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Camping in the PNW

In 2016, we took our money to the state parks in Oregon and though more expensive than what we had planned, we found it to be an incredible experience. Oregon State Parks set the bar for state parks in this country.

Camping in the PNW

Posted November 01, 2018 by Bailey Mareu

In our first three years traveling full time, while we would have liked to camp in the middle of the woods or on the beach the whole time, there were restrictions because of our set up and our working needs. 

While boon docking (ie camping on free or very cheap land without any services/facilities) is our goal in 2019, we couldn’t really do it very often in the pop up camper and still have a regular life. We didn’t have a toilet or a shower in the pop up camper and I like both those things. We did have small water tanks and a gray tank for sink water in our last year or so in the pop up camper and were able to camp near Glacier National Park and in Yellowstone National Park (in campgrounds with toilets but without showers). But these were our vacation days (ie we didn’t have internet either) and not our regular travel life. 

Our longer term camping spots were also restricted to where we could get Verizon 4G data because the internet is essential for work and working is essential for our travel life. Unless we had planned days off of work (on our travel days or when we visited Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park for example) we have to have access to the internet. When researching and planning new locations, a review of the Verizon 4g data map is essential. 

Another factor in choosing campgrounds for us is cost. We’ve ended up staying in RV parks more than we imagined because the weekly or monthly cost at a RV park ends up being cheaper than paying nightly at county/state/Army Corps of Engineers parks. Plus, we like staying in locations a little longer to get a good feel for the area. And in some cases (ie California) if you don’t have reservation MONTHS in advance, you won’t get a spot at a state park for more than a few days (at best) in the middle of the week. 

All of this to put our travels into Oregon for the first time in 2016 into context: we had been traveling every week or two for about two months and were ready to explore near Portland and we were excited to pay for a month long stay - likely saving 50% over a month compared to what we were paying weekly for in California. 

BUT. We couldn’t find an RV park in the northern central Portland region to stay for a month. There were a few factors.

  1. Spring break. Full time travelers tend to forget “holidays”. And we totally forgot about spring break. RV parks were just busy.
  2. Pop up camper. There’s weird prejudices against some types of campers. Pop up campers are one. Whether or not it’s because people consider these “camping” rigs and not proper RVs or because it’s not “self-contained” (ie it has a bathroom - though this should not matter because THERE ARE BATHROOMS ON THE PREMISES).
  3. Older rig. In addition to predjudices against types or rigs, RV parks are appealing to people with RVs or 5th wheels worth 6+ digits. (Yes, $100,000 or more.) Our $2000 pop up camper was just not fancy enough for these places. AND too old to boot. 

So, we took our money to the state parks in Oregon and though more expensive than what we had planned, we found it to be an incredible experience. Oregon State Parks set the bar for state parks in this country. Where we stayed:

LL Stubb Stewart State Park is west of Portland almost an hour set in the rolling hills of gorgeous farmland and towering douglas firs. We were excited to find that the campground itself had a tiny 3-hole disc golf course and the park had an incredible 18-hole course. This was the perfect introduction to state parks in Oregon. We could only stay for two weeks (which is state park limit) so we had to move on to explore other state parks. 

Ainsworth State Park: Our travel day to Ainsworth was short - just about 90 minutes to the east side of Portland. We had already visited the Columbia River Gorge but entering it even the second time via Interstate 84 was still incredible (and always will be for us). Ainsworth SP wasn’t quite as remote but in the heart of the CRG and close to everything you would need to explore in the area. We were just west of Cascade Locks - where we could take the Bridge of the Gods to the Washington side and we discovered a small region with an incredible amount of quality craft beer. The campground itself was near enough the interstate and train tracks that there was some noise but something we got used to. Ainsworth State Park is also connected to tons of trails that line the Columbia River Gorge. We were able to hike to TWO (!!!) waterfalls from our campground. The journey to the waterfalls also led us to some incredible views of the gorge. We could also Cascade Locks just 10 minutes east which had a disc golf course and one of our favorite breweries in the gorge. 

