For many of us, spending the night in a crowded car campground, even in a beautiful locale, feels like camping in a mall parking lot. Likewise, unless you’re an Ironman, backpacking miles and miles in for a little woodland solitude is out of the question.
The solution? Get out your gazetteer and find your own slice of car-camping heaven by searching for a private pullout along any of the thousands of miles of U.S. Forest Service roads—first cut for loggers but open to you and me—twisting through some of the state’s most beautiful natural areas.
The options are particularly rich throughout the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie (Forest Road 32) and Gifford Pinchot (Forest Roads 81 and 83) national forests. Any pullout in these otherwise narrow dirt roads can serve as a campsite, but the best ones get you off the main road and into small clearings. Finding the perfect spot—and getting there before someone else—is part of the adventure. It’s an especially nice way to camp near Mount St. Helens, where the options are otherwise limited.
While it may be called “outlaw” camping—and indeed you could disappear for a long time out there in the seemingly random zigzag of dirt roads—nothing about it is illegal. We the people own our national forests and have paid for the dirt logging roads that bisect them. Another perk of going out on your own is the price: Besides the cost of the Northwest Forest Pass required to park in national forest parking lots and trailheads ($5/day or $30/year), outlaw camping is gratis.
Of course, all this freedom comes at a cost. You won’t have the safety net of other people around—let alone an amiable camp host with a trailer full of firewood—so be sure to go prepared for any contingency, and avoid all such areas in winter when snow can make already sketchy roads impassable.
Originally published in July 2010