This county has so many distinct regions, surrounding the rugged City of Tacoma, that you may need to camp several different places before you can grasp its complexity. Start with Mount Rainier National Park, the Key Peninsula, Chinook Pass, and the Nisqually River Plateau before venturing into more remote areas.
Mount Rainier National Park (MRNP)
Mount Rainier among the most recognizable mountain peaks, plus the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S.A. It is ranked third of the 128 ultra-prominent mountain peaks of the United States, and spawns six major rivers (the Carbon, Cowlitz, Mowich, Nisqually, Puyallup, and White Rivers). More to the point, it forms the backdrop for much of the recreation in Pierce County and beyond.
- Cougar Rock Campground, MRNP (Pierce Co.'s MOST UNIQUELY WASHINGTON CG)
Set at the southwest corner of 14,410' Mount Rainier, location is the word here, as this semi-rustic campground is close to MRNP's most popular destinations, including Paradise Lodge, Narada Falls, and Longmire.
Overview: Located 14 miles east of Ashford and 2 miles east of Longmire on the Nisqually River at 3180 elevation, open late May to late September; GPS 46.7674, -121.7927.
Facilities: Moderate facilities include bathrooms with flush toilets, drinking water, picnic tables, fire grills, RV dump station, and a General Store 2 miles away in Longmire. The Nisqually River is accessible from the Day Use Area across Highway 706.
Recreation: Hiking is spectacular here, and we strongly recommend acquiring a topographical map of the area. Hiking trails accessible directly from the campground include the 0.7-mile Trail of Shadows (easy); the 2.2-mile Carter Falls/Madcap Falls Loop Trail, the 4.6-mile Rampart Ridge Loop Trail (both moderate); and the 93-mile Wonderland Trail (strenuous) that encircles Mt. Rainier, passing through Longmire, Paradise, and Indian Henry's Hunting Ground. Many other trails start a short drive from the campground, including Christine Falls 4.5 miles east of Longmire (easy), 2-mile Kautz Creep Loop Trail 2.2 miles east of Longmire (moderate), 5.6-mile Comet Falls/Van Trump Park Trail and 7.2-mile Eagle Peak Saddle Loop Trail near Longmire (strenuous).
Campsites (173 sites for tents or RVs up to 35', no hookups, 5 group sites for up to 12 people each, reservable): Sites are small to medium, most with average privacy, many pull-throughs, most hemmed in by trees. The quietest campsites, however, are in Loop E, which does not allow generators. The campground contains one lookout at the Mountain, borders the Nisqually River, and has the best access to Paradise Lodge. In short, this campground is the best in MRNP for location, but Ohanapecosh CG MRNP (see under Lewis Co.) is the best for camping.
Trip Notes: This campground has a vintage, Boy/Girl Scout Summer Camp feel. The amphitheater has an especially strong yesteryear feel, and the accessibility of hiking trails is extraordinary (but no hiking on trails for Fido).
Gary Jones, the most senior of our Camp Every County crew, passed away in October of 2017, just days after finishing the Project
For more photos of Cougar Rock CG, MRNP click HERE
- Mowich Lake Campground, MRNP (Pierce Co.'s BEST FREE CG):
It may take some determination to drive here over the bumpy roads, but once you get here you will find the largest and deepest lake in MRNP, as well one of its most scenic locations.
Overview: Located off Highway 165 six miles inside the Mowich Entrance of MRNP at 4955' elevation, open early July to early October; GPS 46.939, -121.862.
Facilities include vault toilets, tent platforms, secure food storage, and picnic tables at 10 of the campsites.
Recreation: Kayaking/canoeing on Mowich Lake is a must. This is also a good launching point for many trails in the Mt. Rainier Wilderness. The 93-mile Wonderland Trail, which circles Mt. Rainier, is accessible from the campground. Other options are the 5.6-mile round-trip to the Tolmie Peak Lookout which passes the alluring Eunice Lake; and 6-mile round-trip Spray Park Trail with its 354' cascading waterfall. Both are accessible from the campground.