Memaloose State Park is our least favorite of the state parks we’ve stayed at but we would absolutely stay again. To access this campground, you have to be going west on Interstate 84 and exit at the rest stop. From there you turn into the campground. The campground otherwise is lovely. Lots of trees, right on the Columbia River. But like Ainsworth, still noise from interstate and train tracks. (The closer you can get to the river the better!) If you’re coming or going a lot from the state park, you’ll always have to go a bit of a roundabout way when leaving or getting back to the park. If you want to go east to The Dalles, you have to head west on the interstate and turn around at the next exit to go east. When returning from Hood River from the west, for example, you have to go past the park to another exit and turn around to access it going east. It’s not more than a couple miles but a bizarre set up for sure. 

AirBNB in Parkdale/Hood River, Oregon: When we planned to return to the Pacific Northwest in summer 2017, we would have been happy to stay at the state parks again but they were already fairly booked at the beginning of the year (the northwest is a very popular place for camping and RVing in the summer — and for good reasons — it’s gorgeous). We also wanted to spend longer than two weeks (the limit of camping at one state park). I turned to AirBNB and found a cheap stay that was even cheaper when you opted to stay for a month AND where we could park our camper. It was still about the same amount as staying at the state park but we could stay for a month! We ended booking in February. The space was a converted garage/barn that was a lot like a small hotel room: bed (well, futon), bathroom, small table and chairs, microwave, hot plate. Our pop up camper had full kitchen capabilities so we really needed the space for the bathroom. We also mostly used the outdoor sink for washing since we wouldn’t be hooked up to water/sewer. What we ended up enjoying most was the backyard - where we could work, relax, practice our disc golf putting with a view of Mt. Hood. It was majestic. I would link to the posting on AirBNB but the hosts had to take down their listing in early 2018 because of new regulations on the short term rental front. (For good reason, I do understand the challenges of cost of living increases out pacing local wages, etc. etc. ).

Continuing on our travels in Oregon in 2017, I found luck with a county campground (I did at least two or three times in 2017 in different states) with availability for about 10 days. People think of state parks and national parks and private RV parks while traveling but fewer remember that counties have campgrounds, too!

Our stay on the Oregon coast at Barview Jetty Campground, near Tillamook, Oregon, followed our month long very private and quiet stay at the AirBNB spot. So a beach side campground that was constantly full of people (including lots of kids!) was a little bit of a startling shift. (The worst part was the constantly dirty bathrooms. It was so busy they could barely squeeze in time to clean.) The campground was nice though: a five minute walk to the beach, fairly spacious sites and cool coastal air. Plus we were right on the 101 ready for epic coastal drives on the Oregon coast. 

Finding campgrounds in Washington was even a more challenging. We spent a week near Longview, WA somewhat randomly (our one week we did not have scheduled weeks out) and it was okay. Outside a day trip to disc golf courses we had missed playing in Oregon, we worked a lot. Longview does have a cool library though! The campground we stayed at was on a small river but rather unremarkable: I do not have any photos from our stay that week. 

We then made our way to Seattle to spend time with a couple friends we have there. Based on other RVers’ comments during research, we knew there wasn’t ANY rv park options IN Seattle (if there actually were, I doubt we would want to pay the price. So we opted for an RV park in Bellevue that, in good traffic, but us about 25 minutes from our friends’ place north of downtown Seattle. After one trip that took an hour, we opted to drive into the city in the early afternoon (and then work with our friend from her house) rather than wait until after 4pm. Flexible work schedules, for the win! The RV park in Bellevue only had nightly rates and while it was right on Lake Sammamish, the spots were THE SMALLEST we had ever seen. PLUS we were intermixed with tents which was weird. The park also hosted day use events for camps and company parties. It was middle of the summer so those types of events were in full swing. It was definitely not a quiet place for a getaway. We had an incredible time exploring Seattle (that traffic is exhausting though!) and just wish there was a better solution for camper parking. 

We also have a ton more exploring to do in Washington. We focused our stay in 2017 on the Seattle area but definitely need to see some of the cost, Olympic National Park and the whole Olympic Peninsula. 

After leaving the Pacific Northwest, we headed for the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana!

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