Story and photos By Patrick Beggan
For an easy night under the stars, it’s hard to beat car camping. Though Whatcom County doesn’t have a major mountain pass or an abundance of built-up campgrounds for RVs and high traffic, there’s plenty of quality car camping around. If you know where to go, camping in the middle of some of the most amazing scenery in Washington can be as easy as parking your car.
Many of the best campsites are easy to get to nearly year-round and relatively close to civilization. The spots in this guide take less than 90 minutes to get to from the Interstate 5 corridor. Though car camping is relatively easy compared to trekking into the backcountry with a backpack, you should still be aware of weather and know what amenities you’ll find at the campsite and what gear you’ll need to bring.
Elevation: 705 feet
Amenities: Fire pits, pit toilets, water spigots, boat ramps and picnic tables
Access: From I-5 and exits 230 (coming from the south) or 232 (coming from the north) head east on Highway 20. Stay on 20 as it winds through Burlington and Sedro-Woolley. In 23 miles, turn left onto Baker Lake Road, 5.5 miles east of Hamilton. There will be a small brown sign for Baker Lake just before the turnoff. Baker Lake Road is paved through the first 20 miles past several campgrounds, and then becomes a well-maintained gravel road on the way to the more remote upper campgrounds. Snow is common in the winter at Baker Lake, but it’s often possible to get here in the winter.
Other: Northwest Forest Pass is required.
Baker Lake has some of the best and easiest year-round camping near Mt. Baker. Eight developed, car-accessible U.S. Forest Service campgrounds with fire rings, tables and toilets, are scattered around the long lake. Additionally, there’s dispersed camping (with no amenities) nearby. The number of places to pitch a tent means that, aside from holiday weekends, there’s almost always room here.
The lake is great for canoeing and kayaking and several trailheads nearby on Baker Lake Road lead to fantastic North Cascades scenery. The Swift Creek Trail, which provides an alternative to the more popular route from Heather Meadows, is a highlight. The East Bank Baker Lake and the Baker River trails also start near the lake, providing options for flatter trails and good off-season hiking. Baker Lake is also a convenient basecamp for winter snowshoeing.
Elevation: 906 feet
Amenities: Fire grills, pit toilets, well water and picnic tables.
Access: Take Highway 542 east just past Glacier, Washington. The campground is signed and on the left side of the highway at Canyon Creek Road, near milepost 35.
Other: Douglas Fir Campground is open from the end of April until October.
Just on the outskirts of Glacier, Douglas Fir Campground is a great base to explore the North Fork of the Nooksack River valley, which is packed with trailheads and outdoor opportunities. The short Horseshoe Bend Trail, a beautiful year-round hike along the banks of the Nooksack, starts at the campground. Across the highway there’s a spot for launching rafts or kayaks. Other popular trails nearby include Heliotrope Ridge and Church Mountain, along with other lesser-known trails.
This is a great late spring spot for campers chomping at the bit to get outside. It’s well-developed and close to restaurants, coffee shops and stores in Glacier, yet still near the wilderness.
Elevation: 1,300 feet
Amenities: Pit toilet
Access: From Bellingham, take Highway 542 east 34 miles to the Glacier Public Service Center. Reset your odometer, and watch carefully for the junction with Forest Road 39 (Glacier Creek Road), just 0.8 miles down the road and to the right. Immediately after turning off 542 onto Glacier Creek Road, follow the signs to the Skyline Divide Trail and turn left on Forest Road 37. Drive approximately 4.25 miles to just after the Cascade Creek crossing, but before the large wooden bridge over Deadhorse Creek. Campsites are on the left on a wide turn and easy to miss.
Other: Northwest Forest Pass required.
The camping at Deadhorse Creek, along the south bank of the Nooksack River, is a gem. It’s right on the river and all sites are within a few feet of the water. This is dispersed camping, meaning it’s outside a designated campground, and it’s hard to find if you haven’t been there with someone who knows the way. Though it’s one of the more rustic places to camp in the area, several sites have stone fire pits and there is a pit toilet. It doesn’t have potable water though, so remember to pack it in.
There are plenty of trailheads and scenic drives nearby on Glacier Creek Road and farther up Forest Road 37. This is a great spot to explore the banks of the Nooksack around the campground and, just west of the campground, there is a large, stony open wash with amazing views of Church Mountain and the ridges bordering the Nooksack Valley.
Elevation: 5,200 feet
Amenities: Pit toilets, picnic tables, fire rings
Access: From Bellingham, go east on Highway 542 and 13 miles past Glacier turn left onto Forest Road 3065 (Twin Lakes Road), which is just past the Washington State Department of Transportation maintenance shed. The road is well maintained and accessible by nearly any vehicle for the first 4.5 miles to the Tomyhoi Lake/Yellow Aster Butte trailhead. Those without a high-clearance vehicle should park here and walk the remaining two miles to the campground. The last section of road has steep switchbacks and may have large potholes.
Other: Northwest Forest Pass required.
Twin Lakes is one of the most amazing car camping destinations in the North Cascades. At 5,200 feet, this campground does not melt out completely until July in most years and is surrounded by the kind of alpine scenery that can’t typically be reached by road. Nearly every site has a metal fire pit and picnic table and there are pit toilets for the campground.
It’s scenic enough to just sit and stare, but the lakes and surrounding area also host some interesting exploring. A 2-mile trail leads to the top of Winchester Mountain, which boasts an incredible view and a retired fire lookout cabin where it is possible to camp overnight. The space is first-come, first-served and can be competitive. The Lone Jack Mine, which operates periodically depending on the price of gold, is also accessible from here, along with other off-trail adventure options. The lakes themselves are amazing at any time of year and there’s very little other car camping at this elevation in the state.