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Camp on the Sunny Side: 8 Eastern Washington Camping Adventures

Petrified forests, biking paths, basalt canyons, Lewis & Clark trail and more

Published on: May 08, 2017

horsethief at columbia hills state park
Columbia Hills State Park | Credit: Tara Schmidt (taramarie) on flickr CC

East of the Cascades, camping season starts early in spring and lingers late into fall for one big, blazing reason: sunshine. In this land that’s part desert, part open forest, the clear sapphire-blue sky stretches for miles overhead. Rivers twist their way through narrow basalt canyons as they race to shallow lakes that sparkle in the sun. Rolling hills dotted with sage and wildflowers are criss-crossed with gentle hiking trails. The eastern Washington landscape is warm, dry and very different from its western counterpart.

Camping over here is delightfully different as well. Imagine your family waking up from a tented slumber to watch morning sunlight polish the surrounding basalt cliffs, or noshing on s’mores around an evening campfire on a desert plateau beneath a massive sky full of bright stars.

Where to go? We've uncovered eight of the best sunny camping adventures for families in Eastern Washington.

Tips: If you go, pack extra sunblock and wide-brimmed hats to protect your kiddo’s skin and eyes from the sun’s rays. You’ll want to be aware of the increased possibility of encounters with ticks, rattlesnakes and poison oak over here too, all hazards that are seldom worried about in the Western Cascades and Olympics. Be prepared for the chance of windy evenings by packing along things to weigh down your tablecloth and tent. 

dock the family at sunny campgrounds in eastern washington like lake chelan
Lake Chelan | Credit: Teresa Trimm  (ttrimm) on flickr CC

Lake Chelan State Park, Chelan

If your family is lucky enough to snag a campsite on the glacier-carved fjord that is Lake Chelan, you’ll have a front-row seat to a true wonder of nature. About 55 miles long and never more than 2 miles wide, these deep blue waters are flanked by mountain peaks reaching up to 9,000 feet in elevation.

This state park on the lake’s south shore offers families much more than a glacial geology lesson, though; it’s an epicenter of summer fun for kids of all ages. The 127-acre park is set in an open ponderosa pine forest with 6,000 feet of public shoreline. There are 109 tent sites plus 17 utility hookup sites, and plenty of restrooms and showers.

A big bonus is the lake views from many of the campsites, and some of the campsites even have their own docks. The walk-in tent sites are the most spacious and private.

Do: Go swimming, boating, fishing – you name it, you can do it here. The park has an expansive lawn for playing Frisbee in the sun, and a modern kid’s play structure.

Reservations/info: Book via the website, or call 888-226-7688. The park has a full-service concession that sells grocery items, snacks and candy.

wenatchee confluence state park
Wenatchee Confluence State Park | Credit: Todd Petit (starmist1) on flickr CC

Wenatchee Confluence State Park, Wenatchee

The sun truly shines on you here, so much so in this new park with very little shade that it would be prudent to pack a large beach umbrella or pop-up shelter for your campsite. Comprising 197 acres, the park, as the name suggests, is set on the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers, and provides a little something for everyone. One half of the park is all about active recreation with a swimming beach, tennis courts and sports play fields. The other half, Horan Natural Area, is a huge swath of natural wetlands which provide important habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl, so bring your binoculars. Both tent campers and RVs are welcome here, but with eight tent spots compared to 51 utility spaces, the Airstream sect has an edge.

Do: Bring your bikes. The Apple Capital Loop Trail runs right through the campground, a 14-mile paved recreation loop that follows along the Columbia River shoreline.

Reservations/info: Book via the website, or call 888-226-7688. 

vantage washington columbia river by Ben Onken
The Columbia River from Vantage | Credit: Ben Onken (benkun2000) on flickr CC

Ginkgo-Wanapum State Park, Vantage

This park sits atop a bluff on the west side of the Vantage Bridge over the Columbia River. While the location might seem unremarkable at first (save for the constant sunshine), look more closely and you’ll soon see why this spot is perfect for inquisitive children. A rare petrified log from a gingko biloba tree was discovered here in 1932, followed by the realization that the site contained a whole petrified forest.

Although an effort to get national monument status for the site failed, it is a registered national natural landmark. Kids will love learning about petrified wood and holding various specimens inside the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center onsite. The adjacent campground has 50 campsites, all with full utility hookups, though tent campers are welcome to use the sites. Be prepared for high winds  in the evening.

