When Julia turned 2, we took her on a little weekend getaway to Whidbey Island. We stayed in an AirBnB in Langley, ate dinner at our favorite restaurant in Coupeville (The Oystercatcher) and went on a lovely whale watching trip where we saw 5 gray whales. James turned 2 this year, so I wanted to try to make whale watching a tradition by booking a family tour again.
The owners of Mystic Sea Charters — the company we used previously— chose to retire and sell their business to Puget Sound Express, so I gave them a call to check on their COVID protocols.
Satisfied that they seemed reasonable (roughly the risk profile of tented outdoor dining), we rounded up the vaccinated grandparents and headed out on what ended up being a gorgeous bluebird day.
I wrote about the experience for Seattle’s Child and it’s available here.
Have you done COVID-era tours? What protocols matter most to you?
Originally published in March 2021. Last updated in October 2021 to include Summer 2021 trip updates
We weren’t huge campers before kids, but perks like tons of outdoor time and dirt to dig in have made us fans of camping with little ones (except camping sleep, that’s still terrible). We typically camp two weekends a month during the summer and once or twice during the spring and fall shoulder seasons (although usually in a cabin).
Different phases of parenthood bring peaks and valleys to camping — we haven’t really camped with newborns, for example, and have enjoyed cabin camping in the shoulder season or when I’ve camped on my own with the kids. I’ve written before about our camping plans, but got some requests for campground recommendations that I wanted to compile into one post.
Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of campgrounds we’ve stayed at over the years, generally organized by region. State Parks need to be booked at Washington GoingtoCamp (9 months in advance), whereas national forest/national parks are booked at Recreation.Gov (6 months in advance). I’m a planner and haven’t stayed anywhere with first-come, first-serve camping before because the amount of effort to pack up and potentially not have a spot is too high for me.
Be sure to let me know if there’s a campground missing that we should look into next year
Season stayed: Summer 2020 Site: C4 (Cabin); Quarry Pond Campground Drive time from Seattle: 1.5 hours Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: Sites are small and cabin keypad access can be tricky (make sure to go to the park entrance on the other side of the highway for your code; it won’t be in your confirmation e-mail or onsite), but you can’t beat the location for access to the great hikes and beach around Deception Pass. I camped here solo with the kids and wrote a blog post here.
Season stayed: Summer 2020, Summer 2021 Site: 62, 13 Drive time from Seattle: Just over 1 hour Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: The first site we stayed in was quite small and surrounded by blackberry bushes, but we booked late because of the pandemic and it was fine for last-minute camping. Campsites around the outside of the upper and lower campgrounds generally have more space. In 2021, we stayed in the lower loop and had water views at site 13. That said, it was still a small spot and it was close to the road to the beach, so we heard the fisherpeople headed out to the water in their noisy trucks at 5 a.m. There is great beach access via a short trail, especially from the lower campground, as well as family-friendly trails throughout the park and nearby Cama Beach State Park. See blog post here for more details.
Season stayed: Winter 2020 Site: C40 (Deluxe Cabin) Drive time from Seattle: Just over 1 hour Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: While trekking kids and gear down to the beach from an uphill parking lot is tough, it was worth it for the car-free waterfront area. There are several trails in the park that are family-friendly in addition to a small playground, outdoor giant chess set and a seasonally open general store. During pre-pandemic times, the Center for Wooden Boats often hosts events that are fun for kids (like boat building and crafts). The Cama Beach cabins finally transitioned to the online reservation system in the last year or two (you used to have to call and wait on hold forever). See my Seattle’s Child article here for more details.
Season stayed: Spring 2018 Site: 79 Drive time from Seattle: 3 hours (assuming you time the ferry perfectly) Would we stay again?: Yes, but not during the pandemic (rural community with low access to medical facilities and a long ferry ride and drive with limited restroom access). General thoughts: The San Juans require some time investment (a 2 hr drive from N. Seattle + a 1 hr ferry that should be reserved in advance), but we loved this campground when we only had one kid to schlep (Julia is a better car traveler than James). There’s a small lake where you can play by the beach, buy ice cream from a little stand and rent canoes and kayaks. The loop trail around the lake is also family-friendly and pretty, plus you can scout out other campgrounds. Mt. Constitution is a beautiful hike with a lookout (which might be closed due to COVID, but a quick search didn’t specify) and you can drive all or part of the way up to adjust the hike length for little legs. Blog post here for more details.
