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Trip Report Trip Report: 2 weeks car camping from SF to Mt. St. Helens and back

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This summer my wife decided that she wanted to see the changes on Mt. St. Helens which we had visited in 1991. So we packed up our camping gear and took off with no reservations, but we tried to plan our trip so that we would arrive at a campsite either early or early in the week or both, knowing that California state parks, for example, are fully reserved on weekends.

We left SF and went north on 101 to Cloverdale and than to 128 to the coast. We stopped at a couple wineries in the Anderson valley to taste some wine and buy a couple of bottles for our meals at the campsites. Our first night stop was Russian Gulch State Park, which we would not recommend. The campsites are in the gulch, along the creek, and the nice campsites, of which there are ten or so, are taken by long term campers. Our campsite was away from the water, on a strip between the road and the hillside, with barely enough room for the car, tent and table. There was no shade or privacy. If camping in the area, I would say that Van Damme gives a better chance of getting a good campsite, particularly at the higher level rather than at the creek level. We stayed there one night and took off the next day on highway 1. A few years back we had camped in the Usal campground of the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, taking the Usal road from highway 1 up to the campground. The road is impassable in the winter, and even in the summer it can be difficult to navigate. I would recommend a 4 wheel drive with nice clearance although the first time we did it with a two wheel drive. It is also not easy to find because it is unmarked. The park is undeveloped in that it has no safe drinking water. There is a creek running next to the campground, but the water must be boiled. We did not camp there this time, just stopped for a walk on the beach and a picnic lunch and drove on north until we hit the paved road to Shelter Cove and from there rejoined 101 and the redwood groves. We continued to Eureka and then headed inland looking for a campsite along highway 96. We found a National Forest campground near Happy Camp. The first one was unappealing, and it turned out that most of the campsites had been removed because an Indian burial ground had been found on the site. But half a mile farther down the road there was a very nice campground--we were the only ones there except for the camp host who gave us free firewood. Its only drawback was that it was close to the road and the lumber trucks started rumbling by early in the morning. We could have driven 8 miles away from the main road in to another campground, but decided to save the time by staying there. Route 96 is a very nice scenic road cutting through from the coast through the mountains, ending on Interstate 5 right by the Oregon border.

From the Oregon border we took the most direct route to Crater Lake National Park. This year we qualified for the Golden Pass, which is a steal. For $10 it gives a permanent half price reduction to all National Parks, half price to all campgrounds in areas run by a Federal agency, free access to National Forest and Monument day fee areas. We spent two nights at Crater Lake, going up to the lake during our one full day there. We strolled around, admired the scenery, admired the inside of the restored lodge, and went back to the campground for showers and a relaxing late afternoon. We were lucky, because the next day, while heading north, we got caught in a foggy drizzle on top and the lake was not visible. All of the Cascades had stormy weather, so instead of staying at higher elevations and in the trees, we went east toward Bend, hoping that the storms would be stopped by the Cascades. They were and we had a pleasant drive up, stopping at Smith Rock State Park for a picnic and, as it turned out, a stroll to admire the area. It is a fee area paid for by the hour, with the ticket obtained from a dispensing machine and placed on the dashboard. We noticed that the parking area was heavily patrolled to check for violators. That night we camped in the National Forest near Wamic. The first site was on a lake and turned out to be not very attractive, so we drove on to another site 8 miles away, which was a campground at a trail head, next to a nice stream but with no safe drinking water. Boiling was in order. There were maybe eight camp sites and a corral--although I would not want to pull a trailer on those roads--and the camping was free. We did have a few sprinkles as a leftover from the storms over the Cascades. The next day we drove to Mt. St. Helens starting on US 197 which at one point gave us a gorgeous view of snow-covered Mt. Adams rising above dry ranch lands of Oregon.

