Best of the West: Camping

Anyone who knows me knows that I love adventure. I love to get outside, breathe deeply of fresh air, see new things and marvel at God’s creation.

I got my first taste of outdoor adventure came in high school at a camp called Second Wind at JH Ranch in northern California. It was a two week adventure camp for teens that included a 3 day backpacking trip — my first real camping experience. We hiked through pelting hail, got lost, had soaking wet sleeping bags and I even slept by a mosquito nest on my solo and woke up with my face swollen from bites (not pretty). And still, somehow, I loved it all. I had the camping bug.

Several years ago I found myself without a job but a nice severance package that allowed for a bit of freedom. I somehow managed to get hired by an awesome company called Bold Earth to lead adventure trips for teens. How I got hired sometimes still baffles me. Sure, I had tons of experience leading teens, but next to no true camping experience. I didn’t know how to run an outdoor kitchen or properly make a fire. I was learning as fast as I could during staff training, praying I wouldn’t start a forest fire or get us all lost in the woods. After the first summer, they hired me again for the next and the next (which I sadn’t couldn’t do). They were some of the best summers of my life.

Along the way I’ve found some camping spots that I love. I still have a lot of places to explore so this list is by no means complete, but these are some of my favorites camping spots I’ve found along the way.

1. Yosemite National Park

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Oh, Yosemite, you gorgeous piece of God’s creation! I absolutely love, love, love everything about this place. I love the valley with its sprawling meadows and glistening river. I love the beautiful rock formations that take your breath away around every corner (this is a rock climbing mecca!). I love the old timey feel of Curry Village with it’s tent cabins and ampitheater (fun fact: for years and years people used to get all dressed up and drive to Yosemite for the shows in Curry Village!). I love the wildflowers and lakes up in the high country. I’ve been to Switzerland and I think Yosemite is just as beautiful.

biking

Camping tips: Yosemite is one of the West’s most popular places to camp and sites in the valley are gone literally in seconds! If you really want to camp in the valley in the summer I suggest having every person in your party get up early on reservation day (5 months out I believe) and all try for a spot at the same time. That’s about the ONLY way you MIGHT get a spot. Otherwise, I suggest visiting in the off-season (we’ve loved visiting in September the past two years…less crowds but still summer-like weather) or trying for one of the camping locations outside of the valley. I loved staying in Tuolumne Meadows in the summer! A bit far from the valley with all it’s restaurants and popular hikes, but with plenty of hikes of it’s own and a lovely sandy shore lake that is perfect for enjoying a warm afternoon off. Also, if you stay in the valley, take your bikes or rent some there! There is nothing like spending an afternoon biking through the valley along it’s wooden meadow paths.

2. Zion National Park

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We just returned from a long weekend in Zion, a return trip for me and a first visit for the hubs. It was a departure from our annual Yosemite trip, but it was a welcome one. This park is just stunning.

Zion is located in Southwest Utah about 2.5 hours from Las Vegas. The park’s beauty comes from the red and orange sandstone walls peaking from a 15 mile long canyon. The Virgin River winds it’s way through the canyon alongside meadows full of turkey and deer, and making a tight path along rock walls on a hike know as the “Narrows.” Head to Zion on the shoulder seasons (April-May and Sept-Oct) to avoid the sweltering summer heat (I’ve been in July when temps were around 105 every day and never lowering below 85 at night) and still be able to enjoy hiking through the Narrows without a dry suit on.

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Another famous hike is up to Angel’s Landing and is not for the faint of heart. After winding your way through a series of tight switchbacks you catch your breath just for long enough to notice the final ascent involves a 1.5 mile roundtrip along narrow ledges with a chain to hold on to. The view is SO worth it and you’ll have forgotten all about the sketchy scramble up the ledge just in time to head back down and do it in reverse.

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On a hot day you can head into Springdale and rent a tube to float down the Virgin River. The river is chilly and swift and makes for a fantastic day. If I remember correctly, tubing the river lasts approximately 1.5 hrs and the tubing rental companies drop you off and pick you up at the beginning and end of your float trip.