Season stayed: Fall 2015 (I was pregnant with Julia), Fall 2017 Site: C1 and C2 (cabins) Drive time from Seattle: 1 hour Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: The cabins at Wallace Falls are great with much more privacy than at other state parks. The restrooms were also extremely clean when we visited. The parking area is small though and while there are spots dedicated to cabin campers, I could see summer visitors ignoring them. There aren’t as many trails in the immediate vicinity (besides the obvious Wallace Falls) as other parks, so that’s a limiting factor. The nearby town of Gold Bar has several restaurants if you don’t feel like cooking — I really miss the previous owners of the Gold Bar Cafe who made amazing Mi Quang Pho (it was good enough for me to drive out from Seattle once or twice while pregnant).
Season stayed: Summer 2020 Site: 22 Drive time from Seattle: 1.5 hours Would we stay again?: Probably not General thoughts: The sites at this campground are pretty large and private and the camp host is delightful and does her best to keep everything clean. That said, there were some unanticipated problems with this campground that make me hesitant to go back. The biggest one is that the neighbors like to have their happy hour shooting parties, so you should expect loud gunfire particularly on weekends. There was also no running water while we were there due to a pipe damaged the previous year that hadn’t been fixed, and the river had changed course so it wasn’t safe to play in. If you go in with these expectations, you’ll be fine, but I’m a camping wimp and I like things like running water and natural noise. This campground is near some cool hikes, like the Wellington Ghost Town trail. More details are in this blog post.
Season stayed: Summer 2018 Site: D001 Drive time from Seattle: 2 hours Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: The best times to stay in Mt Rainier National Park are both the most popular (July/August when it’s not too cold and there are wildflowers) and the most uncertain due to our wildfire season. When we went, wildfires were just ending and it was really cloudy and slightly rainy, but there was a statewide burn ban. Luckily, the burn ban doesn’t apply to federal land and we were able to have a small fire for warmth, although we didn’t keep it particularly long. This campground has an amphitheater (the program when we stayed was a special edition that was held elsewhere), so there should be fun evening programs outside of the pandemic. It’s also pretty close to the Paradise Inn if you wanted to avoid cooking (we visited pre-pandemic, so I can’t speak to openings).
Season stayed: Summer 2021 Site: D21, A27 Drive time from Seattle: 3 hours Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: We oopsed on this one in 2021! We’d canceled reservations a couple of years in a row (once due to wildfire smoke and the other because Peter was recovering from an unexpected surgery) and accidentally mixed up our 2020 confirmation e-mail with our 2021 email. Luckily, the nice women who showed up on our second night let us stay and went to the other spot. A27 was great and had some huckleberry bushes and a slight hill down into the camp area that was fun for the kids on their bikes. Restrooms were nearby and fairly clean. Keep in mind that bears frequent the area and you’ll have to dump your dishwater in the toilet and lock all food in your car or bear box. This campground is great for access to the Grove of the Patriarchs and Silver Falls trails. It’s about 30-40 minutes to Naches Peak Loop and an hour to the Sunrise park entrance for the trails there.
Season stayed: Summer 2018 Site: A33 Drive time from Seattle: 3 hours Would we stay again?: Yes, although a couple of the highlights are closed right now due to COVID-19 and construction. General thoughts: This is a campground owned by PacificCorp (energy company), so it’s the only spot on this list that you can’t book through Washington State Parks or Recreation.gov. The Mt. St. Helens Learning Center is 2 hours away (you have to drive out to the main highway), but I picked this campground to stay near Ape Cave (closed due to COVID-19 at the time of writing). The “cave” is actually the 3rd longest lava tube in North America and is an awesome spot to visit in the heat of summer because it stays quite cool year round. The lower cave route is great for young families, while older kids (not ours, yet) will enjoy the upper route, which requires you to climb an 8-ft rock wall. We also loved the Trail of Two Forestsand Lava Canyon(suspension bridge closed as of writing due to cable damage) where you can see how the lava from the 1989 eruption reshaped the area. We had rain on one of our days, so we just drove roughly an hour to Portland where there was better weather and we could enjoy some city sights.
