MN to WA – Hidden Camping Gems!

Hello friends – I made the decision to ride out the pandemic this winter in an apartment in the Seattle area. I didn’t like the stress and uncertainty over camp closures and new areas during the pandemic. I know plenty of people are still camping and even full-timing. I hope for their safety and know that each of us makes their own decision. I am missing the road but happy to be in a safe spot.

I want to share my last trip with you. After I left my last campground in Wisconsin on the Mississippi River, I headed to MN. I was waiting for the final approvals for my apartment and it took longer than I expected. Such is the way of the world these days. I spent a lovely week in Melrose, MN at Sauk River Park. Never heard of it? Me neither! What a gem of a find. Melrose is northwest of St. Cloud on I-94. I was determined to avoid the Sturgis Rally this year on I-90 and opted for the northern route. Melrose is a tiny town with a fantastic city park that sits on the Sauk River. The campground has water and electric, a great dump station, trash dumpsters, paths for walking, and even some trees for shade. I managed to get through a couple of very rainy days and enjoyed my stay the rest of the time, backed up to the baseball fields.

I made my way through North Dakota which is a mixed bag of highs and lows. I stopped at an Army Corps of Engineers park near Valley City. Another gem. It’s about 15 miles from the Interstate, but worth the trip. I stayed at West Ashtabula Crossing campground. There are several in the area, but some are run by private contractors and they do not honor the senior discount pass. Lake Ashtabula is home to migratory birds, specifically to some pelicans that I frequently saw in Rockport, TX last winter!! I thought it was a wonderful piece of symmetry in the universe. The campground was not typical ACE because there were no pads for RVs. Just park on grass spots that were very uneven. I was only there for one night and had a waterfront site. I got the Airstream level enough and thoroughly enjoyed my stay.

I was taking my time crossing the width of the state and wanted to stop on the far west side at Teddy Roosevelt National Park. I had reservations there earlier this summer that got cancelled by the park due to Covid. They opened reservations the day before I got there. I tried to get in, but within 5 minutes the entire month was booked at Cottonwood campground. Well, I stopped at the park observation point so I could at least see the park. I was stunned. This park is like the Badlands North. It was awesome! I didn’t get into the park proper because they are requiring timed passes. I did get into a gem of a campground bordering the park on the west – Buffalo Gap. It’s a US Forest Service campground in the Little Missouri Grasslands area (so named for the headwaters of the Missouri River). This is primitive camping but they do have a dump station. Beautiful setting.

I had plans for more boondock camping as I headed west and had to rethink those plans. I was driving into Montana with a heat wave. Temps, even at higher elevations, would be in the high 90s and 100s. I’m all for boondock camping, but in those temps, when it won’t cool down much at night, I need A/C and that means I need electricity. I limped along the next day trying to keep my tires cool by stopping frequently at rest stops, but the heat was searing. Nothing like seeing your dashboard thermometer say 104 degrees as you drive down the highway. Did you know there is absolutely no shade in the state of Montana?!?! I finally stopped in Columbus, MT. I had planned to be at a lovely low-cost city campground on a river with no hook ups, but opted for a commercial park with full hook ups. It was dusty and HOT at about 4 in the afternoon when I pulled in. They had cottonwoods in this park and I got a shady spot. I swear – the only shade in the state. I plugged in and fired up the A/C. I popped the breaker in my quest to get cool. Once the converter cooled down, all was well. I didn’t even eat dinner. I fell asleep.

Next day I headed for Missoula. I had hoped to stay at a US Forest Service campground, but again, temps were in the high 90s. I opted for another commercial park I had stayed at once before. No gem. A view of the mountains was nice. It was a place to stay. Montana is a beautiful state and so is Idaho. Just not in a heat wave.

The next day I planned a stop west of Spokane. I forgot about the time change and when I got to Spokane I realized it was way too early to stop for the day. I did not want to go to Moses Lake in the center of the state because they were expecting highs of 102, thus my original idea to stop a little early. But with the time change I realized I could make the run all the way to Snoqualmie. Once I got west of Moses Lake (which was indeed at 100 as I passed through and stopped for gas), it got cooler. The Columbia River gorge are is beautiful. Then, I breezed through Snoqualmie Pass (which can have accidents and traffic bumper to bumper if you don’t time your travel right), and made it to my brother’s house by early evening. It was a relief to have my trip nearly complete.

I driveway mooched (on the side street) and had a very pleasant and cool evening in view of by beloved Mt. Si.

My last camping park is another gem! I spent two nights at the Game Farm Wilderness Park in Auburn, WA. This is a city park and is just delightful. Tall firs ring the campground. Level spaces have water and electric and there is a dump station. It was nice and cool in the shade of these towering trees and then it started raining – a typical light, PNW type of rain. Now, you have to understand that August and early September are the golden months in Seattle – no rain. I was moving into my new place the next day and what did I get? Rain. It all worked out. I haven’t experienced any more rain since the day I moved in…

So now I live in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. When it’s not horribly smoky as we are experiencing now, it is clear enough to see this magnificent mountain. There is nothing like turning a corner and seeing it in all its splendor. Even though I’m a couple of hours away, it’s so tall it looks like it’s nearby. It is amazing.

I did a day trip to Dash Point State Park on Puget Sound and could see Mount Olympus on the Olympic Peninsula in the National Park. It was pretty far away, but the glacier is visible.

Later, I was driving to Snoqualmie and for one brief moment at the top of the ridge, I could see Mt. Baker in the Northern Cascades National Park. It is perpetually snowcovered, so you know when you see a white mountain peak, that’s it. I did not get a pic (but will go back when the smoke clears). Here’s one I took two years ago from the Peninsula looking east.

Life in the PNW is filled with elevation, fir trees, bodies of water, and now, fires. I’ve experienced smoke and fires in the west before, but this year is really bad. We had the equivalent of Santa Ana eastern winds that blew smoke through the pass and right down the west side of the Cascades into the Seattle metro. Now we have winds from the south (and it doesn’t take much) that is giving us all the Oregon smoke with AQ levels over 200 every day. At least temps are cooling from the mid 90s we had a couple of days and that means keeping the windows shut is tolerable. Soon enough there will be rain and the smoke will leave us.

I am planning more day trips to Washington State Parks and National Parks in the area, weather and air quality permitting. My posts will be less frequent, but I’ll keep providing content. Hope you are safe wherever you are and enjoy a lovely fall.

Dash Point State Park on Puget Sound


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