Quick-Fix Car Camping: Overnighters that Won’t Burn a Bunch of Gas

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of a long road trip: the open highway, the sense of freedom and adventure, and the anticipation of exploring new and unfamiliar places. But there is a downside, too: the road-rage-inducing traffic on those highways, the sense of claustrophobia and numbness from hours in the cramped interior of a vehicle, and the self-reproach that comes with draining your savings account to pay for gas.

Sorry if I’ve just caused you to become ill-disposed toward your upcoming camping trip. Despair not, because right under our noses are several options for those looking for a quick camping fix while eschewing the long and arduous journey. These locales may not be as exotic or dramatic as you might find by spending a few hours on the road, but they make up for it in convenience and value. Ranging from public parks to privately owned campgrounds, these options are ideal solutions for families with small children (they don’t know the difference, right?), yet offer intriguing opportunities for the less encumbered individual as well. Some of these locations even allow the enterprising urbanite to forgo the internal combustion engine altogether and bike it from the city to the site. While, the list is in no way comprehensive, hopefully it might encourage some of you road-trippers to explore the multitude of fine options available closer to home.

Riverside State Park

Bowl and Pitcher

The Bowl and Pitcher area is in many respects the epicenter of the sprawling Riverside State Park. Here is the park’s most popular access point, and here are the most unique and distinctive geological features in the park. The Spokane River is white water here, with several prominent rapids in the immediate vicinity. Add to that a surfeit of recreational activities and its proximity to downtown, and Bowl and Pitcher stands out as a real gem and one of the finest features of the city of Spokane.

The name “Bowl and Pitcher” refers to the basalt formations along this stretch of the river; one clearly resembles a pitcher, but I’m not really sure what the bowl is supposed to be. Anyway, the scenery is top notch, and the pedestrian suspension bridge over the river allows for sweeping views of the area. This bridge leads from the camping and day-use area to the network of hiking and biking trails on the other side of the river.

The camping at Bowl and Pitcher is separated into two areas. RVs will find hookups at the lower campground, where water and electricity are available at 13 sites. There are also two large group sites here that can accommodate anywhere from twenty to sixty people. The upper campground has 16 standard tent sites, one ADA site, and two additional sites with hookups. The Spokane River is within earshot of all of the sites, which are tucked nicely into a stand of Ponderosa Pines. Nearly eighty picnic tables are scattered throughout the area for day use. There is also one shelter with tables that is reservable. Not much in the way of privacy here, but with the water and the trails within such easy reach, you probably won’t be spending much time in camp anyway.

The fishing is mediocre in the river, although nice 14-18 inch rainbows are fairly common. The occasional smallmouth bass, too, can be had. If the fish refuse to cooperate, the time spent on the river is its own reward. Mergansers, herons, geese, and osprey are everywhere. Woodpeckers, tanagers, warblers, marmots, and mule deer are here also, but a bit more secretive. The basalt formations create a labyrinth of trails to explore, most with views of the river, some right along its edge. Across the footbridge lies the paved centennial trail for those looking for a gentler route. And all of this is so close: most Spokanites can be at the park in 15 minutes or less, and the Centennial trail offers easy access to bikers who don’t mind navigating a few rocky patches on the south bank on their way to the old CCC Bridge. Two of the camp sites are supposed to be reserved for those who hike or bike into the park.

Costs range from $19 for the standard tent site to $30 for the hookup sites. Bike-in sites are $14. Sites are reservable by visiting http://www.parks.wa.gov or by calling (888) 226-7688.

Riverside State Park

Nine Mile Resort

This formerly private resort is now part of Riverside State Park. Owned by Avista Corp., this area came under state management just this January under a lease agreement with the state. Located just west of the Nine Mile dam, this prime real estate on the shores of Long Lake can get crowded during holidays: on the 4th of July, people were turned away due to lack of parking. But lakeshore access is always sure to draw the crowds, and that is the big attraction here.
Big changes are in store for this area, and that is a good thing. As it stands, the campground is nothing but a field next to the water. Unless you bring your own shade, you are at the mercy of the sun. Most people do bring their own shade here, however, because the majority of the sites are RV sites. There are a total of thirty-one sites here, only five of which are tent sites. Eleven sites offer partial hookups, and the remaining fifteen have full hookups. Prices are $15, $18, and $21, respectively.

