. We learned how many campsites each campground contained, how much they cost, when they were open, how to get there... but what about the experience of camping? How did it make the camper FEEL? What effect did it have on the camper? Did they have the same briny air that we found at Scenic Beach? The remarkably clear view of Mt. Rainer we found at Manchester? What did the forests smell like? How about the sunsets, if they existed at all? But we got none of that.
So the four of us abandoned the camping manuals and set out on a journey over the next five years, eager to discover if the rest of Washington was as beautiful as the one we knew. First we chose some popular campgrounds far from central Puget Sound -- Steamboat Rock S.P., Mary Hill S.P., and Rasar S.P. Then we explored those less known -- Indian Creek CG, Battle Ground Lake S.P., and Takhlakh Lake CG. We were hooked, and soon found ourselves printing out black and white maps of Washington with just the counties outlined, coloring in the "camped counties," and setting out to find campgrounds in the unexplored counties. We finally camped in county #39 (Garfield County) in the summer of 2017, discovering surprising camping gems along the Snake River and deep in the Umatilla Mountains. We ate mushrooms near Randle, swam in the cool lakes of the Grand Coulee, chased away bears at Spring Canyon, immersed ourselves in ghost towns in the Okanogan, and discovered with awe why remote Palouse Falls was named Washington's Official State Waterfall. Looking back, this 4-year journey became the adventure of a lifetime, one which we hope to capture in this camping manual.
Our Core Crew: John, Tom, my dog Bocachica (looking through the tent window), Gary, and Brendan
Take our advice: Step out of your camping box, your comfort zone or, if you will, your rut. We have a great highway system that can get us anywhere in the state within an 8-hour drive. Those favorite campgrounds will still be there when you get back and, more likely, you will have fresh, new adventures that will make you appreciate your old faves even more. Let new parks work their magic on you. Think of them as an adventure, a treasure hunt, or like Lewis and Clark's "Corps of Discovery."
This is our challenge to campers and map readers like ourselves: get out your maps, pack up your gear, and set out to go camping in all 39 Washington counties.
The State of Washington is a world unto itself, with many distinct regions, habitats, climates, and histories. The million-acre Olympic National Park dominates the northwest corner, with its remote rocky beaches, rain forests, alpine lakes, and picturesque mountains. To the southwest, the North Head lighthouse marks not only the mouth of the mighty Columbia, but also the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail. The Trail then retreats back along the Columbia Gorge, joined by the Snake River flowing to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. In the middle of the state are such natural wonders as the Grand Coulee region, Lake Chelan, Lake Roosevelt, and the Cascade Mountains. In the northeast, mining towns, Indian lands, and spectacular rivers exceed the expectations of visitors. Travelers find that each of these regions is entirely different from the others. In short, one cannot say they have seen the “real Washington” until they have explored every region of the State.
And yet, campers are complex as well. One camper may view well-manicured lawns and concrete parking pads as camping nirvana, while others may view that as fresh hell. Some campers value primal nature in its purest form as home at last, while others may find it vulgar and off-putting. Some haul large RVs for comfort and protection, while others choose to sleep under the stars. Others view camping as an opportunity to relax, unwind and re-connect with solitude, while others use it as a platform to bike, hike, and boat themselves into total exhilaration and exhaustion. Regardless of who deserves the Most Authentic Camper trophy, it would be a shame to drive 300 miles to an unsuitable campground, one that campers would not have chosen had they known more. For this reason, we have chosen only the best campgrounds in each county, and specified the fundamentals that most impacted our camping experience. Furthermore, we have divided the campgrounds into 10 categories that we think will include the widest variety of campers.
- Most Appealing Campgrounds to the Senses
Ah yes. Taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound. We all learned those five words in elementary school, until we were mercilessly coerced to think, analyze, then over think, memorize, and be tested until our senses became a distant memory. And so we end up disconnected from nature, torn asunder from our primal selves, and wondering what happened to that inner child that made us so carefree and willing to play. Get yourselves back to the forest. Pick some mushrooms, add them to your campfire stew, and taste the flavors of nature. Wake up to that dissipating mist on your faces that calls in the new day. Hear the rush of the streams, the gentle breeze stroking the leaves of the cottonwoods, and the birds calling each other into action. Smell the wood burning on the campfire, the menthol balm of the cedar trees, and the salt air of the Pacific. See waterfalls that seem too much like a post card to possibly be real. Welcome home campers! Nature is calling!
- Most Uniquely Washington Campgrounds
Washington is not California. Or Hawaii. Or Florida. And I say hallelujah to that. No, Washington is utterly unique unto itself. If you don't instantly know you are in Washington, you have wandered into the cookie cutter world of generic campgrounds that have succeeded in dulling your senses and disconnected you from nature. Run, don't walk, and choose one of the campgrounds in this manual. They are chosen to show you the best of the magic of Washington State, to let you experience it from the ground up, and to rediscover that inner you that has long forgotten what it feels like to be part of this wonderful land.
