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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.