Article and photos by Diana Graham #126095
It’s unanimous. My husband, Lon, and I have pulled into our “number one for life, most beautiful campsite” in the “ocean view” category. Our fifth-wheel is perched on the edge of a high bluff, overlooking Ocean Cove on the Sonoma Coast of California. Rocks, sea arches and the stunning coastline fill the view from every window. A short, sandy path leads down to rocks where we watched the sun set while waves crashed around us. Honestly, this experience can’t get any better!
How did we snag this sweet spot in a first-come, first-serve campground? A bit of luck, of course, but mainly timing. There’s not a lot of demand for campsites, even prime ones, in northern California the last week of November.
We’re still new enough at this full-time RV thing that there are huge swaths of the country still waiting to be explored. But we’ve been at it long enough to know what we prefer: campgrounds over RV parks; natural landscapes over city; hikes in relative solitude over bustling crowds. A bit of research into temperatures and rainfall convinced us that autumn in Washington, Oregon and northern California was a valid season in its own right. We could visit Glacier National Park and the Pacific Northwest, high-travel priorities, if we explored the Pacific Coast well past the busy summer season. We figured that dodging rain showers and wearing a few more layers was a small price to pay for the campgrounds, natural surroundings and solitude we prefer. And so, our plan was in place. We were to be in Glacier National Park by August 1, travel west hugging the far northern border, then make a hard turn to the south when we reached the Pacific.
In Glacier National Park, the off-season benefits began in August, after that magical date when school starts. Gone was the craziness that was in full swing on July 31, during our first attempt to find a FCFS site in Apgar Campground. Since two-plus weeks in Glacier National Park was not enough, we moved to the east side of the park, where we dry-camped at the virtually empty Chewing Black Bones campground on the Blackfeet reservation. On the east side of Lower St. Mary Lake, the campground is a short drive from the popular Many Glacier section of the park and a reasonable drive to Waterton National Park, in Canada.
On August 30, we started heading west. Off season or not, it’s a good idea to have a plan, and most likely a reservation, in place for holidays. Armed with a one-week reservation, we drove west to Harrison, Idaho, where we spent Labor Day week in the tiny city RV park backed up to the beautiful Coeur d’Alene Lake. The award-winning Coeur d’Alene Rails to Trails bike path was right outside our door and did not disappoint.
We continued west to the Spring Canyon Campground in the Roosevelt National Recreation Area, near Grand Coulee, Washington. We could have spent more than five days at this immaculate and well-appointed Bureau of Reclamation park.
Perhaps it’s Cascades National Park’s proximity to Seattle that made FCFS Colonial Campground busier than we expected, so it was a good thing we arrived on a Sunday. The campground is tucked into an old-growth forest with huge trees hundreds of feet tall. Not a bit of sunshine filtered through the trees, and the temperature dropped a full 10 degrees when we turned off the highway. Although not quite as large or tall as old-growth redwoods, we were nonetheless awed and dwarfed by these ancient sentinels of time. Several good hiking trails turned out to be conveniently located near the campground.
And then, it was onward to the Seattle area. Lovely Tall Chief RV Park, in Falls City, was our first Thousand Trails RV park. We had four days of glorious sunshine to tour the internationally acclaimed Dale Chihully glass exhibit, see the lights of Seattle blinking at dusk from the Space Needle and ride the ferry to Whidbey Island. In the delightful island town of Langley, we were treated to an impromptu jam session by musicians in town for the Djangofest Northwest. We toured the island south to north, crossing back to the mainland at Deception Pass.
Dungeness County Recreation Area, in Sequim, was the perfect antidote after the hustle and bustle of Seattle. In fact, it was perfect in every way. Unlike the busy summer months, we had our pick of sites when we arrived on September 22. After a few days, we were even able to relocate to a site overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the best site in the campground. Plans to stay one week morphed into an almost two-week stay. The weather and the tides were perfect for the 10-mile roundtrip hike to the Dungeness Lighthouse at the tip end of the spit in Dungeness Wildlife Refuge. The location was ideal to hike in Olympic National Park and bike the Olympic Discovery Trail.
As luck would have it, we arrived at Rialto Beach on the Pacific Ocean on October 5, our “nomadiversary” (nomad anniversary). We squeezed our big rig into a FCFS site in Mora Campground, in La Push, Washington, and walked the short distance to the beach. First, Second and Third Beaches, nearby, are renowned for their beauty, as is Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park.
Free beach-front camping at the Quinalt Resort and Casino in Ocean Shores was our next stop. We were absolutely thrilled with the view and the sandy trails to the beach. We took advantage of incredible meal-deals and the hot tub at the casino and drove our truck on the beach. Unfortunately, a strong Pacific storm, with forecasts of 80 to 90 mph wind gusts, cut our visit short. Fortunately, we secured a spot at an RV park in Portland and scooted inland.
From the convenient Jantzen Beach RV Park in northern Portland, we did all the city things one does in Portland: eat good food, drink good beer and do some tax-free Christmas shopping. We explored beautiful Washington park and drove into the historic Columbia River Gorge, hiking to the stunning Multnomah Waterfall.
Our next stop was the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, between Florence and Yachats. Our waiter in Portland assured us this was the “rugged Oregon coast” we needed to see. With place names like Thor’s Well and The Devil’s Cauldron, how could we not? We secured another beachfront site (ho hum) in the Tillicum Beach Campground, in Siuslaw National Forest, only five miles away. With lighthouses, thunderous surf and a hike from the visitor center to the top of the cape, with 70-mile views of the coastline, I can’t imagine a better example of the renowned Oregon coast.
On November 5, we pulled into the tiny hamlet of Hiouchi, California, home of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and National Park. An off-season discount at Redwood Meadows RV Park got us a full hookup for not much more than the cost of dry-camping at the state park. The heart of the park is beautiful Howland Hills Road, a one-lane dirt road that gently winds through old-growth redwoods. We rode bikes, hiked the Boy Scout Tree trail and meandered through Stout Grove. The occasional vehicle did not detract from the serenity and beauty we felt in the presence of these giants.
We then continued south to Eureka, where we camped at the fairground RV park. We were charmed by the historic downtown and the small Sequoia Park Zoo. As an experienced hiker who has only elementary bicycle skills, the BLM Elk River Trailhead was a super fun bike/hike combination leading to a grove of old-growth redwoods. It was entertaining to watch tugboats guide the surprisingly large ships through the narrow opening to Eureka harbor.
Finally, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we were on the last leg of our coastal sightseeing trip as we headed to Jenner, California, and the Ocean Cove Campground on the Sonoma coast. From there, we would be turning east and heading inland to the Bay Area. This unassuming campground, where dry-camping is your only option and the bathroom facilities are portable toilets, knocked our socks off. It’s all about the view. We couldn’t believe our good luck when the prime site on the edge of the bluffs opened up. Immediately adjacent to the campground is Stillwater Cove Regional Park, with several state parks nearby, all offering nice hiking. It was the perfect spot to be thankful.
How would I summarize our autumn travels in the Pacific Northwest? We’d certainly do it again. The weather is a little cooler than summer time and it’s perfect for the outdoor activities we enjoy. The scenery is as beautiful in October as it is in July, minus the hordes of people. A few reservations were necessary, but mainly we were free to travel at our own pace. In one word—perfect!
Diana Graham retired from her position as a technical writer for GE to travel with her husband, Lon Hyers. They hit the road full-time in their fifth-wheel trailer in 2015.