Saturday, July 5, 2008

Dispersed Camping is Available in the National Forests

It used to be a part of the lifestyle in Southwestern Washington. Large timberland owners managed much of the recreational land, and allowed camping. Along many of our region’s most famous rivers, families could pull off the pavement and camp next to the stream. It was one of the few places that campers could set up without hiking into the backcountry.

The practice has largely stopped along many rivers and streams as large land owners began to restrict camping due to resource damage and occasionally vandalism among other issues. In the National Forests, access is freely allowed in most areas.

Dispersed camping (read, camping anywhere you want) outside of a campground is allowed in the national forests unless there is signage that indicates otherwise. It is the step between a developed campground and backpacking. Humans however are drawn to water so most of the most notable dispersed camping areas in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest are along the Cispus, Lewis and Green Rivers south of Randle and Skate Creek between Packwood and Ashford.

We stumbled onto a beautiful spot along the Cispus River underneath Juniper Peak.

With campsites priced at $15 or more per night in most Forest Service or Park Service campgrounds, many people choose to “rough it” without water or bathroom facilities. There are extra responsibilities and skills that are necessary for dispersed camping. It is important that campers recognize and choose sites that are already “set-up” for camping rather than clear space, build a new fire ring and disturb more ground. That also includes leaving vehicles on barren ground and doing everything possible to not pollute lakes, creeks and rivers.

Campgrounds are carefully planned, regulated and maintained. They limit the number of camping locations closest to the local creek or river. Unless you camp on weekdays, the chances of you occupying some of this prime camping real estate, is fairly remote. It seems that there is always someone that never works and has the most enjoyable locations. Dispersed locations and a little luck can get you some of the best scenic locations on the forest.

Unfortunately, there can be an adversarial relationship between dispersed campers and their neighbors. With little enforcement around by camp hosts or rangers, behavior and ethics can be a little lax. Every spring, a group of Packwood area residents and outdoor enthusiasts pick up tons of garbage left by campers along Skate Creek Road.

My boys and I have a great dispersed location on Nason Creek in the Wenatchee National Forest near Steven's Pass. It has a beach and a great view of the tracks.

My boys and I share a very popular dispersed location on the Wenatchee National Forest near Levenworth with scores of faceless other visitors. We tend to be there on weeknights and most dispersed spots are busiest on weekends and holidays. Once last summer, we were awoken by a couple of young men looking for their friend at about 1:30am. I pointed to an location upstream a couple of miles where we had been hearing loud music all afternoon and evening. Again, the ethics of a few dispersed campers are not up to your standard forest user.

A campfire can be another variable. In almost all seasons in this state, you are allowed a fire in a developed campground. In undeveloped locations, campfires are tolerated, often restricted during fire season, or not allowed at all, even if there is what appears to be a safe fire pit. For my boys this is a deal breaker in the debate where we camp. Dispersed campers must know and obey the regulations. Our favorite spot is often marked with a fairly clear statement posted on one of the trees; No Campfires. In many cases, it is a gray area. Campers need to have an understanding of the true fire danger.

My boys building an access bridge with "resources" left behind by other campers.

In all, dispersed camping requires more skill in addition to a determination of the camper to allow the lightest impact possible. It is a wonderful opportunity, but everyone must realize that it is not something we can take for granted. With Forest Service budgets going in the tank and maintenance and enforcement at an absolute minimum, it wouldn’t surprise me to see dispersed camping become an activity of the past, just because a small percentage have poor ethics about how they treat their federal lands. Here in Southwest Washington, we watched private landowners do it over the last two decades. Let’s not give the feds reason to even think about it!

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