Reservations/info: Book via the website, or call 888-226-7688.

moses lake
Moses Lake | Credit: Chris Phan (functoruser) on flickr CC

Potholes State Park, Moses Lake

Potholes reservoir and its various adjacent lakelets provide an oasis in the middle of Washington’s driest desert country. Bring binoculars for watching birds, a fly rod for catching fish, and a canoe or kayak to paddle around the freshwater marshes. You can also walk the three miles of hiking trails. The park itself is 640 acres, with 61 tent sites and 60 utility campsites as well as five furnished log cabins. Little kids will love the playground.

Do: This is a great spot to take kids on their first fishing trip; the reservoir is well-stocked with bass, walleye and even rainbow trout. Make sure everyone with a rod has a fishing license, and don’t forget to bring along some lemons if you wish to fry up your catch for dinner.

Reservations/info: Book via the website, or call 888-226-7688.

Dry Falls in Washington Coulee City
Dry Falls | Credit: UltraView Admin on flickr CC

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, Coulee City

Dry Falls, the heart of this unique park, may look like an ordinary scalloped precipice (for us non-geologists, that’s a very tall, crescent-shaped cliff). But if you imagine what was happening here 13,000 years ago during the Missoula Floods, you get quite a different picture. When it was an actual waterfall, Dry Falls was ten times the size of Niagara Falls. All that water carved the basalt valley below where Sun Lakes State Park and campground sites bask in the sun amid the rolling hills of sagebrush. There’s plenty of room for camping here, with 152 standard sites plus 39 utility spaces. The park offers loads of family recreation, from horseshoe pits and miniature golf to swimming and fishing.

Do: The park interpretive center is loaded with learning opportunities on the Missoula Floods and how they shaped much of the Pacific Northwest landscape. Dry Falls is an important stop along the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, the first of its kind in the U.S.

Reservations/info: Book via the website, or call 888-226-7688.

Steamboat Rock State Park | Credit: Michael D. Martin (martinvirtualtours) on flickr C

Steamboat Rock State Park, Electric City

In the heart of Washington’s Grand Coulee desert sits this family recreation paradise. The park is on an “island” surrounded by your outdoor playground, Banks Lake. Steamboat Rock State Park draws water-lovers to its sandy swimming area and three boat launches, and with 50,000 feet of freshwater shoreline there’s plenty of room for everyone. Some of the best freshwater fishing in Washington is had in Banks Lake, which is full of walleye, bass and perch. The campground has 26 tent spaces and 136 utility sites, plus 12 primitive boat-in campsites. More campsites, all of them primitive, are available about nine miles north of the main park at Jones Bay.

Do: Take a power hike through fragrant sagebrush whipping in the wind all the way to the top of Steamboat Rock (4 miles round trip, 650 feet gain that involves a little scrambling).

Reservations/info: Book via the website, or call 888-226-7688. The park has a concession store selling groceries, snacks and fishing supplies.

Tubing on the Kettle River in Curlew Washington
Family tubing on the Kettle River (near Curlew Lake State Park) | Credit: Dennis Hamilton (orcmid) on flickr CC

Curlew Lake State Park, Republic

Camp among nesting great blue herons and bald eagles at this 123-acre state park on Curlew Lake. Don’t want to drive all the way from Seattle to Republic? Travel by air — the park has a seaplane dock. Once a summer camp for Native American tribes in the region and later a hotspot for gold panning, it’s now a quiet and scenic family camping park with a swimming beach, boat launch, putting green and trails alongside wetlands and through the lodgepole pine forest. Bring fishing poles for catching rainbow trout, and a pan to fry them in. The campground has 57 tent spaces and 25 utility spaces, with the prime spots being walk-in tent sites right on the lake.

Do: In nearby Republic is the Stonerose fossil site, which includes an interpretive center and real fossil beds for kids to dig around in.

Info: Visit the website.

She Who Watches Pictograph
She Who Watches | Credit: Rooftop65 on flickr CC

Columbia Hills State Park, Dallesport

Don your buckskin hats — you’ve joined the Corps of Discovery! This state park in the sunny part of the Columbia River Gorge is a stop on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the site of a former Native American village whose people received the explorers with kindness during a dangerous stretch of their journey down the river.

Today, the park is one of the most stunning in the Gorge for its fields of wildflowers, oak-bottomed canyons and basalt rock formations. A famous pictograph is located in the park, titled "She Who Watches."

Camping options include four standard sites and eight utility sites, plus six primitive tent sites. There are also a handful of platform-tent cabins to rent.

Do: Take a hike. The brand new trail system on Dalles Mountain within the park was just recently dedicated, and takes hikers up to 12 miles through meadows of balsamroot to the summit of Stacker Butte.

Reservations/info: Book via the website, 888-226-7688.

Note: This article was written in 2014 and updated for 2017.

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