5 Alternatives To Car Camping This Summer

car camping
Jason Jones, Flickr

If you’re the outdoorsy type, it’s hard not to enjoy car camping, as long as you find a destination and campground that are compatible with your interests and needs. Not that I’m speaking from experience, but … let’s just say the romantic, roughing-it weekend my ex and I had planned in southwestern Colorado a few years ago turned into pitching a tent in a trailer park populated by elderly snowbirds.

If you’re carless, or want something more adventurous/rigorous/off-beat, or safe for your bad back, I’ve got a few alternatives for your consideration. The good news is, the price points for these adventures ensure there’s at least one that will fit your budget. Depending upon where your travel plans are taking you, some regions even specialize in these types of camping trips. So get online, do some research and don’t forget the sunscreen. Happy Trails.

Hut trip
There are hut systems located all over North America (as well as in other alpine terrain worldwide); perhaps the most famous are Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Huts. Whether you’re a novice hiker or a backpacking machine, there’s a hut hike suited for you. Tip: book well in advance. You can sometimes find last-minute beds, but this type of trip really requires advance planning.

pack trip
Alan English CPA, Flickr

Pack trip
If mountains are your thing, get on a horse or mule and take a pack trip. The Sierras, Rocky Mountains, and Cascades in particular are known for their alpine scenery and well-regarded pack trains. Tip: there’s no reason you can’t do a pack trip if you’re a novice rider, but you need to choose the right outfitter and destination; many trips are for experienced riders (you can even bring your own horse sometimes).

Sea kayak
I love sea kayaking, but I’m too novice to attempt a big paddle on my own. When I was living in Seattle a couple of years ago, I found an outfitter who, for a reasonable price, took me on a private paddle out to one of the many deserted islets off of Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island. We camped, watched bald eagles, gorged on a Marionberry pie picked up en route, and what do you know? He taught me how to read a tide chart well enough to give me the confidence to try this type of mini-excursion by myself.

sea kayaking
UK Ministry of Defence, Flickr

Water taxi
Some coastal, riverfront, or lakeside destinations offer water taxis to get you to and from your campsite. Although Kauai no longer offers this service for return hikers coming off the famous Kalalau Trail, there are plenty of other exotic options. I once took a water taxi from Picton on the South Island of New Zealand, in order to embark on a two-day hike of the gorgeous Queen Charlotte Track. Bonus: a pod of dolphins kept pace with us the entire ride out.

Shuttle it
Sometimes, it’s just not practical or possible to do a backpacking or camping trip with a car. In a couple of weeks, for example, I’m going to do Colorado’s West Maroon Pass, which is a roughly 11-mile hike over the Elk Mountains, from Crested Butte to Aspen. Since I’m going it alone, I’m arranging for Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle to bring me back. This Gunnison Valley-based airport shuttle addition also offers summertime returns for hikers coming off the Pass. At $60 a seat (as long as they have more than one passenger), it’s worth the price to not have to sort out the logistics of a car swap or transport. Best of all, you can take a nap after all that walking.

Orcas, sea kayaking, and sea planes: a day trip to Washington’s San Juan Island

san juan islandsI woke up early one morning last week and realized that August 15th would mark two years since I arrived in Seattle. Normally I wouldn’t take note of such a thing, given that I tend to move with the frequency of a fugitive. Staying in one place just isn’t in my nature.

But here I was, 24 months into life in Seattle, and of the many things I’d yet to do, I hadn’t: been to the San Juan Islands (blame a longterm illness, an anemic bank account, and overwhelmingly crappy weather, in that order), seen an orca, nor flown on a sea plane despite living two blocks from the Lake Union terminal. As a travel writer, there’s really no excuse.

So I decided to celebrate my anniversary by knocking out all of those goals in one day, with a sea kayaking trip to San Juan Island. There are few things I love more than paddling, but I don’t have my own boat, so it’s tough to make trips happen. That’s where EverGreen Escapes comes in.

