An Expert Guide to Camping in Washington

The state of Washington is full of places to hike, camp, and explore. Check out this guide to some of the best spots by camping expert Alex Dolan!

Photo by Alex Dolan

The great state of Washington is one of my all-time favorite places to explore in the United States. During the summer months, the weather is nothing short of perfect, the days are long, and the sights are spectacular. Get outside of any major city and you’ll quickly find yourself in a national forest or state park.

The Cascade Mountain Range that divides the state latitudinally truly lives up its namesake. Gushing with glacial, spring, and rain runoff, the mountains are steep, dramatic and covered in lush green forests on the western side. You may even see some old-growth forests with trees that are hundreds of years old. On the eastern side of the Cascades, the climate is not the stereotypical wet weather that the Pacific Northwest ("PNW") is known for. Instead you’ll find dry alpine climates with an abundance of rivers, creeks, and streams threading the landscape.

Washington has more diversity than I have experienced anywhere else in the United States. From the San Juan Island to the Greenery of the wet side of the Cascades to the dry rocky ruggedness of eastern Washington. You’ll need to be a devout road tripper to see it all in one go.

Here are some of the best places that I have found for tent camping during my exploration of the state. If you are planning a trip, be sure to check them out!

A palm holding a variety of wet rocks
Geologic diversity is rich in Washington. Spend some time exploring rocky creek beds. Photo by Alex Dolan

Stevens Pass

If you are flying into Washington, you’ll likely touch down in Seattle. While it is certainly an iconic location with many interesting sights, as an avid outdoorsman, I personally tend to avoid major cities as much as possible. Luckily there are some amazing places to visit within 45 minutes of the city limits.

From Seattle, the first place I would head to would be Money Creek Campground. Head down Highway 2 and pass the town of Gold Bar, the gateway to the Cascades. Be sure to stop in the town of Index, where you’ll likely spot climbers hundreds of feet up on some stunning rock faces. Looming over the Skykomish River, you can spot Mt. Index, just one of many of the peaks that will take your breath away along the Stevens Pass Highway.

A metal bridge stretches across a water towards a forest with mountains in the background
A view from the town of Index before sunset. Photo by Alex Dolan

Along Highway 2, past the turn off for Index, you’ll come to Money Creek Campground. Here the only amenities you’ll find are vault toilets, but you’ll be immersed in moss, trees, and PNW wilderness teaming with life.

A creek pours out from damp rainforest ground
Just one of the countless streams that gush from the Cascade Mountains. Photo by Alex Dolan

From Money Creek Campground, you’ll have a lot of options to choose from when deciding where to go next. Continuing east along Stevens Pass Highway (Interstate Highway 2) will take you past Stevens Pass Ski Resort, after which you’ll begin your descent toward Leavenworth and into an entirely different climate.

The Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth is nestled in an Alpine desert. It is sure to be warmer, dryer, and less green than the other side of the pass but you’ll find some incredible views. Check out the Wenatchee River and Icicle Creek on your way over to Bridge Creek Campground, one one of the many other campgrounds in the area.

A creek pours down through rocks, with trees and mountains in the background
A view of Icicle Creek. Photo by Alex Dolan

If you want to stay on the greener side of Washington, you can make your way back to Interstate Highway 5. Head north and then east again to get to the Skagit River Valley or take a ferry out to the San Juan Island on the west coast.

Skagit Valley

Moving up the Skagit River Valley will take you to Glacier National Park. Glacier Peak Resort and Winery is sure to offer all of the amenities of home while you explore Glacier National Park. They have their own boat launch along a mellow stretch of the Skagit River. They also have tent sites, cabins, and full hookup sites for RV campers.

Head through to incredible views of Diablo Lake where you can camp at Colonial Creek Campground. Continue over the pass to the dry side and arrive in the outlaw town of Winthrop. From there you can make your way to Rock Creek Campground in Okanagan, Washington.

Olympic Peninsula

The Olympic Peninsula offers enough incredible wilderness to warrant a full week of traveling along its shores and in its forests. In Olympic National Park, it is said you can find the quietest forest in the world.

You can either take a ferry or drive around the Puget Sound to get to the Olympic Peninsula. Personally I love the ferry rides. I find that it is the perfect place to stretch my legs in the midst of long travel days, and the view from the deck is always incredible. With a good eye and a little bit of luck you'll even have a chance to see whales, seals, sea lions, and porpoises.