In addition to camping, the area offers four reservable kitchen shelters, twenty picnic tables, a roped-off swimming area, an espresso stand, and a sand volleyball court. But the boat launch is what brings most visitors here. Anyone can use the launch for a $5 fee; campers use it for free. The fishing here reflects the different aquatic environment, with bass being more prevalent than upriver from the dam.

Since Nine Mile Resort is such a recent acquisition, it is in a transition phase. In the near future, prices will rise to be in line with state norms and will be similar to the rates at Bowl and Pitcher. All other state park rules will be implemented as well, such as the ten-day limit on camping.

The changes coming up in the more distant future are the most intriguing. Pending funding, sometime in the next few years, the campground layout will be completely changed, taking all of the sites that are out in the open near the lake and moving them back into the currently undeveloped forest. Right now, the Centennial Trail ends near the dam, about a mile down the road. Eventually, it will be extended to join with Nine Mile Resort, creating an artery that runs the entire length of Riverside State Park. As it is, trail users can access the resort with just a brief stint on Charles and Hedin roads.

For reservations call (509) 468-2286. Eventually, visitors will make reservations by calling the same number or visiting the same website as Riverside or any other park in the state system.

Mt. Spokane State Park

Everyone is familiar with 5,883-foot Mount Spokane: it is easily visible from downtown Spokane and is the peak that is taller than anything else you can see. Even if you have ventured out to this park to hike or ski, you may have missed Bald Knob, a small, quiet campground nestled in the forested slopes of the mountain.

Water attracts people looking for recreation, and here in the Inland Northwest, that is especially true. This attraction, which crowds places like Nine Mile Resort, leaves places like Bald Knob practically deserted most of the time, since there is no water nearby aside from trickling mountain streams. But what is nearby is 100 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails that transect the 14,000 acre park. This extensive network of trails winds across the mountainsides, through stands of old-growth timber, and up to every major peak in the area. Along the trail, dense forest frequently gives way to meadows filled with wildflowers and to granite outcroppings, offering panoramic views of the Selkirks, Idaho, Canada, and the plains to the west. For all of this hiking, Bald Knob makes a great base camp.

The campground itself is tiny. Only eight spots are available, and reservations are not accepted here: it is first-come, first-serve only. But this campground rarely fills to capacity. Partly because of that water thing, but also because the sites offer no hookups of any kind, only a picnic table, a fire pit, and a spot for your tent. The elevation here limits the season: Bald Knob campground is only open from about mid-June to mid-September, depending on weather and road conditions. $17 a night will cover up to eight people. Large groups can be accommodated, too. Often, groups of twenty or larger will be directed to the Civilian Conservation Corps cabin, where they will find a pit toilet, a few fire rings and barbeque pits, and a little more privacy. This requires a flat $25 fee, plus $2 per person, per night.

Call (509) 238-4258 or visit http://www.parks.wa.gov for more information.

Liberty Lake County Park

This is a 3,000 acre county park on the southeastern shore of the lake. Thankfully, this is the quiet end of the lake, or at least the quietest. The campground is located at the inlet where Liberty Creek feeds the lake and adjacent to a series of trails that lead into some fairly wild country in the hills beyond.

There is water access here, but no boat dock, so that tends to keep the crowds and the noise of motors a little more tolerable. A beach area welcomes swimmers at their own risk, since a lifeguard is only occasionally on duty. There is also a picnic area and a playground on site. Twelve tent sites and twenty-two RV sites are available from mid-April to mid-October on a first-come, first-serve basis. Rates vary according to season. Mid-June to Labor Day, sites are $18 and $24, respectively. All other times of the year, rates are $15 and $20. For the more adventuresome, there is a rustic cabin for rent that requires a three-mile hike. There is also a $2 admission fee during peak season. Also nearby is a 350-acre ORV park with sixteen miles of trails for ATVs and motorcycles.

One feature that makes this campground stand out is the excellent network of trails that begins here. The trail starts out level, following the creek for two miles before coming to a picnic area in a picturesque grove of large cedars. After that, the trail climbs to a waterfall and nice views of the lake. Off of this trail is a spur to the aforementioned cabin, as well as other trails that lead off in every direction. You can make a seven mile loop by heading north along the ridge and back down the creek.

More information is available by calling the Spokane County Department of Parks at (509) 477-4731.

Round Lake State Park

A bit further away, but still reasonable. This state park in Idaho is only an hour’s drive and offers a more remote alternative to some of the closer parks. It is located just east of highway 95 approximately ten miles south of Sandpoint.

