Think outside of the tent, so to speak, and look for campgrounds run by low-profile agencies in places you’ve never been.
It’s Memorial Day, the classic kickoff to camping season, and you haven’t nailed down your summer camping plans? The bad news: You’re a little late to reserve the best spots. The good news: Washington State offers up a cornucopia of camping possibilities, many set near water, beautiful forests or serene deserts. Activities span everything from boating to badminton.
But this bounty comes with a downside. Campgrounds are managed by a number of state and federal agencies, which can make it hard to find information. Desirable places are often crowded, especially in iconic locales or close to cities.
Unique digs like lighthouses, fire lookouts, yurts and cabins tend to book up quickly, especially for weekends. Many of those are in national or state parks, which typically take reservations up to six and nine months in advance, respectively.
“The rule of thumb is to get in there early and get a reservation,” said Washington State Parks spokeswoman Toni Droscher. If you see an occupied site you love, make a note of it so you can reserve it next time. Otherwise, “sometimes you have to take, potluck, what you get.”
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While summer weekends are already heavily booked at popular state parks such as Deception Pass, for example, you’ll find better luck if you’re flexible and can go on a weekday.
Also, look beyond the obvious. The state is dotted with national- and state-land campsites that don’t take reservations. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources, for example, oversees camping in state forests and other property not under the state-park umbrella.
Since they’re usually primitive and not as well known as more-developed sites, these sites are possibilities for last-minute trips. “Typically you’re fine just turning up,” said Eryn Akers, a communications consultant for the DNR, although it’s a good idea to contact regional offices when you go.
If popular parks woo you and the destination atop your list isn’t available in the summer, now is the time to plan ahead for autumn. Around here, you can never start thinking about it too early.
Need more ideas? To whet your camping appetite, here is a sample of notable Washington campgrounds, from plush and popular to pristine and primitive. Some are operated by agencies you might not have thought of, in places you might not have been. There’s something to suit any tastes:
Can’t get enough of that rain forest
While Olympic National Park features gorgeous campgrounds, including one at the Hoh Rain Forest, they’re often crowded at the height of summer. Only Kalaloch takes reservations, so a spot isn’t assured elsewhere. Maybe try the South Fork Hoh Campground operated by DNR. This state-lands site, right on the edge of the national park, has the Hoh’s same giant trees and burbling waters, as well as access to the South Fork Hoh River Trail. Details: 1.usa.gov/1ob6Ld1.
New spin on ‘island time’
Moran State Park is popular for good reason. Steve Giordano, author of “Camping Washington,” recalls being “adopted” by a group of families that met up at this Orcas Island classic every year. No wonder it’s a perennial favorite, with sprawling grounds, trails (including nearby Mount Constitution) and lakes for swimming and boating. Two change-ups for 2015 that put it on this list: five fancy new “glamping” sites with furnished canvas tents (wanderlustcamps.com), and a new reservation system for the ferries that get you there and back (1.usa.gov/1FpbxQQ). Details: parks.wa.gov/547/Moran.
When you need a serious getaway
DNR’s Cypress Head Campground is reachable only by boat (including kayak for experienced paddlers). Cypress Island is a haven of solitude in Bellingham Channel, edging the San Juan Islands. Scramble up its steep, rocky slopes for views of Mount Baker, Bellingham and nearby islands. Details: 1.usa.gov/1kYWByU.
Loving ‘The Mountain’
Ohanapecosh Campground in Mount Rainier National Park is a quintessential national-park campground on the flanks of the giant mountain that offers easy access to the area’s many hikes. Although the campground is big, sites are relatively private, so you hear the rushing of the campground’s eponymous river rather than other campers’ conversations as you drift off to sleep. And being on the far side of the mountain from Seattle, it’s not the first stop for most city folks. Details: 1.usa.gov/1Gdj5oP.
Only sissies mind mosquitoes
At Takhlakh Lake Campground, operated by Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the season is short, the access road is rough and mosquitoes are fierce. But the views of Mount Adams — which lies directly across the lake from the campground — and access to the trails surrounding it are worth the trouble. Details: 1.usa.gov/1MbYF01
Almost Canada, with fossils
Curlew Lake State Park, just south of the Canada border and near the historic mining town of Republic, has lush lawns and verdant trees, looking more like the state’s western side. Boating, fishing and bird watching are popular pursuits; drive a few miles to dig for fossils at the Stonerose site in Republic. Details: parks.wa.gov/493/Curlew-Lake.
Hungry for history?
A small, heavily wooded oasis 25 miles north of Walla Walla on the Touchet River, Lewis & Clark Trail State Park is a haven for wildlife and sun-baked humans. Displays give a feel for history with information on Lewis and Clark and early homesteaders. Modern conveniences include a badminton court, a baseball field and tubing put-ins. Details: parks.wa.gov/539/Lewis-Clark-Trail.
Family fun on the big river
It’s hard to choose among the family-friendly state parks along the Columbia River in central Washington. Giordano says Steamboat Rock State Park, on Banks Lake, stands out for its diverse recreation (including boat access; 12 of the campground’s primitive sites are boat-in only and non-reservable), friendly vibe and waterfront cabins. Scramble to the top of the park’s 600-foot-tall namesake for expansive views. Details: parks.wa.gov/590/Steamboat-Rock.
Waterfall worth the trip
Many people know about the 200-foot official state waterfall in remote Palouse Falls State Park, but most visitors only come for a brief look. Stay overnight for early-morning hikes (some wheelchair-accessible) around the waterfall. The camp area is small and first come, first served, so arrive early if possible. Bring water. Details: parks.wa.gov/559/Palouse-Falls.
Getting far from the madding crowd
Boundary Dam Campground, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, is on the Pend Oreille River in far northeastern Washington, one of the state’s most beautiful — and least populated — regions. From the canyon’s edge, cliffs drop dramatically toward the emerald river. Visit the nearby dam, a source of some of Seattle’s electricity. If the four sites here are occupied, try one of the nearby DNR or Forest Service campgrounds, which have a similar feel. See bit.ly/1KSOX1d.
If you go
No matter where you camp, check the individual park website or contact the responsible agency for advice and regulations. Some resources:
• Washington State Parks: parks.wa.gov.
While a Discover pass is required for day use at state parks, camping fees waive that requirement.
• Washington Department of Natural Resources: 1.usa.gov/1QQe7l5.
All sites are first-come, first-served. Discover Pass required. Call a regional office before you go; knowledgeable recreation managers can help you find the perfect site.
• U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and many other federal lands: recreation.gov.
In national parks, both permits and park passes are often required for camping. Many national park backcountry sites require reservations and/or permits. Taking your dog? Check regulations carefully.