Beckler River Campground in the Stevens Pass area is one of my brother-in-law’s favorite spots, and we had planned a trip to overlap a night with the back in December when we were blissfully unaware that a pandemic was brewing.
As the state parks in Washington started to open up for camping, I eagerly checked the US Forest Service website (which reflects the lack of funding for natural resources in America, just saying) almost daily to see if we’d be able to keep our first tent camping reservation of 2020. My spreadsheets of packing lists and meal planning were ready, and 3 days beforehand, we got the green light.
This was James’ first tent camping trip and I had really been looking forward to it because camping is going to be our only real opportunity to travel for the foreseeable future. Traveling with kids is always hard, but often rewarding, and this trip was an indicator that camping amplifies the “kid factor.”
This campground is only about 90 minute drive or less from Seattle down a pretty easy stretch of Highway 2, but it also gets you closer to hikes that might be tough for just a day trip with small children who hate the car.
En route, you pass Wallace Falls State Park in the Gold Bar area. We used this as a stopping point when James wouldn’t nap in the car – it took us a little less than 2 hours to do the 3.6 miles round trip to Lower Falls with Julia, with James napping for half of that. It’s a lovely hike, but the sunny weather brought out the crowds. People mostly distanced, but bring your mask and hand sanitizer because there were a couple of large groups ignoring all the rules.
Past the campground, we love the Wellington Ghost Town trail (about 35 minutes east of the campground; restrooms temporarily closed so prepare accordingly). The backstory is sad – in the early 20th century, two trains were stuck in the snow-covered pass when an avalanche pushed them down into a gulch, killing 96 people. However, the hike is really unique and has signs posted along the way so you can read about the history. It’s amazing to think about how much more difficult and dangerous relatively short trips were not that long ago. You also get to walk through the snow shed that was designed to help protect against avalanches, but wasn’t always used because of the troublesome coal exhaust. When we went, melting snow made beautiful waterfalls over the shed roof and elsewhere on the trail. At the time, there were lots of cut logs in the parking lot that made a great obstacle course.
Most sites in the relatively small campground had tent pads that were well set back from the road and groomed (slightly raised and well-defined with a clear dirt area). The level of privacy was pretty good and many of the sites were quite large, giving kids room to run around relatively safely. Because the campground is smaller with low traffic, the main loop was also a great place for kids to ride their bikes. It made for some nice socially distant encouragement between the more experienced riders and Julia, who had just learned how to start herself on this trip.
We’ve camped some places and never seen the camp hosts, but the camp host here was a hardworking woman who provided lots of information. I saw her cleaning the pit toilets multiple times daily in a face mask with her electric bike and trailer. That’s tough in the best of times, but without running water (see below), it’s even harder.
One of the more frustrating aspects of this trip was the unexpected lack of running water. The website for the campground says drinking water is provided and there was no alert on the website or in any of the e-mails I received indicating otherwise. However, there’s only one water pump in the campground and we found out upon arrival that apparently someone broke it last season and it hasn’t been fixed yet (another example of poor parks funding I”m sure). Luckily, there’s a small gas station in nearby Skykomish that sells large containers of water (we went through about 2.5 gallons from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning for reference), but with a pandemic making it extra important to wash things, we were grateful for our large pump bottle of hand sanitizer and container of baby wipes, and the fact that we weren’t staying too long.
Wait, wasn’t this a pro? Yes, mostly. When we chatted with the camp host on arrival, she very sweetly asked if we were “familiar with the area” and then proceeded to tell us that the people who own the private land across the river from the campground love to shoot and there’s nothing the Forest Service can do about it. From about 4-6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, we got to listen to the sweet, sweet melody of random bursts of gunfire (not just hunting rifles, also what sounded like semi-automatic weapons). It was disturbing and upset our 4 year old. We were grateful they weren’t night owls, but ugh.
The campground has pit toilets and no other facilities. As mentioned above, they were quite clean for what they are. I would attribute this largely to the camp host’s diligent cleaning and also to everyone doing their part to limit the spread of COVID by leaving the doors open to promote airflow (this request, but not the lack of water, was mentioned in the pre-arrival e-mail).
My in-laws used to love this campground because it was right on the river and the kids loved to play on a little beach and throw rocks in the water. However, the camp host told us that the river was a) extra high for the year and b) had changed course over the winter so that it came right up to the banks. So, if you’re looking to enjoy more than the sound of the river (which is relaxing when not interrupted by bullets), you’ll have to drive up the road to somewhere with easier access, or perhaps wait until later in the season when the water starts to dry up.
The kids really seemed to love camping – playing in the dirt, going on hikes, riding a bike and enjoying relaxed camping rules (like homemade marshmallows and extra snacks). James was not a good sleeper, so that colors my overall view of the trip a bit. He woke up off and on throughout the night, but that kept me from ever really going back to sleep between midnight and when he was up for the day between 4:45 and 5:30 a.m.
Would I camp here again? Maybe. I might call the Skykomish Ranger Station in non-pandemic times to check on the status of running water, and perhaps stay at Money Creek Campground up the road if it’s not adjacent to neighbors who enjoy happy hour shooting sessions (seriously, that was tough for this city slicker).