Camping tips: The only reserved campground in Zion is Watchman, which has well over 150 campsites and modern flush toilets. There is a first-come, first-serve campground that has great spots along the river but seems to fill up early in the day. There are no showers in the park, but several places in the town of Springdale offer showers for those willing to shell out a few bucks. Zion doesn’t allow cars to drive through most of the park which helps keep the park a peaceful sanctuary. The have an efficient shuttle system, though, which picks people up both in the town of Springdale (right outside the park gates) and throughout the canyon. If you prefer, you can do as we did and take your bikes to Zion! The roads are mostly flat and if you still get tired, there is room on every shuttle for 2 bikes.

3. Spider Meadow

Spider Meadow

I first went to Spider Meadow in Washington on a trip with Bold Earth in 2006. It was voted by the staff as the best backpack out of all the trip locations, and after a visit there I totally agreed. It is SO gorgeous there! You can reach Spider Meadow in the Cascade range by a long but fairly easy 5-6 mile hike. The trail leads you to a beautiful u-shaped valley that is blanketed by wildflowers. A creek runs through the glacier-shaped valley which you can follow an additional mile to Philips Basin. Spider Meadow makes for a perfect 3 day backpack. There are often a few other backpackers in the valley, but you’ll still get to enjoy plenty of space and quiet. When I was there we used the second day of the trip to hike further up to the glacier for a day of sledding on the snow using our rain jackets as sleds. So much fun!

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You can learn more about how to reach Spider Meadow here.

4. Orcas Island, Washington

Orcas Island

The San Juan Islands off the coast of northwest Washington as just so beautiful and fun to visit. On my first summer with Bold Earth I visited at least 3 of the different islands including Lopez Island, Orcas Island and San Juan Island. Each island has it’s own character and feel. I found San Juan Island to be the most touristy and busy, while Lopez Island is super sleepy with tons of bikers touring the country roads. And then there is Orcas Island. I fell in love with this island. Named for the Orcas whale that can often be spotted here, Orcas Island has the loveliest little village in the center of the island and hosts several great campsites where you can play in the water, enjoy miles of trails, and kayak in search of the great Orcas whales. We stayed in Moran State Park, but other camping options include Obstruction Pass State Park and Doe Island State Park.

IMG_0287my friend Andrew checking out the sea life as we kayaked around the islands

You can take a ferry either from Anacortes, Washington or Victoria, Canada. If you’re taking your car, be sure to arrive at the ferry about an hour early as they don’t have as much room for vehicles as they do for people. We traveled to most of these island by bike, which is a great way to get around the islands.

5. San Elijo State Beach

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Bringing the camping closer to home is San Elijo State Beach campsite in Cardiff-by-the-Sea just north of San Diego. I like to call this the Hilton of camping not just because it’s super comfortable as far as camping goes — there is a Starbucks, grocery store and various amazing restaurants just across the street — but also because it’s pretty pricey as far as camping goes. An oceanfront campsite runs $65 a night…quite a bit more than your usual $12-$20 at most state and national parks. For the price you get to camp along a lovely stretch of the Pacific Ocean where surfing is king and the California relax vibe is in full effect. Grab some breakfast burritos at Pipes then walk up to Swamis to watch the local surfers fight for the best waves. You can also rent boards and take surf lessons in the campground if you’re feeling the itch. If you can’t find a spot in San Elijo to camp, there are so many other great campsites all up the Southern Cali coast including Carlsbad State Beach, San Onofre and Crystal Cove, all of which are extremely popular with locals and tend to be fully booked up months in advance. IMG_2567

There are SO many great places to camp in the West, especially in the summer. This is by no means a complete list. I also love places like Sequoia Nat’l Park, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Deceptions Pass in Washington and Crater Lake. What are some of your favorite camping spots? We’re always looking for new places to explore!

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