State officials recommend planning early and developing alternatives for those wanting to join the crowds flocking to public camping sites as Washington's weather warms up.
Shortly after COVID-19 restrictions went into place a year ago, RV sales skyrocketed, trails saw more traffic than ever, and unprecedented numbers of people decided to spend some nights outside. A slow return to normalcy in Yakima County and elsewhere doesn't appear to be putting much of a damper on the desire to visit Washington's beautiful public lands.
"We can anticipate that again the demand for campgrounds and camping spots will be high," Forest Service spokesperson Robin DeMario said. "We ask people to bring their patience and goodwill because so many of the popular places will fill up quickly."
Trevor Bolls of Rocky Mountain Recreation's already seen evidence of that in his job as the contractor for several Forest Service recreation districts. At the Kachess campground near Cle Elum, Bolls said more than 2,500 people have already reserved around 8,000 nights for spring and summer 2021.
State Parks saw 15 percent more people camping than normal from July through October in 2020, according to spokesperson Toni Droscher. She noted several more sites were added in 2019, when the agency moved to a new reservation software program.
"People might consider mid-week or shoulder-season stays and to stay in less popular parks," Drescher said. "Perhaps pick a region where they’d like to stay and check out the different parks within that region."
Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Paige DeChambeau said most of their campgrounds, including those in the Ahtanum National Forest, don't allow reservations. She's expecting big crowds with many indoor activities still closed or limiting capacity due to the pandemic.
All camping reservations on federal lands can be made through recreation.gov, although at least 40 percent of campsites at every Forest Service recreation area are first-come, first-serve. DeMario said last year campgrounds in Washington filled to typical weekend levels virtually every day and she recommended arriving early with an alternative in mind.
Those big crowds bring additional concerns, notably trash and increased risk of wildfires. DeMario encouraged people to follow "Leave No Trace" principles, emphasizing the importance of burying or packing out human waste.
State Parks should benefit from additional funds awarded by the state Legislature, which operations manager Ed Girard said allowed the agency to hire more staff members. They've also shifted some resources to bring on more seasonal employees and plan to prioritize "mission-centric enforcement" during their annual spring training.
Similarly, DeChambeau said DNR's working on recreation-specific wildfire prevention messaging to release in the coming months. DeMario praised outdoor enthusiasts who already put out fires and pick up extra trash, noting that just like DNR, the forest service hopes to resume volunteer work parties that were largely canceled because of restrictions on large groups.
"It’s hard to say because we want to comply with being safe with the pandemic," DeMario said. "We'll wait to see what we can safely do."
Of course, many Forest Service campgrounds and recreation areas remain buried under one of the largest snowpacks in recent memory. But unlike last year, the opening won't be dependent on when camping seems safe amidst an emerging pandemic.