Campsites (21 walk-in sites for tents, including 3 group sites, no hookups or reservations, FREE with America the Beautiful Pass or Park entrance fee): All sites require a 200-yard walk. All sites are close together with only a modest amount of shade. What you have is camping next to a beautiful, pristine lake with a picture perfect reflection of MRNP. The only bad reviews from from those who could not manage the 17-mile bumpy dirt road to get there. Camper beware.
Mowich Lake is the largest and deepest lake in Mount Rainier National Park
For more photos of Mowich Lake CG click HERE
- Crystal Lakes Trail Campsites, MRNP (Pierce Co.'s BEST HIKE-IN CAMPSITES)
This 5.7-mile round trip trail is very "clean" with no rocks, roots, or other trip hazards along the way. Here you will find a pair of sparkling subalpine lakes beloved by hikers of all ages and abilities.
Overview: Located 36.5 miles east of Enumclaw at 5805' elevation, accessible from July until October; Trailhead GPS 46.9227, -121.5336 (more below).
Facilities: None. Water from each lake should be treated befor using for drinking water.
Recreation: The Crystal Lakes Trail continues on to Sourdough Gap and joins the Pacific Crest Trail along the Park's NE boundary.
Trailhead: From Enumclaw, follow SR 410 for 36.5 miles to trailhead. It is located 4.6 miles past the junction with Crystal Mountain Boulevard and 0.5 mile before Sunrise Road turnoff. The small, easy to miss trailhead is located on the left.
Campsites (2 dispersed sites each on Lower and Upper Crystal Lakes, FREE with a required Wilderness permit, also free of charge): The Lower Lake campsites are located beyond mid-alpine forests on the south side of the Lake in a smaller, marshy setting ringed by trees. Most campers prefer the Upper Lake campsites, with a good view of the Lake in a spacious subalpine basin with rolling meadows under Crystal Peak and Sourdough Gap.
Trip Notes: this one is still on our schedules for the summer of 2018.
The sparkling, subalpine Crystal Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park are beloved by hikers and campers of all ages and abilities
For more photos of Crystal Lakes Trail Campsites click HERE
- Ohanapecosh Campground, MRNP: see under Lewis County
Highway 410/Chinook Pass Region
This stretch of Highway 410 is commonly known as the Stephen Mather Memorial Parkway, and includes the beautiful Chinook Pass Scenic Byway. It travels through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park with spectacular views of Mount Rainier, dense forests, towering peaks, old growth forests, and lush subalpine meadows. Hey campers -- don't just make this a drive-by! Take off your shows and stay awhile.
- Silver Springs Campground (Pierce Co.'s BEST BIKE-IN CG)
Trees seem to grow in every direction here -- up, down, angled, sideways, and sometimes floating above the ground. No, this is not Avatar, but a heavily forested, natural campground where fallen trees are often left in their natural positions as nature intended.
Overview: Located 32 miles east of Enumclaw and 7 miles east of Greenwater on the White River, operated by the USFS at 2500' elevation, open April through September; GPS 46.9938, -121.5321.
Facilities include flush and vault toilets, drinking water, picnic tables, fire grills, and camp hosts.
Recreation: The main hiking trail accessible from the campground is the Crystal Lakes Trail, which starts near the Crystal Creek Guard Station near the east end of the campground along Highway 410. This is a 5.7-mile round trip hike passing alpine meadows, plus Lower and Upper Crystal Lakes and contains dispersed camping sites (see separate entry above). Other activities are close by in the northeast corner of MRNP, including the Sunrise Lodge.
Campsites (55 sites for tents and RVs up to 42', no hookups, 1 group site for 20-50, reservable): Sites are spacious and secluded. Natural forest hems in each campsite, providing excellent privacy. It is very shady, cooler in summer heat, but can take on a bit of a chill in cold weather. The most private sites are in the Loop with sites 36-42.