Last summer, I did an overnight paddle off of Whidbey Island with Evergreen, and was very impressed by the professionalism and knowledge possessed by my guide. The four-year-old “nature, adventure, and epicurean tour” company has a green ethos not uncommon in Seattle. What sets Evergreen apart from most of the other outfitters I’ve used is a staff who know their stuff and possess great people skills, diverse tours, and an emphasis on quality and comfort. Owners Jake Haupert and Dan Moore are actively involved in every aspect of their business, and it shows.

EverGreen just launched a partnership with Kenmore Air–the “seaplane airline”–this summer. The “Soar & Explore” upgrade allows you to fly one-way or round-trip on various EverGreen trips (see end of story for details). Kenmore has been around since 1946; I’ve enviously watched their little yellow-and-white planes buzz over my apartment hundreds of times, and I was jonesing to fly in one.

%Gallery-130546%san juan islandsI signed up for EverGreen’s full-day “Quest for Orcas, Pigs, and Wine” trip. In no way does that accurately describe the outing (it sounds more like a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien), but I admit it begs further investigation.

The name actually refers to San Juan Island’s post-Civil War land dispute between America and England. The so-called “Pig War” began as a result of a farmer shooting a neighbor’s pig that was on his property. Said property became the subject of controversy as to where the U.S./current Canadian border was actually located, and for the next 13 years, American and English troops lived in “Pig War” camps where they primarily got together, drank too much beer, and waited for their respective governments to figure things out. I had hoped this part of the trip referred to sausage, but a little history never hurt anyone.

The “Wine” portion of the trip is a nod to Washington State’s burgeoning boutique wine industry, and the small selection of varietals to be served with lunch. San Juan Island also has its own vineyard and a Tasting Room in the main town of Friday Harbor.

Our day began at the crack of 6:45, when Evergreen’s luxury Mercedes van picked up my eight fellow whale, wine, and pig-lovers at their hotels. Our young guide, Tyler, is a naturalist and native Seattleite; before we’d even left the city limits, I’d learned more about Seattle’s history than I’ve gleaned on my own. An hour and a half later, we arrived at the ferry terminal in Anacortes. The weather was unfortunately behaving as it has for most of the summer: gray and dreary, but we could still catch glimpses of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

An hour later, we docked at Friday Harbor. While crowded with visitors, it’s a cute town that manages to remain delightfully free of tackiness. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, San Juan–at 55 square miles, the second-largest in the 172-island archipelago–is all about enjoying the moment. With a year-round population of just 8,000, the island is mostly rural; uncrowded roads wind past forest, prairie, deserted beaches, and pasture. Agriculture is still a big part of the island’s economy, and you’ll see everything from cattle ranches and alpaca farms to a hops plantation. There’s even a camel named Mona on one property; she’s become emblematic of San Juan’s quirky nature.
san juan islands
Our launch spot was Roche Harbor, a pretty, historic village/resort/ marina on San Juan’s northwest tip built in 1886. San Juan Outfitters provided us with tandem boats and gear, and Tyler gave us a brief tutorial on paddling basics (most of our group were newbies). We embarked on a two-hour paddle around Nelson Bay, encountering curious harbor seals whose heads popped up like corks around our boats. Bald eagles soared overhead, and beneath us, giant Purple Sea Stars and crimson rock crabs hid amongst the eel grass. Tyler stopped us in the midst of a bull kelp bed (encouraging us to snack on it), and talked about the ecosystem it supported.

Our first post-paddling stop was Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan’s west side, ten miles east of Vancouver Island–you can actually see the back side of the city of Victoria. Lime Kiln is the only dedicated, land-based orca viewing spot in the world. Most days, besa juan islandstween 3 and 4pm, the local Southern Resident Orca community (also known as the Salish Sea Orcas) pass by, following their main food source, Chinook salmon.

Tyler explained that there are three types of orcas (whether or not they are different species is a subject of scientific debate): offshore, transient, and resident. Orcas, actually a species of toothed whale in the dolphin family, are found worldwide. They’re opportunistic feeders (hence their erroneous name, “killer” whales), meaning they’ll eat a variety of prey species. In addition to salmon, harbor seals and rockfish make up the Southern Resident’s diet; they forage between the San Juan islands and southern Vancouver Island from April to September.

