A birthday weekend towards the coast. And car camping?

Ever since I got back into camping in 2005, I’ve pretty much done it with a bike. I can count on one hand* the amount of times I’ve driven, er, have been driven somewhere to camp. All of my current camping equipment and expertise (so to speak) is based around carrying it on a bike. “Car camping” is this big nebulous thing to me.

And last weekend I went car camping.

August 7th was my birthday. Originally I had booked four days off (Saturday August 5 to Tuesday August 8) not for my birthday but for a bike tour in Eastern Oregon that was organized by someone else. As is the nature of when you rely on others to plan your trips, it fell through a couple weeks before it happened. No problem, I have time off to do other stuff!

Normally I would just use it to do a four day bike tour somewhere else. But I wanted to hang out with my girlfriend Emee. And right now she does not bike camp, but has a van. So, why not car camp?

Well, in this part of the world, it’s not as easy as one would think. Yes, there are plenty of great places to camp. But finding one of those available on an August weekend? With only a couple weeks lead time, I found that pretty much anywhere that was reserveable was booked solid. Sure, we could free camp in National Forests and such, but for my first trip with my new girlfriend, I wanted something with…amenities. So, where?

Then I remembered a couple campgrounds to our north, both about 10-15 miles outside of Chehalis, WA: Lewis and Clark State Park and Rainbow Falls State Park. Both were off the beaten path,  far enough from the population centers of Seattle-Tacoma and Portland. Plus, both were first-come, first-served! I stayed in both before, Lewis and Clark during the Big Tour in 2011, Rainbow Falls during my PDX-Oly-Astoria tour in May/June 2012. I remember both as being pleasant. (It didn’t hurt that both had hiker/biker sites either!)

We decided to leave mid-afternoon on Friday and aim for Rainbow Falls. The two hour ride was pretty uneventful, except for the “event” of me driving most of the way so Emee could catch up on work. Yes, I still have a driver’s license, even if it’s every year or three until I actually drive! We got into Rainbow Falls around 6, and found plenty of sites still available. On a Friday night in August in Western Washington! Unbelievable. We found a good one and paid for two nights.

Rainbow Falls is along the Chehalis River. The “falls” themselves are a plunge in the rock along the river. No Multnomah Falls, for sure, but great for swimming. Emee and I didn’t get in the water, but there were plenty of others that did.

The other main attraction here is the Willapa Hills Trail.** It’s an old Northern Pacific rail line between South Bend and Chehalis now converted to rail-trail. The trail is in various states of repair, but they’ve done A LOT of work over the past couple years. It’s rideable by “regular bikes”*** from Pe Ell, seven miles west of Rainbow Falls, to Chehalis, fifteen miles east. And they are working on making the whole thing rideable by “regular bikes”. Emee and I packed bikes in the van: her Gary Fisher hybrid, my Raleigh Superbe.  We headed west to Pe Ell, took a break, then headed back to camp. The trail riding was fairly pleasant, if a bit unexciting (I hear heading east is more fun, as there’s a lot more bridges over the river). The big complaint was the gravel: while many rail-trails use a fine crushed limestone, this was more small gravel, and there were several loose sections. I probably wouldn’t mind it as much if I brought one of my two-inch-wide tired bikes, but the Superbe with 40 mm tires wasn’t as fun. Oh well, hopefully it gets graded out a bit.

And then Sunday! To the coast. This time we did have reservations at my favorite coastal park/campground in the area, Cape Disappointment State Park. Heading west down the Willapa River valley to the ocean, the hazy sunshine (we’ve been having a heat wave in Western Oregon and Washington, and fires from the Interior had been clouding the skies) was traded with gloomy overcast, and a dramatic drop in the temps. Aah. It got chilly enough that I actually put a down jacket on…

Monday was my birthday. We drove over to Astoria to hang out in the town. We stayed at a very nice hotel (Commodore) and wandered the streets on foot. On the way out of town we had an obligatory stop at the Astoria Column despite the fog. And since you were going to ask, no, we did not stop at the Goonies House, sorry.) And coming back to Portland, we rode the Puget Island Ferry, the last ferry on the Lower Columbia River!


It was a good trip. But different. It took me a little bit to wrap my head around the concept of car camping again. I’ve been used to packing light and making sure everything can fit on a bike. But with a van? Stuff that sucker up! As it is, since my gear is bike based, it didn’t take up a lot of space. But there were things that I wished I had thought of bringing but didn’t, like a cast iron skillet for cooking over the fire. I’d never think about it in my regular trips, but here it would have been a fun luxury.

What wasn’t a fun luxury was stressing out about where to camp. And I’m not used to that, since with a bike trip, one rarely books a spot in advance. Most places in the area are amenable to cyclotourists–if they don’t have a dedicated camping spot, they’ll usually make room somewhere. They ain’t going to do that with a car!

Anyways, the next camping trip will be more human powered, but a bit different…

*Assisted bike camping is different, though. There are many times I’ve put my bike on a bus, then rode ten miles to camp. But that still falls under the umbrella of “bike camping”.

**There was a bit of hiking in the state park on the other side of the Chehalis River, but since the floods of 2007 cut off the bridge across the river in the park, to get to this rump part of the park requires a several mile detour.

***Some sections are still just old railroad ballast, so they’d be excruciating to ride on anything short of a bike with 3 inch tires.

4 thoughts on “A birthday weekend towards the coast. And car camping?

Add yours

  1. Happy birthday! I had one one July 23rd myself and did the Sunday Bike-ways in Portland with friends that day. Your trip looks fun, its funny you mention Willapa Hills Trail as I have it one my list to ride at least a portion of that trail on my Miyata trail runner once it get it dialed in.

  2. Ha! I have similar if-I-car-camp-I-still-only-bring-my-bike-stuff trips, which always makes me laugh. I think part of not owning a car is that I never actually acquired the things (camp chairs, big old tents, two-boiler stoves, etc) that make car camping so comfortable. Cuz what the heck would I do with those? So camping in a car for me always feels more like a liability: it’s like bike camping, except you have to deal with the thing you mention, not being able to just show up and camp.

    Though I’m glad you made it work:) And happy birthday forever ago now! 🙂

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