Trip Notes: This campground reminds you quickly that the White River, which marks the boundary of MRNP, is not far from its source at the Emmons Glacier on Mount Rainier. The riverbed is a rocky floodplain, with a braided river containing many gravel bars. The river struggles to find a single channel here, set between subalpine forest and rolling foothills. But that's its charm, and why it is so "White," still roiling and pushing ahead, inviting exploration. The forest also calls for a closer look. The roots of every tree -- interesting. The way the woodland creek winds its way through the forest and campground -- even more interesting. The many foot bridges across the creek -- nice touches that draw you back into the trees. It is also in close proximity to the lodge and activities around Sunrise with less use and less restrictions than the campgrounds within the National Park.
Washington History: Henry C. Allen, a confederate soldier, disillusioned by the events of the Civil War, moved west and died in this spot in 1896. His family granted his wish of remaining buried in the forest. His grave site exists in the Park to this day, maintained by local volunteers.
Local Alternative: The Dalles CG is located 2 miles east of Greenwater at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek and the White River, operated by the USFS at an elevation of 2200’, open the Thursday before Memorial Day through Labor Day. There are 44 sites for tents and small RVs, some are reservable. The quietest and most private sites rest along the White River; those along Hwy 410 are less private with some road noise. Sites are interspersed with the largest Douglas firs in the area, and providing good privacy. In short, this campground is about "the trees," surpassed only by Silver Springs CG.
The White River finally achieves a single flow near Silver Springs Campground
For more photos of Silver Springs CG click HERE
- Corral Pass Campground (Pierce Co.'s BEST BEST RUSTIC CG)
Climb, switchback, slow down for the potholes, climb some more... then wonder if you'll get there. Climbing 2800 vertical feet in 6 miles of gravel road may seem endless, but once you arrive, you'll feel like you're on top of the world, and you'll almost be right.
Overview: This Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is located 31 miles east of Enumclaw off Highway 410 just past Milepost 56 at 5,627' elevation, open July to September depending on the snowpack; GPS 47.013, -121.466.
Facilities include vault toilets, picnic tables, and fire grills.
Recreation: This is a launching point for any hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. The 2.4-mile roundtrip Rainier View Trail 1155 has great vistas of Mt. Rainier. The 4.6-mile out-and-back Greenwater Lakes Trail 1176 accesses the Norse Peak Wilderness, and is popular with horseback riders, accessing Greenwater Lake, Echo Lake, and Hidden lake . Noble Knob Trail 1184 is nearby and open to mountain bikes. Berry picking, mountain wildlife viewing (goats, marmots), and birding are also popular.
Campsites (22 tent sites, no hookups, non-reservable, FREE with NW Forest Pass): Sites have a good balance of sun and shade, with a beautiful alpine setting.
Corral Pass Campground is a rugged, rustic site that seems like the top of the world
For more photos of Corral Pass CG click HERE
Key Peninsula Region
The Key Peninsula is a 16-mile long finger of land that sits in the middle of Puget Sound in the westernmost point of Pierce County. Its history is one of isolation with no roads, but residents traveling via the "Mosquito Fleet" of privately-run ferries. The community of Home began as an anarchist community that kept lawmakers on their toes for decades. The historic Glencove Hotel provided housing for "drummers" who sold their wares (some legal and some not) throughout the Peninsula. But "the boys" have settled down now, and with the building of roads and the passage of time, the "Key" has joined the mainstream of rural communities with some exceptional recreational opportunities.
- Penrose Point State Park (Pierce Co.'s MOST APPEALING CG TO THE SENSES and BEST BOAT-IN CG)
Overview: This marine campground is llocated on a narrow channel near Lakebay on the Key Peninsula on 152 acres with 2 miles of saltwater shoreline on Mayo Cove and Carr Inlet, open year round; GPS 47.259, -122.744.
Facilities include flush toilets, running water, showers, picnic tables, fire rings, 2 covered shelters, dock and moorage, 2.5 miles of hiking trails plus a 0.2-mile interpretive trail, and camp hosts.