The Southern Resident community is federally listed as an endangered species due to a variety of factors that include a decline in their food supply, toxic exposure to industrial waste and human-related pollution, surface impacts (think boat exhaust, etc.), and low population. Orcas generally travel in pods and are very family-oriented. The Southern Resident community is comprised of three different groups: the J, K, and L pods (the oldest is a 100-year-old female named “Granny”). These pods are subjected to some of the highest boat traffic in the world, which is a good reason to try and view them via kayak. Unlike a whale-watching boat (which must still abide by strict regulations to protect the animals) however, kayaking doesn’t guarantee a show.san juan islands

Despite arriving at Lime Kiln around 3pm, we’d apparently missed the orcas. No matter–we saw dolphins, and enjoyed the views. Meanwhile, Tyler and intern Maggie set up a beautiful lunch on a picnic bench. Despite the cold (the hot tea Maggie offered was much appreciated), we enjoyed a meal of couscous salad, grilled chicken breasts, and the aforementioned Washington wines. Tyler noted the whale boats heading south, so we decamped to South Beach, where binoculars enabled us to see some orca action far offshore. We took some time to walk the driftwood-strewn beach before departing for Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Despite not getting any up-close views of the orcas, it had been a fun, interesting, relaxing day, and no one seemed put-out that the animals had been a no-show.

Back at Friday Harbor that evening, everyone else went to do some exploring on their own, but I had a sea plane to catch. The terminal is two minute’s walk from the ferry, and I climbed aboard the seven-seater to find my fellow passengers included a boxer wearing a pink, rhinestone-studded harness. The dog lolled across her owner’s laps, evidently a veteran of float plane travel. Unlike me. I was childishly thrilled to be onboard, and within minutes of taking off, I was fantasizing about a second career as a seaplane pilot. The sun had finally emerged, and the water was dazzling. Waterfront cabins sat amidst the lush undergrowth and evergreens, sailboats bobbed in emerald coves.

And then, just as we banked and headed south toward Seattle, I saw them. Two pods of orcas–about 20 in all–leaping and splashing no more than 200 feet below us. I pressed my face against the window in awe, watching them until they were lost in the expanse of blue. Happy anniversary, to me.

Travel tips
Wear layers (including one waterproof), and lots of ’em. The weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly this far north. Although the islands are in the “banana belt,” sea breezes can be chilly.

Bring sunglasses, a hat, and broad spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and use it–frequently.

If you’re paddling, it’s easy to get dehydrated. Drink small sips throughout to keep your bladder from getting full. And don’t forget to eat a small, high protein/complex carb snack to keep your blood sugar up (Evergreen provides snacks and water, FYI).

Kayaking attire should include a swimsuit, board shorts or waterproof pants, watersport shoes or sandals, and a long-sleeved nylon shirt (preferably one made with UPF fabric) or lightweight spray jacket. Your arms, and possibly your butt will get wet (if your boat’s spray skirt isn’t tight enough).
san juan islands
Soar & Explore

Evergreen Escapes offers a wide variety of summer and winter multi-day/activity packages, as well as customized tours for individuals or groups. San Juan excursions are offered year-round, with sea-kayaking April through October.

If you want the ultimate San Juan scenery experience, you can fly up in the morning, or go round-trip: there are terminals at Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. Another option is to overnight/take two nights at Friday Harbor House, Earthbox Motel, or Island Inn, or add-on another island (including Vancouver Island, BC) or Olympic National Park. Kenmore Air has terminals throughout Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island, and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands (Canada’s name for their part of the San Juan archipelago). They also offer flightseeing excursions and have four wheeled aircraft in their fleet.

Want to support the Southern Resident Orcas? Click here for details on the Friday Harbor Whale Museum’s Adopt-an-Orca program.

