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 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 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.
Our tips below will help you navigate this process 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.
Washington State Parks
For 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. (near Port Townsend). 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 $32+ (for full RV utility hookups). Standard tent sites are $20-$31. 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 $40-$85.
How to reserve: Reserve state park campsites, cabins or yurts online (a small reservation fee is added to the total cost of your stay) or on the phone at 1-(888)-CAMPOUT (a small 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. Check the complete park list and reservation information for more information.
Picks for kids
- 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. Reserve online.
- Lake 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. Reserve online.
- 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 (shared bathroom/shower in a separate building, from $65 a night) or 7 deluxe cabins (from $130 a night). 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.
National 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.
How and when to reserve: In Washington, only Mount Rainier National Park has campgrounds on the reservation system.
During busy summer months, Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock campgrounds 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 National Recreation Reservation Service web site or call 1-(877) 444-6777.
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.
Picks for kids
- Colonial 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 online.
National Forest 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.
How to reserve: 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.
Picks for kids
- 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 online.
- 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.
Photo credits, in order of appearance: istockphoto; Lake Chelan, Dan../flickr; Cama Beach, Larry Myrhe/flickr; istockphoto; Mount Rainier, bawish/flickr
This article was originally written in 2013 and updated on Jan. 23, 2014.