Salt Creek Recreation Area is easy to get to from Port Angeles and a great first stop when visiting the Peninsula. Here you’ll find great hiking trails and views of the ocean, coastal rock formations, and tide pools teeming with life.

A collection of green, grey, and purple tide pool creatures
Tide Pools can be found around the San Juan islands as well as the coasts of the Olympic Peninsula. Photo by Alex Dolan

Book a campsite at the Salt Creek Campground for a quiet night nestled between the ocean and the mountains. From there, be sure to visit Cape Flattery. It is a bit out of the way if you are planning to do a full loop around Highway 101, but it is so worth it. If you are a fan of the Twilight book series (or the movies), you can visit the town of Forks where the angsty teen drama is set.

Two sand dollars sit on the sand next to each other
“Sand dollars” found on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. If you find one, leave them be. Living organisms call them home. Photo by Alex dolan

If you decide to drive around the Puget Sound rather than ferry across it, the Olympic National Forest will be a great first stop on the Peninsula. Hamma Hamma Campground will be a convenient stop if you are trying to keep drive times to a minimum. If you are looking to go deep into the forest, check out Dosewallips Campground and Ranger Station.

The Hoh Rainforest, deep in the heart of the Olympic Peninsula, is an incredibly secluded and isolated forest teaming with life. A night or two at the Hoh Campground is sure to provide experiences you won’t forget.

If you are doing a full loop of Highway 101, you might as well keep heading south and check out what the Oregon Coast has to offer.

Mt. Baker

A view of the Cascades from afar will give you a good look at Mount Baker, the largest mountain in northern Washington.

A snowy mountain wreathed in clouds
A glimpse of a glacier from the Mt. Baker Ski Area. Photo by Alex Dolan

It is white capped year-round, and in the light of a setting sun, you’ll swear that its glow comes from somewhere out of this world. You can drive pretty darn close to the peak if you want. It is definitely worth the extra time that it takes.

Glacier is a quaint little town that you’ll pass through if you are headed up Mt. Baker. Just past the town, along the Nooksack River is Douglas Fir Campground, which offers some great hikes along the river.

Deception Pass State Park is an impressive and is a small detour that you can add to your trip coming or going from the San Juan Islands or the Olympic Peninsula. From deception pass, on the evening of a full moon you can watch the sunset on the Pacific Ocean as you watch a glowing full moon rise over the mountains to the east. If you are traveling over the pass north to south, stop at Rosario Beach for some spectacular ocean views and some insight into Native American culture. If you are headed to the Olympic Peninsula via the Coupeville Ferry, south of Deception Pass, consider stopping in at Fort Ebey State Park Campground for some epic beach explorations.

San Juan Islands

A sandy beach cove with rocks and driftwood
One mile in a sea kayak will get you to Chuckanut Island, just south of Bellingham. Photo by Alex Dolan

You may think you are in another country in the San Juan Islands…..this culture is just one that adds to the diversity of Washington state.

Moran State Park on Orcas Island is a popular site for families looking to get a taste of the island vibes. Be sure to book your campsite in advance - they fill up fast and you don’t want to strand yourself on an island with no place to stay! The campground has flush toilets and potable water.

Once you settle into your campsite, you’ll find numerous hiking trails to explore the surrounding area. Be sure to check out the fire tower at the highest point of the island for a breathtaking view of the mainland, snow-capped mountains and the islands that surround you.

A view out at a series of islands, looking out over trees
The View from the Highest point on Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Archipelago. Photo by Alex Dolan

If you are looking for free camping, dispersed camping is allowed on all Forest Roads. You want to have any amenities of a campsite, like a toilet, running water, or picnic tables, but you’ll likely find yourself in a very secluded area of the wilderness. Figuring out where and how to use the bathroom seems to be the biggest challenge for dispersed campers. Send your Curated camping expert a message with any questions about how to properly poop in the wild. Be sure to Leave No Trace. As long as we take care of these amazing places and preserve the natural state of the surrounding area, we can come back to visit these places for generations to come.

If you made it to the end of this virtual tour of Washington state, thanks so much for reading. What did you think? Will you be exploring the area in real life? Are there any places you have been that I should have included? Click on the link to my expert profile below to live chat with me personally to get geared up for your trip or just talk to me about any comments, questions, concerns or confessions you have. Remember to Leave No Trace and have fun out there!

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Written By
I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time and countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element, moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. I have also toured the San Juan Islands via kayak, and circumnavi...

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