The campground is on 142 wooded acres surrounding a 58-acre lake. Fishing, hiking, boating, and swimming are all available. There are fifty-one sites for both tent campers and RVs, though no hookups are available and trailers longer than twenty-four feet are not allowed. Also disallowed are gasoline motors on boats in the lake, which makes for a more peaceful experience for campers and fishermen alike. There are centralized restrooms and showers, along with a dump station. For large groups of up to 25 people, there is a reservable picnic shelter. All sites are $12 per day and reservations are recommended between May and September. All other times of the year, sites are first-come, first-serve.

Call (866) 634-3246 or visit http://www.parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.

Dragoon Creek Campground

This is a state-run campground, but not a state park. It is run by the Department of Natural Resources, which is a state agency. But Dragoon Creek is not managed as part of the state park system, even though it is a formal campground. Confused? Me too. Information is hard to come by. The internet told me this much: it opened May 15 and no dogs are allowed. A call to the local DNR office yielded this scant info: camping is free at the “approximately” twenty-two sites. No reservations are accepted since there is really no one to call. Sorry, that’s all I got. It’s pretty close-a few miles south of Deer Park west of highway 395-and it’s free.

Resorts near Cheney

The countryside around Cheney is strewn with lakes, and several of those lakes offer camping opportunities. These are private campgrounds mainly, and as such they vary greatly in size, cost, quality, amenities, and atmosphere. Some have helpful, detailed websites; others have only a phone number available online. The intrepid researcher will find that several other lakes in the area southwest of Cheney have resorts on their shores, aside from the few listed here. Hopefully the following will get you started on finding a place that suits your recreational needs.

Williams Lake, just south of the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge on Cheney-Plaza Road, has a few options for campers. Klink’s Williams Lake Resort has sites ranging from basic tent sites for $16.95 to full-hookup RV sites for $24.95. Two- and four-person cabins are also available for $110 and $130, respectively, for a two-night stay. The two-person cabin has a queen-sized bed, the four-person cabin a queen-sized bed and a fold-out couch. They have power and few small appliances, but no plumbing. Showers and bathrooms are in a public building. Weekly rates are available for both campsites and cabins.

Williams Lake has no restrictions on motorized use, so speedboats and jet-skis are welcome. If you don’t have your own, you can rent powerboats as well as rowboats. If you do have your own, moorage and launch fees apply. A dedicated swimming area complete with waterslide, a camp store, and casual dining restaurant ensure that Klink’s can really only loosely be defined as “camping”; ample amenities are the draw here. Call (800) 274-1540 or visit http://www.klinksresort.com.

Bunker’s Resort is similar to Williams Lake with a long list of amenities. Cabins here are $75 and $90 per night for four and six people. These include indoor plumbing, a shower and bathroom, two or three queen-sized beds, and a kitchenette. Bedding and all kitchen utensils must be provided by the guest. Dock and launch fees are waived with a cabin rental. Campsites range from $16 to $30 for tent sites and full-hookup RV sites, with a few partial hookup options in between. Other features include a restaurant with a deck overlooking the lake, fishing dock, horseshoe pits, and both motorboat and rowboat rental. Call (800-404) 6674 or visit http://www.bunkersresort.com.

Downs Lake, a few miles southwest of Williams Lake on Martin Road, is the location for the aptly named Downs Lake Resort. Reservable partial-hookup RV sites are $21; non-reservable tent sites are $15. Boat rentals run $15 per day, and a small convenience store keeps anglers and campers well-supplied. And fishing seems to be the name of the game here. A wide variety of species assures that all types of anglers will find suitable prey and increases the likelihood that something will always be biting. Largemouth bass, rainbow trout, perch, crappie, panfish, and catfish all call the lake home. For those not crazy about fishing, a picnic area and swimming area will help keep you amused. Call (509) 235-2314.

Backpacking/Backcountry Camping

If you are determined to leave all signs of civilization behind and get out into completely undeveloped areas, then your options are more limited. Backcountry camping is not allowed in state or county parks. You need a national forest for this. Fortunately, there are three that are approximately an hour’s drive from Spokane: Colville, Kaniksu and Coeur d’Alene. Depending on where exactly you want to go within these forests, expect additional drive times. You are allowed to camp pretty much anywhere you want on national forest land, so long as you obey all rules and regulations regarding proximity to water, roads, and trails, fire safety, bear safety, length of stay, etc. Amenities are, well, non-existent, but if you are the backpacking type, then you know that what the untouched wilderness offers cannot be found in any man-made campground.

Visit http://www.fs.fed.us and navigate to the individual forests’ sites.

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