Season stayed: Summer 2018, Summer 2021 Site: 18, 53 Drive time from Seattle: 3 hours Would we stay again?: Yes, but with older kids and not in the RV area General thoughts: We booked spot 18 fairly last minute a few years ago (book through Clallam County; reservations open January 1 for the calendar year). I had read about the tidepools and wanted to visit, but the only site available was in the middle of the RV area. Since hotels nearby were really expensive, I figured we could stand anything for a night. Wrong. The RV spaces are really close together with no privacy whatsoever. We were surrounded by big groups (a basketball rolled into the side of our tent, guitar playing till midnight) and a foghorn sounded throughout the night. I ended up sleeping in the passenger seat of the car holding Julia on my lap and was freezing because I couldn’t get my sleeping bag comfortable.
In 2021, we stayed in the tent area, but our site was small and had lots of prickly plants that were tough to keep the kid away from. The fog horn was back, as were late night noisy campers.
So would I stay again? The tidepools are 100% what they’re cracked up to be (I even saw an octopus on our 2021 trip). The space is huge and the species are diverse. The campground also has a playground and some old forts to hike to and is fairly close to Port Angeles. I might wait till the kids are a little older and can stay up later while the rest of the campground is making noise.
Season stayed: Summer 2018 Site: 79 Drive time from Seattle: 2 hours Would we stay again?: Yes, although some amenities are less fun during COVID (like restaurant proximity) General thoughts: We stayed in the forest campground (vs. the beach campground) to get shade and more privacy. It’s still within walking distance to restaurants and the beach. We had outdoor happy hour with family at Taps at the Guardhouse and then headed to the beach to play (the Port Townsend Marine Center is at the end of the pier). Since we only had one kid who was happy to ride in the carrier, we hiked the 6 miles round trip to Glass Beach with a picnic and enjoyed the tidepools. Families who want 4 walls can also rent former officers’ quarters (although they seem expensive for the quality) — we saw a wedding party during our visit and it seems like a great way to have the bridal party stay near each other. See blog post here for more details.
Season stayed: Memorial Day 2021 Site: 19 (upper campground) Drive time from Seattle: 2.5 hours Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: We had a fairly large spot with room for hammocks and an easy walk to water (slightly longer to the restroom). The upper campground loop has some hills, but was still fun for the kids to ride their bikes and we had plenty of shade. The lower campground has much less shade, but it’s closer to the playground. There’s also a cute little general store near the playground that sells coffee, soft serve ice cream and some essentials (although they opened at 10 a.m. when we stayed, so it’s more like a second-cup-of-coffee stop). Little J and I hiked the bluff trail between old fort buildings and it’s really beautiful and not challenging, plus the campground is pretty convenient to Finnriver Cidery, Chimacum and Port Townsend.
Season stayed: Fall 2017, Fall 2019, Fall 2020 Site: C6, C8, C9 (Cabins) Drive time from Seattle: 2 hours Would we stay again?: Yes (as evidenced by the repeat stays) General thoughts: This is our favorite fall camping spot! It gets chilly and weather is unpredictable, so we book a cabin and occasionally get takeout (or dine-in, pre-COVID) at the Halfway House in nearby Brinnon. We always see salmon spawning and the resident herd of elk, plus we saw a large family of eagles on our last trip. There’s a short trail down to the water and a lookout tower, plus a few more hikes in the park and more nearby. We typically take a ferry and drive through Port Gamble on the way there and then drive through Olympia and stop at Billy Q. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge on the way back. Blog post here for more details. You could also continue down the peninsula to Long Beach, similar to our route as described here.