- Best Campgrounds for Entire Families
This category could equally be called "Most Everybody-Oriented Campgrounds." Certainly, children have certain needs that adults may not. Who doesn't enjoy watching a content child connect with nature? That speaks of real camping. What is not so real, and what the term "family-oriented" often means, is campgrounds dominated by a series of complex playgrounds, swimming pools, and ice cream stands similar to those at home. If that's all there is, why not just stay home? No, every good campground should be suitable for children and adults alike. The entire family should be equally engaged in the experience, and not simply adults babysitting the children. It should be a new experience for everyone, and everyone will be happier in the end.
- Best Equipped Campgrounds
There is no denying that trailers, RVs, 5th Wheels, and camping vans have had a huge impact on camping. Even those who still stick to basic tent camping sometimes like access to electricity to recharge cell phones, plumbed bathrooms, running water, and even covered shelters. Some may prefer camp hosts for safety. Boaters prefer boat launches, and swimmers prefer designated swimming areas. And a picnic table or fire grill is always a nice touch, and can only add to the camping experience. Just as all campgrounds are not the same, neither are all campers. It's only natural!
- Best Group Campgrounds
The best experiences of our camping lives have been in group campgrounds with anywhere from 12 to 100 people. The game changes entirely. You can organize activities, play games you haven't played since the "Red Rover" days of your childhood, build crude log cabins out of the fallen limbs of trees, erect natural showers on the tops old growth stumps, and even have contests of one sort or another. Anything is possible!
- Best FREE Campgrounds
Yes, money changes everything, even when it comes to camping. Free campgrounds are not just for the budget-minded. No, they tend to draw a different type of camper -- those who come with their hand-crafted camping gear, those who are happy to leave their mobile devices behind, those who provide music via guitars or recorders, and those who prefer to live more deliberately. Pull into Margaret McKinney CG in the Capital Forest and watch the children running with giddy abandon on the grassy loop, coupled by their parents throwing Nerf footballs. Or camp at Big Meadow Lake in northeastern Washington and climb the old fire tower to watch moose munching on water plants. Or buzz down to the stark Ayers Boat Basin just off the Snake River surrounded by mesas and rock cliffs. Priceless!
- Best Rustic Campgrounds
Just as FREE is not necessarily rustic, the best rustic campgrounds may charge a modest fee. The emphasis here is natural, untouched, and unmanicured. Wanna gather your own firewood? Dip your own water from a pristine stream? Eat when your are hungry and sleep when you are tired? If you have a strong relationship with Mother Nature, you'll be right at home.
- Best Hike-In Campgrounds
The best nature has to offer is not always accessible by roads. Sometimes you have to hit the trail, literally in this case, and pack your gear into the wilderness. Just get used to tiny butane stoves, thin nylon tents, and freeze-dried foods, as the wilderness areas are a long way from home. But what you'll find is a cleansing of the senses to hear nothing but the sounds of the breeze, birds, and crickets; to see nothing but trees, vegetation and wildlife unaffected by human habitation, and smell smells you didn't know were smells. To paraphrase author Anne Lamott, camping in the wilderness on a clear night high in the mountains "smells like moon." Sure beats the smell of diesel fumes down below.
The Pasayten, William O. Douglas, Colonel Bob, Glacier Peak, and Salmo-Priest Wilderness Areas offer the best opportunities for hike-in camping. But we will leave that type of camping to the wilderness hiking experts, as this is beyond the scope of this manual. We will focus instead on the more accessible hike-ins to include the largest number of campers, young and old. These shorter hike-in camping experiences are often the best opportunity to immerse young campers in nature, leading to a lifelong love of the outdoors.
- Best Bike-In Campgrounds
This is Washington. Cities like Seattle and Spokane have bicycle paths everywhere, and it is similar in the rest of Washington. For many, it is the preferred mode of transportation. The San Juan Islands, the Pacific Coast and Olympic Peninsula's Highway 101, southern Washington's Highway 64 along the Columbia River, and Highway 20 along the incredible but little-known Pend Oreille River provide bicycle camping adventures with great access to facilities and supplies along the way. Small towns provide groceries, laundry service, and campgrounds with H/B (hiker-biker) campsites reserved for those traveling light.
- Best Boat-In Campgrounds
Last but far from least are those campgrounds accessible only by boat. Most people think this is limited to the western side of Washington. The San Juan Islands, Whidbey Island, and the Puget Sound islands are well-known for boat-in camping. The Cascadia Marine Trail (CMT) stretches over 140 miles from the Canadian border to Olympia, including 66 campsites in multiple locations for non-motorized beachable watercraft. But don't count out the eastern side. Ross Lake in the NCNP has 25 boat-in campgrounds, Lake Roosevelt has 27, Lake Chelan has 16, and the Greater Columbia Water Trail (GCWT) includes too many to count. You want to see the real Washington? Most of it is accessible by water.
For Introduction Part 1, Looking for "The Real Washington," Introduction Part 2, Bask in the Complexity of Washington State Campgrounds, and Introduction Part 3, Camping Style, please consult the paperback edition.