Leaving on a summer Friday or Saturday for a weekend of car camping and day hiking can be a challenge. Washington is a state of hikers and campers; without a reservation, you may find that campgrounds are filled to capacity.
If you want to go camping from Memorial Day to Labor Day, you’re wise to get reservations well in advance. Here are a few tips to orient you, and some strategies for the types who don’t mind taking their chances.
How to make your reservation for summer camping in Washington
Campsite reservation systems can be a bit of a puzzle. Reservations are not accepted everywhere, and agencies have varied rules about how far in advance you can plan your trip. Plus, there are extra fees associated with making an online reservation. The bottom line is that if you want to go camping the first weekend in August, you’re wise to get your reservations three to six months (or more) in advance. Here are a few tips to orient you.
Camp in Olympic National Park. Photo by Maria Dominguez
Reserve a campsite, cabin or yurt at Washington State Parks
Most, but not all, Washington State Park campgrounds take reservations up to nine months in advance. That means that if you want a certain campsite for the Fourth of July, you should be on their system on October 4. However, many campgrounds have good summer availability through May or June. You can browse parks and availability and there are photos of each site.
- Online reservation system: (Note: an extra $8 is added for each booking, plus $5 if you are booking from out-of-state.)
- Reservation call center: (888) CAMPOUT. An extra $10 is added for each booking, plus $5 if you are booking from out-of-state.
Making a reservation in National Parks and National Forests using recreation.gov
Washington’s three national parks have varying reservation policies.
- Mount Rainier National Park has two campgrounds on the reservation system. Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh accept reservations up to six months in advance; White River and Mowich Lake are on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Only the Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park accepts reservations for the peak summer season. The rest are first-come, first-served.
- North Cascades National Park accepts reservations at Loop “C” of Newhalem Creek Campground up to six months in advance as well as at their group campgrounds (Upper and Lower Goodell and also at Newhalem Creek) a year in advance. Other campgrounds are not reservable.
National forests also having varying campground reservation policies. The cheat sheet below is only for car campgrounds, not group sites. If you are not familiar with the forests, it helps to pull out a map or to browse the Recreation.gov reservation map.
- Most campgrounds in Olympic National Forest do not accept reservations. You can make reservations in Coho Campground.
- Most, if not all, campgrounds on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest accept reservations.
- Most, if not all, campgrounds on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest accept reservations.
- On the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, only campgrounds within the Cle Elum and Naches Ranger Districts accept reservations, and a few in the Naches actually require them.
- The Colville and Umatilla National Forests are first-come, first-served.
If you’re flexible, you can browse layouts of the campgrounds, availability windows and often view individual campsites online at recreation.gov.
> Recreation.gov: An extra $9 is added per booking.
> Reservation call center: An extra $10 is added per booking.
Having kids help set up camp also helps burn off extra energy from the car ride. Photo by Hilary L. Benson.
Try your luck: strategies for success at spontaneous camping
If you haven’t made a reservation, then first-come, first-served campgrounds and dispersed camping areas are for you. Here are some tips for finding a great spot:
- If you have the flexibility, the best course of action is to arrive mid-week for campgrounds that do not accept reservations.
- Go farther afield and try out an area with lighter usage.
- Try dispersed camping on National Forest land, a great way to find a little solitude and practice your Leave No Trace ethics. Dispersed camping means there are no toilets, no picnic tables, no trash cans, no treated water and no fire grates. Typically, dispersed camping is not allowed in the vicinity of developed recreation areas such as campgrounds, boat ramps, picnic areas or trailheads. (For the best information on dispersed camping opportunities, contact the ranger district offices.)
- Try your first backpack. Try packing a little lighter and consider converting your camping plans into a short backpack with an overnight.
A few other resources
Hikers and campers have shared a couple of useful website to glean information about campgrounds and see photos of campsites.
- The Camping View shows photos of Western Washington campsites.
- Hipcamp: the Airbnb of camping.
- Forestcamping.com has good information about amenities at campgrounds across the country, including Washington.
- We also have found Camping Washington, by Ron C. Judd (Mountaineers Books) a useful book to have when planning camping trips.