Season stayed: Summer 2017 Site: 75 Drive time from Seattle: 1.5 hours Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: This campground was Julia’s first camping trip! We wanted something fairly close to home (about 1-1.5 hours from North Seattle) so we could bail if needed, and also a spot we could use bring our newly acquired kayak. The campsites aren’t super private, but the park is a real gem. There’s a calm, shallow space in Mayo Cove where we could spot sand dollars on the sea floor (we could have walked at hip depth or less at most points). When Julia woke up early, we walked to the beach on the other side of the cove (where 158th Ave SW dead ends into the water) and watched clams shoot water into the sky like a PNW version of the Bellagio fountains. Gig Harbor makes a great stop on the return trip to Seattle. I’ve found reservations easier to get at this park than some others.
Season stayed: Summer 2014, Summer 2021 Site: 113, Y120 Drive time from Seattle: 2.5 hours Would we stay again?: Yes General thoughts: We stayed here pre-kids in a walk-in site. We booked on the late side because my sister-in-law invited my parents-in-law and us to join them . The walk-in site was actually pretty private and large (a bicyclist ended up joining us because there were no first-come, first-served spots available). My sister-in-law and brother-in-law stayed in a yurt with their kids and we returned to stay in a yurt this summer. There are two main sections of the campground – one is closer to the beach but much more open and the other is more forested and further from the beach, so you have to think about what’s important to you. You can drive on the beach here, which is pretty cool. We ate breakfast at the Hearty Galley in Westport, which has a fun pirate ship outside that the kids loved climbing on. They’re temporarily closed due to COVID, but check back for future trips! Also check out the Westport Winery for a Mermaid Museum and fun gardens to walk through.
I love planning adventures with James and Julia and we get outside for something most days of the week, although we’re usually home for some downtime in the afternoons.
Day trips, on the other hand, can be daunting. There were a couple of things that pushed me into doing solo day trips with my kids. First, I decided to stay home with them after James was born, which meant my role as activity manager became full-time when Peter returned to work from parental leave. Second, Peter was unexpectedly hospitalized with a collapsed lung over the summer last year (he’s fine now – risk factor of being tall and male). When he got home, he needed a lot of rest and quiet and couldn’t lift more than 15 pounds for awhile, so getting the kids out of the house for long stretches was important for his recovery.
Planning for day trips is one of the things I get asked about most in messages on Instagram and something I’ve spent a lot of time practicing.
Here are 5 tips that usually help prevent total meltdowns (by me and the kids!):
1. Choose destinations with multiple activities
Nothing is worse than driving a long ways to an activity for it not to work out, or for my kids to spend 10 minutes on an activity I thought they would love (so unpredictable!).
When I’m planning for us to be out for a long day, I try to pick a destination that has multiple things we can do (and often even a ferry ride or other interesting transportation method). On a trip to Guemes Island, for example, we hiked to the top of Guemes Mountain, picked up takeout from the general store and then went out to the beach to play. I had also thought about driving around the northern side of the island for more outdoor exploration, but didn’t end up needing that many back-ups.
A trip to Fort Ward Park on Bainbridge Island similarly had hikes, old military bunkers to explore, a paved trail for biking and waterfront picnic tables for the takeout lunch we’d bought nearby.
2. Strategize for “ins and outs”
Particularly during the COVID pandemic, thinking about what/where everyone will eat and use the restroom is really important in the day trip equation.
I like supporting local restaurants and businesses in the areas we visit, so I usually do a very quick Google search for coffee or restaurant suggestions nearby. We usually eat breakfast and dinner at home, but plan for snacks and lunch on our day trip where I purchase one meal and pack the other.
Car snacks are also important. When it’s just me and the kids, I usually have a small bag on the passenger seat with snacks that aren’t too messy or likely to cause choking (goldfish, dried fruit, o-shaped cereal). I hand them to the peanut gallery as needed to help keep the peace.
Where restrooms are concerned, it gets a little tricky right now since many public restrooms in restaurants and coffee shops are closed. I bring Julia’s toddler potty and pack it into a giant trash bag in the back of our Outback along with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. While I’ve awkwardly crouched in the back in a pinch, I’ll usually park the car next to a restroom in a park and lock the kids inside (legal in Washington since it’s not running and I’m not going to a bar, but check local guidelines in other states) while I briefly run in with my mask on.
