We’re a camping family. When we haven’t slept outside for awhile, our senses long for it. I can’t wait to smell ponderosa pine in the air and campfire smoke in my hair, awaken to the moody call of a varied thrush and see the look on my son’s face as he tastes the first gooey-toasted marshmallow of the season. And with school out for the summer, we’re ready to hit the road and sleep under a canopy of stars.
There’s just one hiccup that you may be familiar with — we haven’t made campground reservations! As car camping surges in popularity, land managers are putting more campgrounds on the reservation system, so prime campsites and most rustic yurts book out months in advance, especially on summer weekends.
You may think spontaneous campers don’t stand a chance at a last-minute adventure these days, but fortunately for my family (and yours, fellow procrastinators!) spontaneous camping is still quite possible — you just have to know where to go. And here's great news — some of the Northwest’s best campgrounds for families are first-come, first-served, including most options in our national parks.
Read on for our procrastinator-tested camping tips and top picks for no-reservations campgrounds.
Pro tips for last-minute camping at no-reservation sites
When to go: For the best availability, plan your camping trip early in the week (most campgrounds clear out on Sundays by noon) or mid-week. Weekends are the riskiest choice; no-reservations campgrounds may fill up by early Friday afternoon on summer weekends, so plan to arrive at your destination campground before noon on a Friday to snag a campsite. For the most popular campgrounds, especially those in state parks and national parks, your safer choice is to start your weekend camping trip on a Thursday.
Pack early. You’ll probably want to leave the house at the crack of dawn to grab your campsite. For all the outdoor fun, camping is a heck of a lot of work, even more so with kids in tow and without concrete reservations. Ease the stress of packing by having everything ready and in the car at least by the night before your departure date. Make sure the car has a full tank of gas and you’ve planned your route on a map. Pack snacks and fun books or games for the kids so you won’t have to make many pit stops.
Have a Plan B. When you opt for no-reservations camping, you swap predictability for flexibility, so there’s a risk of being turned away at a chock-full campground. If your preferred campground is full when you arrive, you’ll want to have a few other nearby campgrounds in mind or even a cheap motel.
Best no-reservations campgrounds around Puget Sound
Pick a direction to venture from Seattle, then head for one of these no-reservations campgrounds for some last-minute lodging in the great outdoors.
Camano Island State Park (Camano Island near Stanwood)
Details: 88 sites, restrooms with coin-op showers. Beach wandering and tidepooling is the star attraction for curious kids, and 6,700-feet of rocky and sandy shoreline offer plenty of room for exploring. Three miles of looped trails in the upland forest offer shade on hot days.
Plan B: Snohomish County Parks has several reservable campgrounds that may have space from recent cancellations.
Colonial Creek Campground (North Cascades National Park near Diablo)
Details: 142 sites, potable water and flush toilets, no RV hookups, bear-proof food storage provided. Choose from spacious campsites (some accessible, some walk-in) nestled in hemlock along the shores of blue-green Diablo Lake beneath glaciated crags of nearby peaks. Kids will love ranger-led campfire programs all summer long, and the first few fern-laden miles of the Thunder Creek Trail are family-friendly (trail departs from the campground amphitheater).
Plan B: Nearby and little-known Gorge Lake Campground has six primitive campsites and no fees.
Rock Island Campground (Wenatchee National Forest near Leavenworth)
Details: 20 sites, potable water and vault toilets. One of a string of no-reservations campgrounds up the Icicle Canyon, this gem gives the feel of camping on a small island because of the way the frothy Icicle Creek twists around it in a semi-circle. Nearby, hike the short and sweet Icicle Gorge Trail for wildflowers, warblers and water-carved granite rock.
Owhi Campground (Wenatchee National Forest near Roslyn)
Details: 22 walk-in campsites, pit toilets, no piped water (bring your water filter). Enjoy all the beauty of the Teanaway region without the crowds of the Salmon La Sac River campgrounds below. Many Seattle-area families wish this scenic spot would remain a well-kept secret, but the word is out. The campsites are clustered together along little Cooper Lake (bring a raft or canoe for exploring). The five-mile trail to Pete Lake leaves from the campground.
Plan B: Red Mountain Campground (closer to Roslyn) has 10 no-reservation sites along the Cle Elum River.
White River Campground (Mt. Rainier National Park)
Details: 112 no-reservation sites with potable water and flush toilets. Set at 4,400 feet elevation, White River Campground opens when the snow melts, later than Rainier’s other campgrounds. Sites right on the river are the most spacious and boast the view of Mt. Rainier looming overhead. The Glacier Basin Trail leaves from the campground, leading day hikers to the snout of Emmons Glacier. Time your trip to the wildflower bloom that carpets subalpine meadows 12 miles up the road at Sunrise, usually late July or early August.
Beacon Rock State Park (Columbia Gorge near Skamania)
Details: 26 tent sites and five full-hookup sites for RVs, with restrooms and a shower. Day hikers flock here for the steep one-mile hike to a stunning panorama of the Gorge atop Beacon Rock, which is actually the core of an ancient volcano. This trail has lots of stairs and abrupt drop-offs; while there are handrails, it may be unsuitable for very small children. Other park trails loop through forest, along the river shoreline and across wildflower meadows. Info: parks.state.wa.us
Plan B: Cross the bridge at Cascade Locks over to Oregon for Viento State Park, which has 70 non-reservable campsites popular with wind surfers.
Staircase Campground (Olympic National Park)
Details: 50 sites (some right on the river) set in rain forest along the Skokomish River. Potable water and flush toilets. This Douglas-fir dominated old-growth ecosystem offers a multi-layered outdoor laboratory for budding naturalists. Summer ranger programs will get you started identifying ferns moss, birds and critters, then strike out on your own for some scientific observation along the North Fork Skokomish River Trail or the shorter Rapids Loop and Shady Lane trails.
Plan B: Head back to the shores of Hood Canal for Seal Rock Campground (Olympic National Forest) where 41 non-reservable campsites are popular with local shellfish foragers.
South Beach Campground (Olympic National Park)
Details: 55 sites with flush toilets, no potable water. Nearby Kalaloch Campground takes reservations and books out months in advance, but South Beach is more off the radar. The campsites are set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean with little shade or privacy, but oh, the views! Pack windbreakers for warmth, binoculars for possible whale sightings, and sturdy shoes for tide pooling. Info at nps.gov/oly.
Plan B: Queets Campground (also Olympic National Park) has 20 primitive sites set among old-growth giants alongside one of the most pristine coastal rivers in the Northwest.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in June 2016 and updated in August 2017.