Travel

The Best Places to Camp in the Pacific Northwest

From sky-high peaks to hidden beaches and mountain lakes.

As a native of the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been lucky to spend so much of my life wandering the various landscapes the region has to offer. And I do mean various. Throughout Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, you’ll find lush alpine mountain ranges, arid deserts, farm-fertile flatlands, dense deciduous forests, and coastlines ranging from rocky to white-sand. 

The PNW’s vast ecosystem has made it one of the most dreamed-about regions for explorers of all walks, from casual hikers to rock climbers, beachcombers, mountaineers, rafters, surfers, sailors, bikers, and everybody in between. And there’s no better way to fully immerse yourself than camping. 

To that end, let’s take a look at some of the bucket-list camping regions scattered across the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

The San Juan Islands

Washington
Situated at the north of the mouth of the Puget Sound, the various San Juan Islands offer an abundance of recreation. Reached via ferry from Anacortes, you have several islands to choose from. The largest islands -- Orcas and San Juan -- offer plenty of local art, handcrafts, and restaurants. Bring along a bike to enjoy the famous cycling loop around Lopez Island, or enjoy an abundance of hiking, kayaking, tide pools teaming with sea-life, whale watching, and other outdoor options in this lush, dreamy archipelago. There are a lot of solid campgrounds across the islands, but the San Juan County Park is reliably well-tended and right on the water.

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The Olympic Peninsula

Washington
In all reality, the Olympic Peninsula could be broken into several separate micro-regions, but once you get out there everything is within driving distance, so you’ll have plenty of fun to choose from. There’s the epic majesty of the Olympic Mountains, for example, home of the only genuine rain forest (the Hoh) in the United States. Or you can head out to the coast to check out fun beach towns like Ocean Shores and Westport to the south, and La Push and rugged Neah Bay to the north. Or along the inner shores of the Salish Sea you can explore the charming seafaring towns of Port Townsend or Port Angeles. 

In any case, if you’re looking for a real “forest moon of Endor/Lord of the Rings” experience, stay at the lush Hoh Campground, located on the western side of the Olympic National Park. The park on a whole is one of the country's most otherworldly attractions, managing to include a little bit of everything that makes the area so unique. In and around it you’ll find ample opportunities to camp and glamp, and can easily score lodging both rustic and boutique.

The North Cascades

Washington
My personal favorite, the North Cascades offers such an abundance of camping and outdoor adventure opportunities that you’ll probably have to visit more than once to fully appreciate it. Standouts include the many camping and hiking options around Ross Lake, but you’re also highly advised to venture further east to check out the Methow Valley towns of Mazama, Winthrop, and Twisp. Lucky for you, we’ve compiled a more extensive rundown of must-see/do attractions scattered throughout the region.

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The Idaho Panhandle

Idaho
Within the relatively compact realm of the Idaho panhandle, you’ll find a slew of great camping and outdoor adventure offerings. Perhaps the most popular options are Lake Coeur d’Alene and Lake Pend Oreille, both of which have sizable towns nearby just in case you want to pop in for food or shopping. But if you’re looking to get deep into the wilderness, head north to the Kaniksu National Forest or south into the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. Keep an eye out for signs directing you toward hot springs, perhaps the most notable of which are the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs near the Montana border. If you’re looking to stay someplace with beautiful views and well-maintained premises, reserve a site at Camp Coeur d’Alene.

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The Northern Oregon Coast

Oregon's coast is gorgeous from north to south, but once you get closer to the northern end -- in the area bookended by Newport and Astoria -- it becomes a greatest hits of Pacific Northwest quirks and awe. You'll find a rat-a-tat succession of great coastal towns -- Newport with its fishermen's vibes, arty Cannon Beach with its big Goonies rocks, Seaside's boardwalk vibes -- but dig a little deeper and excellent camping opportunities emerge as quickly as crab shacks. Cannon's Ecola offers sweeping views and limited hikers shelters, which come in handy during an unexpected fall storm, while Cape Lookout is loaded with yurts and tent spots. You can also find easy sites around Manzanita and Rockaway, and RV campsites in places like Pacific City. Regardless of where you are, you'll likely be close to a brewery and a dispensary. Oregon's sometimes exactly what you want it to be. 