We meandered on the back roads of southern Washington between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens and eventually stopped for a couple of nights at Iron Creek campground which is 12 miles south of Randall. My wife claims that it is the most beautiful campground she has ever seen. It is a national Forest campground in the middle of what looks like a rain forest. The camp hosts had obviously not been familiar with it, because from their tone of voice it was clear that they were unhappy about spending a summer in that humid environment. But it was great for two days, and surprisingly free of mosquitoes. The next day we drove to the overlook point of Mt. St. Helens, drove to a more isolated spot where we picnicked, generally observed the changes that have occurred since we last were there (Spirit Lake and its basin does not look that changed). Climbing to the top of the hill above the observation point gives a view of three snow covered volcanoes: Mt. Adams, Mr. Rainier and Mt. Hood. From Mt. St. Helens we drove toward Portland and camped at the Battle Ground Lake State Park north of the Columbia River. We had previously camped in the Multnomah County CG/Oxbow, but that was not for us. That campground is gated and locked at 9 p.m. so that an evening out in Portland was problematic even though the campground was close to the end of the streetcar line. It also had a strict no alcohol policy, and we like to have wine with our dinners; in fact, we usually try to drink local wines when traveling through different wine areas. Battle Ground Lake CG did not have the same restrictions and was a mere 40 minutes from downtown Portland. We arrived at the campground in the afternoon, went into Battle Ground to do our laundry and stayed around the camp site for the rest of the day. The next day we went to see Portland, which unfortunately was going through a heat wave--higher 90s; not the best thing for just wandering around. We visited the Japanese gardens, picnicked in a nearby park, wandered around the downtown of Portland, and then went to a highly recommended Thai restaurant in the northwest side. The restaurant was very good but did not deserve the rave reviews it had received. We originally had wanted to go to another restaurant in the warehouse district, but it appeared closed, which is common on Mondays but this one was not listed as having a day off. The next day we stopped in Portland to visit its fine arts museum before heading south to see friends in Eugene.

We stayed a couple of days in Eugene and then went back over the Cascades to stop at Medicine Lake, just south of Lava Beds National Monument. My recollection was of a much less developed area. I think that the camping area has been greatly expanded. It is better to camp there than in Lava Beds because of the altitude difference and many campers come there for the water sports. I would have liked to have stayed to explore the lava formations some more, but we were scheduled to meet friends at a Lake Tahoe campsite at a specific date and were short on time. The next day we took off presumably in a southerly direction, but the navigator made a mistake that added a couple of hours to hour trip on national Forest roads. We could have gone back to the standard highways, but we much prefer traveling on the dirt roads away from all the traffic. We ended our travels that day at the Lake Almanor National Forest camp ground. It is enormous, with more than 100 sites, but each site is quite large and nicely separated from the other so that one does not feel crowded. It is close to the lake and quite a few campers had boats parked in the car area in the evening. It might be an ideal location for an extended stay for those who like water sports. The next day we met our friends at the Sugar Pine State Park campground and stayed there for a couple of days--they had made reservations weeks in advance. Sugar Pines is ideal for family camping. It is on flat grounds with easy access to Lake Tahoe. D.L.Bliss is on hillier terrain, an easy hike to Emerald Bay, but some of the campsites are too close to steep slopes to have small children around. From there we drove home to SF.

Particulars on trip information. We used the DeLorme Northern California Atlas and Gazetteer for road information, and AAA maps for Oregon and Washington. For campsites, we used the 1991 edition of the Allstate Motor Club RV Park & Campground Directory--Western U.S. etc. I have tried to find an update to this campground guide, but those I have found are simply not as easy to use.

As far as I'm concerned, camping is the only way to really see the West Coast, with the possible exception of large cities such as Seattle, SF, LA and San Diego. It is my contention that it would be cheaper to buy camping equipment and rent a car than to stay in motels or rent a camper, even if the equipment is abandoned at the end of the trip. I priced tent camping equipment (tent, air mattresses, sleeping bags, cooking equipment etc.) at about $250 for acquaintances who were considering such a trip, buying the equipment at Big 5 Sporting Goods, or K-Mart, or Target, or similar stores.

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