Camping With Kids: Camano Island State Park

We booked one of the few remaining campsites at Camano Island State Park when it became clear that Summer 2020 was not going to look normal. A visit to nearby Cama Beach State Park the year before (where there is a Center for Wooden Boats and a number of “neighborly,” but beach side cabins) made this a clear contender because we wouldn’t need to rely on a ferry or drive long distances, but would still have the beach nearby.


Where: Camano Island State Park, about 75 minutes from North Seattle
When: Mid-July 2020
Site #: 62


Distance from Seattle/Amenities

I’m not a backwoodsy camper and James doesn’t particularly love long car rides/his car seat, so campgrounds that aren’t too far from Seattle and have amenities nearby work better for our family. The drive is less than 90 minutes from where we live in North Seattle and no ferries are needed, so it’s a perfect social distancing spot that I would even consider for a day trip. Elger Bay Grocery & Gifts is a couple of miles away and sells gas, basic groceries, some ice cream by the scoop and simple food like pizza, burgers, etc. A bit further from the park (good for a stop on the way home) is Camano Scoopz in the Camano Commons marketplace. We loved the huge portions of their maple walnut and chocolate ice creams.

Beach Access

There are two beaches in this state park – South Beach (nearer to the campgrounds) and North Beach (nearer to the park entrance).

South Beach has the boat launch, smaller rocks/pebbles on the beach, a longer shoreline, bigger parking lot and modernized restrooms (single stall, aerated, etc). There are also a number of picnic tables that are distanced from each other right next to the beach. This is where I would go for kids to play or launch a kayak. We stayed Monday-Wednesday so it wasn’t crowded, but I could see it feeling that way on a weekend.

Picnic tables right next to South Beach

North Beach is (or was during our stay) considerably quieter with a shaded lawn area for picnic tables near the parking lot. You have to descend some long-ish stairs to get to the beach and it’s rockier than South Beach, so you wouldn’t want to launch a kayak here or bring your elderly grandmother, but you will have fewer people around to compete with for space.

Playing on the rocky North Beach

Wildlife Viewing

On our first day, we saw a pair of bald eagles perched atop beach-side trees watching for prey. The second day, a harbor seal happily followed us around on our kayak (from about a 50-75 foot distance, but still fun) and a bald eagle flew about 20 feet directly over us. That same seal was out the following morning (we generally had better luck with seal sightings before noon) and huge purple jellyfish were beached where we could examine their tentacles and interesting frilly insides from a couple of feet away. Bunnies and lots of birds also kept us company.

One of several large (about 3-4 ft diameter) beached jellyfish

Kid-Friendly Trails

James is not a great sleeper at home, let alone when camping. We often find ourselves needing a short hike to get him to nap, but it’s nice when the other parent can take Julia off for some quality time (ahem, keep her noise away from the sleeping toddler).

The Marsh Trail/South Rim Trail combo was excellent for this – it’s only about a mile from South Beach to North Beach, but it follows the bluff and gives beautiful peekaboo views of the water and the Olympics (watch for harbor seals in the water!). Other than the hike up to the bluff from the beach, the trail is pretty flat and has several benches you can pause on. You can tack on more mileage by exploring various offshoots. You could normally use the trail to access South Beach via a short hike from the lower loop campground, but this section was inexplicably closed while we were there so we had to hike along the road.

For another short hike (0.5 mi loop), visit the Al Emerson Trail. It’s a flat loop with about 20 or so signs along the way that tell you about different trees and bushes you might see. It was part of my nap hike with James, but I would love to take Julia back to sample the huckleberries and blackberries along the trail and learn about the different trees.


Campsite Size and Layout

All campsites are not created equal. Unlike some campgrounds that have a main road with small loop offshoots, both the upper and lower campgrounds have long windy roads that loop around themselves. In practical terms, this means you have to drive through most of the campground to get in/out (more traffic) and some campsites have the road on two sides.

Many sites (like ours; site 62) are quite small without trees and are surrounded by blackberry bushes, which limits shade and privacy as well as the ease with which young kids can comfortably play in the campsite. Also, the size of the campsite directly impacts how close you have to sit to your campfire. The combination of close quarters and variable breeze direction meant that our campfire smoke was pretty much in our faces the whole time. That said, we did like that we were at the end of a one-way road where it intersected with another one, so we could watch for oncoming cars fairly easily and get the kids out of the way. For next year, I’ll look into sites with water views in the lower campground so that we can relax and check out the mountains when the kids go to bed.

We might have had better luck getting a campsite, but this was a trip I only booked a month or two in advance during a pandemic, so I felt lucky to grab anything even on a weekday.

Site 62 (corner) – small and no meaningful shade, but a great obstacle course spot!


With a walkable beach, easy trails, nearby stores in case of forgotten staples, and a relatively short drive from Seattle, this will definitely be a repeat stop for our family next year. I’m also really glad we brought the kayak – during this weird time where folks being too close makes me anxious, so it was a wonderful way to experience nature with guaranteed social distancing.


