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M&J Outdoor Communications » Camping the Columbia River's State Parks


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Camping the Columbia River’s State Parks

Standing where I was, the word “diversity” kept running through my mind. And why shouldn’t it have been? Behind me and less than 100 yards distant stood the awesome and mysterious rock pillars of Stonehenge, while before me, the mighty Columbia River coursed past lush peach orchards and 1000-year-old stone walls on whose weathered faces Indian petroglyphs watched over the swirling waters. And beyond the river, the high arid lands of eastern Washington. It was, as my wife, Julie, claimed, truly the best of all worlds. With, she continued, an emphasis on the “all” aspect.

Today’s travelers certainly aren’t the first to take advantage of the benefits, and the beauty, that is the Columbia River. With headwaters far to the north of the Evergreen State in the wilds of British Columbia, the river first provided sustinence, as well as a means of transportation, for native American tribes residing in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon. These included the Chinook, Multnomah, Wahkiakum, and Cathlamet, among others, and many of whom lent their names to towns, cities, counties, and waterways throughout the Pacific Northwest. Famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark made their epic and since unrivalled cross-country journey, which culminated at the mouth of the Columbia, in 1805; however, while Lewis and Clark were the first white men to journey to the Columbia from the east, another wanderer, Captain Robert Gray, actually lays claim to the discovery of the river itself, an event which took place in May of 1792. Crossing the treacherous Columbia River bar in his sailing vessel not surprisingly named the Columbia, Gray travelled just a short distance upstream from the river’s mouth to a point, many say, not far from the present town of Cathlamet. During that same year, a second sea-going explorer by the name of Lieutenant W.R. Broughton would venture some 100 miles upstream.

For visitors to the Columbia River in the late 18th and early 19th century , camping wasn’t an option as it would be another 150 years before the first Super 8 or Motel 6 would appear on the lodging scene. Nor was it always a pleasant experience due in large part to the Pacific Northwest’s, and particularly the lower portion of the Columbia Basin’s, reputation for rain. Today, however, outdoor enthusiasts from around the world come to the Columbia, despite the sometimes inclement weather, simply because of the region’s unparalleled beauty and the almost infinite list of natural wonders that exist no where else but along the shores of what many consider one of the most incredible places on the planet.

Camping opportunities, either formally located such as in the case of state parks and public use areas, or informal, otherwise known as “you’re on your own here,” are practically without number along the Columbia from the point where it enters the United States in northern Stevens County, Washington, downstream to the estuary near the towns of Astoria, Oregon, and Ilwaco, Washington. Along upper river impoundments such as Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, an immense body of water created by the construction in 1941 of the famed Grand Coulee Dam, campers will find a variety of both formal and informal facilities. These will range from Mom and Pop “Jellystone Park”-esque sites complete with a concession stand and optional warm-water swimming pool - after all, who wants to swim with salmon, sturgeon, and the dread northern squawfish? - to more primitive, some would say desolate, boat-in options located along the lakeshore, each tailormade for those with a passion for packing tent and Coleman stove into the Weldcraft and getting away from it all for the weekend.

And while these either (formal)-or(informal) options are nice, the Columbia River does camping enthusiasts one better by offering several different choices which we’ll refer to as one-stop shopping experiences. Most folks, however, know these by their more common name, the state park. The states of Washington and Oregon both feature a long list of state parks and park-like facilties, and not surprisingly, a good portion of these can be found along the shores of the Columbia, with most being located from the river’s confluence with the Snake downstream to the mouth. Population, some say, is the reason for this disportionate distribution between riverine and interior parks; however, it makes sense when one thinks about the original explorers and their emphasis on the gorge and esturary areas, as well as those who followed shortly after.