Moving to the Pacific Northwest has opened a whole new world of outdoor adventures for me and Matt. Less than a two-hour drive in any direction, there are countless breathtaking views to take in whether by car or on foot. A few weeks ago, we carved out what little time we had for our first camping trip in the area, an overnight excursion in Mt. Rainier National Park.
So we bought a tent, packed the car full and set off, without a campsite reservation or itinerary, banking on beginner’s luck. We arrived at the park early Thursday morning, hoping to beat the crowds to the first-come, first-served campsites at Cougar Rock campground, in the southwest area of the park called Paradise. We were pretty bummed when nothing was available, but we refused to let it discourage us. We decided to spend the morning hiking the Skyline Trail, a popular hike known for its sweeping views and fields of wildflowers.
We were on the trail by 10 AM that warm July morning, and were completely shocked to find there was still at least ½ foot of snow on the ground! An unexpected surprise that made me grateful to have put on hiking boots instead of tennis shoes that morning. The goal was Panorama Point, 2 miles and 1700 feet up from our starting point. We underestimated the snow and incline though, and without poles to aid us, only made it as far as Glacier Vista, 1000 feet in elevation gain. No matter, we were content to make it as far as we did. Despite the snow completely covering any of the famed wildflowers, we were still rewarded for our efforts: the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains was absolutely breathtaking. It was such a clear day we could see Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and even Mt. Hood (all the way in Oregon!) all at once from our vantage point at the base of the majestic Mt. Rainier.
A phone-full of pictures later, we were back to the car, trying to make a contingency plan for the lack of campground. Stevens Canyon Road, the road to drive to Ohanapecosh on the eastern side of the park, was closed still from winter weather (in July!), so our options were limited. We decided to circle back by Cougar Rock campground one last time to make sure there wasn’t any availability. Still, there were no first-come sites open.
Defeated, we approached the ranger on duty to see if she thought it would be worth it to head to Ohanapecosh. She responded immediately and emphatically no. We were about to turn to walk away when she stopped us, saying she had one reserved campsite that had just canceled their reservation, for one night only. It felt like fate! Reenergized and elated, we headed over to our site to make camp. Our brand-new REI tent was a dream and went up in under 10 minutes. We plugged in the air mattress (did I say camping earlier? I meant glamping…) and lit some coals to cook lunch: way too much rockfish for two people & 2 ears of corn. Our hike left us famished, so we ate until we could eat no more and then set out again.
Our afternoon hike was super convenient, with the Wonderland Trailhead just across the road from the Cougar Rock Campgrounds. The 5.5-mile round trip hike starts with a gorgeous view of Mt. Rainier as you cross the Nisqually River, then takes you into the massive evergreen forest, up 1400 ft. on a well-maintained, wide trail. Though moderately steep, it was quiet and incredibly peaceful, without any huge crowds of people taking away from the natural beauty. Along the way, we saw both Carter & Madcap Falls, but neither prepared us for our breathtaking final destination: Narada Falls.
Standing in front of the almost 200 foot-tall waterfall was truly awe-inspiring (and as its water sprayed us, slightly reminiscent of a theme park ride…). There was even a picture-perfect rainbow just basking in her presence! It was a spectacular sight and the perfect end to a successful day of hiking.
When we made it back to camp around 8P, it was still bright out, a reminder that summer was in full swing. We stoked some coals for a simple dinner of skillet veggies (the lasting results of way too much fish at lunch – we were still pretty full), then chatted while we waited for the sun to set, fully enjoying the lack of cell service and the disconnection from the outside world it brought. Finally, a little after 9P, dusk settled. We started our campfire for the night and by 10P, we were ready for everyone’s favorite camping ritual: s’mores.
Many golden marshmallows and a few dropped chocolate squares later, we bundled up for the surprisingly chilly July night and slept until one last campsite meal beckoned us. I’ve always said that I’m not a morning person, but breakfast is my favorite meal, an adage that holds true even while camping. I made us both fresh cups of coffee, crisped up some bacon, and fried a few eggs in the bacon grease. With a side of blueberries, it was the perfect meal to welcome the day and end our, albeit brief, first venture into the vast Washington landscape. Though both a bit disappointed to have it end almost as soon as it began, we were encouraged by our success to start planning the next one…
We’re still learning as we go, but these are our current techniques for our ideal make-shift kitchen at our “glamp-site”:
- cast-iron skillet: our go-to both at home and outside, it holds its own in rough-and-tumble conditions while still being incredibly effective for even, thorough cooking. Cast-iron’s versatility means it’s perfect for everything from eggs to veggies to cuts of meat, making it the only pan we bring with us. If we’re not cooking it straight on the grate, it’s going in the skillet.
- charcoal: this was a game-changer that Matt and I can’t believe we didn’t think of sooner. As opposed to cooking over only wood and an open flame, charcoal lumps are easy to light and disperse heat evenly and longer. When you’re done cooking, it’s easy to use the leftover charcoal to get your firewood lit easily.
- coffee: just because you’re in the woods, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice good coffee. Because of how lightweight and easy to clean it is, the AeroPress is a fan favorite for even more serious campers. We’ve been traveling with a kettle from home to boil water, but a Jet Boil will be our next camping purchase to speed the process up. When we upgraded our coffee grinder, I stupidly got rid of my hand grinder, so we have been pre-grinding our coffee when we pack. Fresh is always best, so if you’ve got a hand grinder, definitely bring it! If you’re looking to add one to your repertoire, there’s a wide range of variety out there. The most important aspect is that you get a burr grinder instead of a blade, which will create a more consistent grind, leading to more even extraction during the brewing process (read: better-tasting coffee). This Hario hand grinder is an affordable crowd-favorite, and this one from Knock is supposed to be the bee’s knees if you’re looking for the best money can buy. If you still aren’t convinced about the difference a fresh grind makes, check out this article from Stumptown (a favorite of mine for both beans and brew guides) for a comprehensive breakdown.
- corkscrew: do I need to explain this one?
- dinnerware set: we love this set we just got from World Market. It comes with two plastic plates, two forks, two spoons, and two knives that all zip up perfectly in a convenient carrying case. The best part? They’re on sale for only $10 right now.
- folding chairs: we found a set of great ones from Costco that have a fold-out side table connected to the armrest, complete with a cup and phone/book holder. Perfect for sitting around the campfire together or sipping a morning coffee while you bask in the nature around you.
- pre-cut veggies: the more you can do in advance, the easier it is to throw a meal together outside. If you’re already going through the trouble of starting a fire to cook a meal, who wants to have to deal with slicing potatoes too? We cut up a few potatoes and a handful of Brussels sprouts, then put them all together in a Tupperware container. Then, when we were ready to cook everything, we could toss them with olive oil and seasoning in the same container we brought them on. Utilizing dishes efficiently is the name of the game.
- salt & pepper: you’re still cooking after all! Don’t let being outside discourage you from cooking like you do at home. We fill up a small screw-top jar with kosher salt and take a disposable pepper grinder from the grocery store so we can still grind it fresh.
- tin foil: the ultimate tool in heat control, for both speed and thorough cooking. We used it to wrap our corn and to create a lid over the skillet.
Like I said though, we’re still learning! What are your favorite tricks when you go camping?