Cabin Camping at Dosewallips State Park

Tent camping with small children can be terrifying challenging. There are intrepid families who camp with their kids as tiny newborns, but all the packing for camping intimidates me, let alone with a very tiny person. We finally started camping with Julia when she was about 16 or 17 months old, and while it wasn’t bad in the summer, I still wanted 4 walls around us in the late fall to help keep us warm and comfortable. Enter the cabins at Dosewallips State Park. These have become our go to in October when we want to enjoy the fall colors, but don’t want to deal with all the layers that cold-weather camping entails. We’ve since taken James as well, and it’s quickly becoming an annual tradition I really look forward to.

Drive Time from Seattle and Recommended Stops

We live in North Seattle, so if we time the Kingston-Edmonds Ferry right, it takes just over 2 hours to get to the park, even though we can never seem to drive more than an hour without stopping. Sometimes we go through Tacoma on the way home, which is about 2.5 hours.

We always stop in Port Gamble on our way. One year, we forgot a warm hat for Julia, so we popped in the Port Gamble General Store and picked up a cute little gnome hat. We enjoy the views(including Point Julia!) and the beautiful dahlia garden at the waterfront and then stop at the playground (if there isn’t a pandemic going on). There is a large lawn that is great for kids to stretch their legs even when avoiding high touch surfaces. After we get the wiggles out, we grab some lunch at Butcher & Baker Provisions. Their treats and sandwiches are so delicious!

Dashing through the leaves by the Port Gamble playground – October 2019

On our last trip, Peter wasn’t feeling well and we didn’t want to risk missing a ferry and delaying our return, so we drove through Tacoma and stopped at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Refuge that’s between Olympia and Tacoma. There are beautiful boardwalks in a short loop trail and a longer trail was under construction – such a nice spot to stretch our legs. The refuge is also included in the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass (carry it with you rather than leaving it in your car), which we are really making use of this year.

Looking for tiny frogs at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge – October 2019


Like most state park cabins, these are equipped with a bunk bed that has a twin bed on top (with a nice railing – Julia started sleeping in it at age 3) and a queen bed on the bottom, as well as a futon. They also have a table with chairs and a covered porch (good for cooking on a propane stove if it’s wet out). We have stayed in C6 and C8 – I like the cabins near the trail that goes under Highway 101 because it makes it easier for us to walk to the water, but there is some highway noise as a result. Some cabins are slightly closer to the restrooms, but they’re also close to the main campground road, so there’s more traffic that makes me nervous with little kids moving around.

Beware the 2-night minimum stay in cabins (and all “roofed shelters” like yurts etc). It has gotten stricter every year, so that it now applies to weekends year-round and any time between May 15 – September 15.

Testing out the top bunk in the cabins
Pre-dinner entertainment at our cabin site – a picnic blanket and beach ball were gold!

Things To Do

There are a couple of trails that depart from right next to the campground. There aren’t significant changes in elevation (they are loop trails that are between 2-3 miles) and there are some bridges and boardwalks to enjoy along the way.

Exploring the beautiful (but short!) wooded trails in Dosewallips – October 2017

The biggest highlight, though, is the trail to the beach area that starts on the East side of the Highway. You walk on 101 for a bit and can see spawning salmon in October. Then the trail continues through a small meadow and parking lot, down a gravel trail, and out to a viewing platform and the beach. It’s not a traditional beach with lots of sand, but more like a wetland area.

Plenty of stumps and logs to climb on the way to the beach
The lookout tower is a big hit with kids and offers gorgeous views

The beach is available to dig for clams or harvest oysters. We haven’t dug yet, but have seen people out with their buckets. Make sure to check the Parks website for alerts – sometimes the season is closed early due to overharvesting.

If you have painfully early risers like we do, take the trail out in the morning to watch the sunrise and have a picnic breakfast. You’ll have the place to yourself and we have seen herds of elk (they make the most interesting sounds!) and different species of birds every time we’ve visited. Watch out for elk droppings throughout the meadow (and on your way to the restroom from your camp site).

A herd of elk grazing in the meadow on our early walk to the beach
Sunrise snack near the waterfront
A fall sunrise at Dosewallips is my personal version of paradise


This state park is right on the edge of Olympic National Park, so it’s a good gateway for any hikes on the east side of the peninsula. I have Rocky Brook Falls, Murhut Falls and Lena Lake marked for future trips, but we haven’t stayed long enough to do them yet.

If you don’t feel like cooking all your meals (or if one of your party develops a man cold and couldn’t possibly rise from bed with the children), we love the Halfway House Restaurant that’s just right up the road. The staff are really friendly and have even given us a free side of fruit in the past when the kids get hangry before their breakfast is ready. They do food to go, too, so you can call in an order to bring back to your campsite if you go while we’re still navigating COVID-19.


With campsites fairly close together, I’m not sure Dosewallips would be my first choice for a summer camping trip when I expect it would be busier. However, in the early fall the leaves change colors, the sun rises later (so you have a chance to see it at a halfway reasonable hour), the salmon run, and the elk meander through the meadows, making it a magical place to cabin camp with little ones.