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The Painted Hills

Oregon
The central region of Oregon has a lot to offer in terms of outdoor camping opportunities, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything as uniquely majestic as the Painted Hills. Known for their colorful sedimentary layers and abundant fossil beds, they provide a truly astounding glimpse into pre-history. On the way there you’ll pass through the Old Western town of Mitchell, and if you’re coming from the east, keep an eye open for the nearby ghost town of Horse Heaven. There are several good campgrounds scattered about the area, but one of the most popular is the Priest Hole Recreation Site.

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The Grand Coulee Basin

Washington
About halfway between Seattle and Spokane along Highway 2 you’ll come to the Grand Coulee region of the Columbia Basin. Here the standout camping option is the Steamboat Rock State Park, where you’ll enjoy stunning desert vistas, hiking, and rock climbing, plus fishing and other watersports on Banks Lake. To the south another great option is the mineral-rich Soap Lake, and to the north you’ll find the Grand Coulee Dam -- the largest power station in the United States.

MORE:   When you're in Soap Lake, don't forget to stock up on sausage and pickled mushrooms

Sun Valley

Valley
Nestled in central Idaho you’ll find Sun Valley, a sunny region -- it's not just a clever name -- offering a smorgasbord of outdoor activities all year round. Winter snows make it less than appealing for camping during the cold season, but the rest of the year you can enjoy hiking, golfing, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, fly fishing, climbing, and more. The literary-minded should also be sure to visit nearby Ketchum, where you can stop by the house and final resting place Ernest Hemingway. You won’t have any trouble finding a good campground, but the Forest Service-monitored Boundary Campground is always a good bet.

Northeastern Washington

Washington
Arguably the most overlooked region on this list due to its extreme isolation, the northeastern segment of Washington boasts a number of outstanding camping opportunities. Further to the west you’ll find some hidden campgrounds in the semi-desertous stretch between Okanogan and Tonasket, with the remote fishing lake of Conconully being one of my personal favorites. Head east into the Colville National Forest through towns like Republic, Kettle Falls, and Colville itself, and you’ll find beautiful landscapes and small-town experiences that are about as far-flung as it gets. There are a lot of camping options throughout the region, but the Conconully State Park is one of the best maintained campgrounds I’ve ever seen.

The Umpqua National Forest/Crater Lake National Park

Oregon
If you’re looking for someplace lush and green in southern Oregon, plunge into the densely wooded depths of the Umpqua National Forest. Check out the various hot springs and waterfalls that are scattered about, or head southeast to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most astounding geological sites, Crater Lake National Park. The deepest lake in the United States, it’s known for its crystal clear waters and stunning views. Stay at Crater Lake: With its genuinely epic vistas, you won’t be sorry.

Mt. Hood National Forest

Oregon
Mt. Hood is like Oregon's version of the Paramount Pictures mountain, an iconic sight that looms large over Portland and the Columbia Gorge and serves as a gateway to Central Oregon, home of Bend, Sisters, and the also-formidable Deschutes National Forest. And if you're a camper, it's a pure shot of PNW bliss. The backcountry's loaded with crystalline lakes and accompanying campsites, whether it's the Douglas Fir shrouded Trillium and Timothy lakes or the popular Lost Lake, which doubles as a resort for the glamping set. The backcountry is alive with rivers and streams, which climbers can take on shorter routes while dreaming big of the summit. It's one of America's defining national forests, a million-acre choose-your-own adventure with a major city an hour away.

Mount Rainier National Park

Rainier is a monolith. A beast. It's the kind of mountain where summiters can look at Mt. St. Helens in the distance and think it looks like an easy climb up a hill. But this place known for its dense snowfall isn't just for the rugged bivouac set. Whether you're a humble car camper or just dabbling in backcountry, you can explore among the lush forests and kaleidoscopic wildflowers, perfectly content to not risk anything by climbing on glaciers. In fact, for all its intimidating stature, the national parks status makes Rainier one of the region's most accessible sites. You don't need to mention that when regaling others of your trip, of course.

Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, Vice, Greatist, and more. You can follow his weird adventures via Instagram or Twitter
Thrillist senior editor Andy Kryza contributed to this story.