Visit San Juan Islands in Washington

Sea kayaking off Washington’s Whidbey Island: easy Labor Day getaway

Another bald eagle. Yawn.
I had just completed a tranquil, one-hour paddle from Whidbey Island’s Dugualla Bay, to Hope Island State Park. This dollop of land is a 106-acre marine camping park, reachable only by boat. It boasts a hiking trail and just four stunning, primitive, beachfront sites hidden amongst ferns and old-growth Douglas-fir forest. As we approached the island, my guide, Simon, and I watched six eagles alight on the tops of the tallest firs. Maneuvering our kayak almost beneath one of them, we then spent the better part of an hour entranced by the giant bird of prey. Meanwhile, a curious harbor seal bobbed and dipped around us.

At 45 miles in length, rural Whidbey is the longest island in the lower 48 (Long Island having been ruled a peninsula). It’s just 30 miles from Seattle, making it an easy, economical, uncrowded alternative to the San Juan’s farther north (although Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, off Whidbey’s northern tip, is the ferry dock for San Juan-bound visitors). Whidbey juts into Puget Sound like a bent, bony finger, its western coast also accessible from Pt. Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. Whidbey is one of the oldest agricultural regions in Washington state, and family farms, farm stands, and mariculture operations are still prolific on the island, although it’s also become a haven for artists. The only real-world distraction on Whidbey is the Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor, at the island’s northern tip.
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Getting there from Seattle is a snap, whether you drive or take a boat, although you should note that ferry schedules change seasonally. You can shoot up I-5, and head west on Highway 20, over the famed Deception Pass Bridge, or take the ferry from Mukilteo, as I did. A 20-minute ride landed me in Clinton, on Southern Whidbey.

From Clinton, I headed up the road to the artist colony of Langley to meet up with Simon, who guides for Seattle’s Evergreen Escapes, a sustainable adventure travel company. Like most of the island communities, Langley is a haven for creative types, and while summer and fall weekends and festivals bring in tourists, island life is easygoing and relaxed (the best time of year to visit, weather-wise, is September/October). A “whale bell” sits in a town park overlooking the waters of Saratoga Passage, to signal passing orcas and gray whales. If you’ve got an extra day on your itinerary, the newly-expanded Boatyard Inn is right on the water down at the Marina. Styled after an old cannery, the 12 charming, spacious units boast modern amenities, and decks and windows that offer unbeatable views of the Sound and snow-capped Cascades.

I only had part of an afternoon and one night for my trip, and so left the details to the folks at Evergreen. (FYI, there is also Whidbey Island Kayaking Company, which specializes in custom and short paddles, and whale watching trips (which begin in mid-March). It’s also possible to rent boats and equipment, provided you have a certificate from a certified instructor, or demonstrate proficiency at time of rental. A great resource for Washington tide charts can be found here.

I’ve done a fair amount of paddling, but didn’t know how to read tides, which is why I asked for a guide to accompany me. I prefer to be in my own boat, but due to time constraint, we decided a tandem was best, for easier on- and off-loading. We made the scenic, 40-minute drive north to Dugualla Bay, passing farmland and forest. Simon was knowledgeable, capable, and cheerful, and his tide tutorial during our paddle gave me the confidence to plan a return trip, sans guide. It’s an easy, straightforward paddle to Hope Island, but the scenery and wildlife are so amazing, we took our time. After we tore ourselves away from the bald eagles, we paddled to the take-out, only to discover six more landing in the trees near the campsites.

The roomy sites are elevated above the beach. There’s a rustic but well-maintained outhouse up an overgrown path, and rudimentary fire pits, and that’s it. The only thing marring the experience are the distant smokestacks near the port town of Anacortes, and the odd jet from the Naval Air Station streaking overhead. These are mere blips, however, because Hope Island is just so damn beautiful and peaceful. The other two sites were empty, and aside from a few trails through the overgrowth, there’s not much to do except read, daydream, watch the sunset (at 10pm in high summer), and stargaze. Do be sure to bring rain gear and a waterproof tent. Although sunny skies prevailed during our paddle, it started pouring in the middle of dinner (and didn’t stop until the early morning hours), necessitating the hasty set-up of a tarp.