3. Plan for naps (or adjust other sleep)
Playing nap roulette is one of the major hurdles of a day trip for me. When Julia still napped, she was great at sleeping in the car or napping in a stroller. James has Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and isn’t a great car or stroller sleeper, especially not when big sister might be doing something cool nearby.
What usually works for us is to put him in our LilleBaby toddler carrier (we have the Complete Airflow; it has a wider seat than the infant version of the same style) on my back while Julia and I take a hike. I have to move relatively consistently to get James to go to sleep and stay asleep, so hikes work better than urban walks and I have to plan for that.
To be honest, this is still the hardest piece. I only plan day trips once or twice a month because I have to mentally prepare to sacrifice the quiet time for me that comes with naps at home and the potential for a cranky toddler if he doesn’t nap. His naps out are usually shorter (1 hour vs. 2), so I don’t plan for an evening activity on those days either.
4. Bring back-up toys/games/books
Just like adults, kids sometimes need a quiet activity to help them reset or just to pass the time on the car ride to and from an adventure.
We typically have some combination of the following in the car for a day trip:
Spotify playlists (Frozen II, They Might Be Giants the “No” album, and the Weezer “Teal” album are their favorites)
Magnetic drawing tablet for James and a notebook with colored pencils for Julia’s drawing
Sand toys – they’re great for the beach, but also for filling with water from puddles or pine needles on a trail
Blanket/towel – we have the Rose Hip Warrior blanket from Eighth Generation that is both warm and durable, so it makes a good picnic blanket or something cuddly if it’s chilly out. I also typically have a grungy towel for wiping off dirty feet.
5. Weigh the pros and cons of company
Sometimes an extra set of hands can be really helpful when you’re out with the kids. During the pandemic while we’re not supposed to gather with folks outside our household, particularly indoors, some families like to meet grandparents as a way of including them.
Call me crazy, but I actually prefer to do day trips solo (I even like leaving my husband at home sometimes)! For me, full day adventures require flexibility and the ability to change plans quickly if something doesn’t work out as planned (the kids got tired or bored, we missed a ferry or the coffee shop is closed). That makes it more stressful if I have to rally additional troops around a new plan, or consider many people’s preferences and abilities in deciding what to do.
I also like that day trips give me time that is 100% focused on my kids — I’m not thinking about chores at home or what craziness is going on in the news that day. Leaving other adults at home also means that I can have some really wacky and interesting conversations with Julia (and sometimes James). Their behavior and attitude also seem to improve with my increased focus on them, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
Bonus Tip: Save ideas for later to make planning easier
I love Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. Whenever someone posts something that looks like a cool day trip, I save the post for later or add it to an embarrassingly messy spreadsheet of ideas. When it’s been awhile since we’ve had a day trip together, I go back to my saved posts and try to pick something that fits our current interests/abilities/weather forecast.
What are your tips for day trips with kids? Are there any questions I can answer to make full-day outings seem more possible?
Normally at this time of year I’d be plotting the final details of a mid-winter international trip (we’ve done India, Egypt/Jordan, Spain/Portugal, etc), but because of the pandemic all of our getaways (which we are still so privileged to have) have been close to home.
Since my birthday is this month, I planned a mid-week stay at Iron Springs Resort . Located on the western side of the Olympic Peninsula near Ocean Shores and an hour from the rain forest near Lake Quinault, it was a perfect escape even in the crazy wind and rain.
We found some slightly more sheltered hikes, snuggled on the couch with a movie and some molten chocolate lava cakes and lucked out with sun breaks on our last morning so we could enjoy the beach for a bit.
Last weekend we took a trip on the Yuletide Express, the 2020 answer to prior years’ Santa Train at the Northwest Railway Museum.
In short, my train-loving kids loved their own private car (accidental, but very much appreciated) and seeing all the antique train cars. Even though they know Santa’s not real (I promise they won’t tell your kids), they loved their short visit with Kris Kringle. I wrote more about our experience for Seattle’s Child.