As for dinner, Simon made an admirable stir-fry, followed by the ultimate in pie- a purchase from Greenbank Farm’s shop. Located en route to Dugualla Bay, it was once the biggest loganberry farm in the world. You know what makes for a really kick-ass pre-paddling breakfast? Leftover loganberry pie.

Early the next morning, rainstorm over, we put in and paddled half an hour to our take-out at Coronet Bay State Park’s boat launch. In front of us loomed Deception Pass Bridge, an architectual triumph that has helped make this area Washington’s most-visited state park. The pass connects the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Skagit Bay; at high tide, the waters rushing into this narrow passage get pretty hairy, so again, check tide charts if on your own.

Try to allow yourself at least enough time to walk the bridge and take in the view. You can also camp at Deception Pass State Park, which has miles of shoreline. If nothing else, grab some post-paddle clam chowder and souvenir smoked salmon to go from Seabolt’s Smokehouse in Oak Harbor; a fitting island-style end to a weekend on Whidbey. For more information on the islands, click go the Whidbey and Camano Islands vistors center website.

Budget Vacations from Seattle: Puget Sound and San Juan Islands


A short boat ride from Seattle but worlds away in pace and atmosphere, the Puget Sound and San Juan islands appeal to bikers, kayakers, artists, and those simply seeking a romantic long weekend. Two-lane roads wind through cedar rain forests and farmers’ fields, and much of the islands has a decidedly rural feel. An abundance of state parks means there’s plenty of picnicking and camping options for the budget-oriented.

A handful of larger islands are visitor favorites: Whidbey, Bainbridge, Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez islands are all popular with tourists, and a couple have bustling towns to add energy to the mix. Several, particularly the islands closest to Seattle, make for great day trips.The Sights

A large part of island fun is getting there on a Washington State Ferry. The major islands listed above have regular ferry service, and the north end of Whidbey Island is also accessible by road.

On San Juan Island, Friday Harbor is a busy summertime destination, with a picturesque harbor crammed with sailboats, and a walkable town filled with art galleries and pretty views. 2009 is Friday Harbor’s centennial, so celebrations will abound this summer. Take a self-guided walking tour (print out a guide here) for an inexpensive historical tour.

To reach San Juan Island by ferry, you’ll need to drive about 90 minutes north of Seattle to Anacortes. From there, it’s a one-hour ferry ride to the island.

Whidbey Island, one of the archipelago’s largest, holds the rushing waters of Deception Pass at its northern tip. The dramatic Deception Pass Bridge links the island to the mainland via Pass Island, a small rocky outcropping. Here, swift tides make the rushing water appear deceiving like a river, which is what gave the pass its name. There are sidewalks on the bridge, so be sure to park your car and take some photos. Nearby, Deception Pass State Park has campsites, a lake with a swimming area, and a beach filled with driftwood.

Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan cluster, and is arguably the archipelago’s artsiest. A driving or biking tour is the best way to see the island and its artisan’s galleries. Mt. Constitution perches at one end, and it take around 15 minutes to drive to the summit (it takes considerably longer to bike to the top…). Lake Moran State Park (of which Mt. Constitution is a part of) attracts campers and other recreationists; paddle-boating in Lake Moran is a fun, splashy family activity.

What to Eat

Dining options run from rustic to five-star. However, the islands’ agricultural communities support several farmers’ markets, and these are the best places to eat your veggies. If you’re on a budget, consider an al fresco meal put together from farmers’ market purchases and artisan bread from a local bakery (on Whidbey, try Nibbles Specialty Bakery, and on Orcas stop by Roses Bakery & Cafe). Make sure your food is marked with the ‘Island Certified Local’ logo.

Where to Stay

Sleeping on the islands is all about bed & breakfasts. In general, the best place to search for accommodation is on the various islands’ bed & breakfast associations’ websites. Click here for the San Juan islands site, and here for Puget Sound.

Camping is your best budget option, and there are plenty of options. Just don’t forget your rain fly.