Recreation: Shellfish digging is excellent here, as the area has been enhanced with Manila clams and oysters. Native littleneck clams, butter clams, horse clams, cockles and eastern shoftshell clams are also found on this beach.
Campsites (82 sites, no hookups, one group camp for 20-50, reservable): The best sites are 7, 8, 18, 36, 49, 52, 63, 65, 68, and 69. All are wooded, none on the water. They have average to good privacy, and shady or partly shady. This is far superior to nearby Joemma Beach S.P., which is good for fishing, swimming, boating, and picnicking, but cannot be recommended for overnight camping.
Trip Notes: The biggest surprise was the uniqueness of the campsites -- each is very different from the others -- no cookie-cutter state park sites here. Some were long and deep to accommodate large RVs, others were nestled into the rain forest-like vegetation, while others were terraced with steps built into the slope. For me, this is as good as camping gets. The madrona trees and the great picnic area/marina added special touches of color.
Penrose Point sits on a narrow channel near Lakebay on the Key Peninsula
For more photos of Penrose Point S.P. click HERE
Nisqually River Region
The Nisqually River has its source at the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier. It carves its way through the landscape for 81 miles, emptying into Puget Sound, and forming the border between Pierce County and Thurston County to the south. Along the way, Indian reservations, hydroelectric dams, and rural communities look to it for life, sustenance, and even recreational opportunities.
- Alder Lake Park (Pierce Co.'s BEST EQUIPPED CG/BEST CG FOR RVs, BEST CG FOR FAMILIES and includes BEST GROUP CG)
This is the best of the Tacoma Power Parks, the others being in Lewis Co. This Park is actually five different campgrounds: Main, Group Sites, Osprey, Elk Plain, and Rocky Point. It is definitely a family-oriented park with enough room and diversity for everyone.
Overview: Located near Eatonville/Elbe on 161 acres along 3,065-acre Alder Lake (reservoir), operated by Tacoma Public Utilities at 1227' elevation, open Jan. 1 to Dec. 20 yearly; GPS 46.7997, -122.2976.
Facilities: Extensive facilities vary according to campground. All sites have picnic tables, fire rings, and water faucets and bathrooms. There are 3 playgrounds (Elk Plain CG, Sunny Point Day Use, and Stacel Point Day Use). Some contain ADA-accessible bathrooms. There is a 20-slip boat moorage dock (Stacel Point Day Use) and 2 boat launches (Main CG and Rocky Point CG). Camp hosts are present during summer months.
Recreation: Fishing is good for rainbow and cutthroat trout, kokanee, largemouth bass, yellow perch, black crappie and bullhead catfish. Swimming is good, particularly at the Main CG/Stacel Point Day Use and Sunny Beach Day Use Areas. 330-foot high Alder Dam gives tours in summertime, but always gives the best views around.
Campsites (173 sites for tents or RVs of any size, plus 5 group camps; 111 sites have partial or full hookups 30/50 amp, all are reservable): For more information, see below.
- Main CG: 78 sites, 74 with water & electric, plus 37 with full hookups 30/50 amp. The 16 tent sites have poor privacy, are small and sometimes uneven. Tent sites are best reserved in clusters of 2, the best being 55/56, 61/62, 63/64, 65/66. The RV sites have average privacy but can also be small and poorly designed, but with good pad maneuverability. Best sites include 3, 7, 9, 17, 23, 28, 31, 33, 35, 39, 40, 45, 46, 47, 49, 52, 71, 72, 73, 75, 77, 78. Most of these are pull-throughs.
- Group Camps: There are five small group camps of varying sizes: the largest has 15 individual sites, the smallest has 5 individual sites. The largest has 3 shelters and 3 fire rings. Group Camps are reservable by individual sites (so reserve all sites if you want it for your group only). All but one group site has its own bathroom, which it shares with an adjoining group site. All group camps are grassy, well-maintained, and open at the expense of privacy (less of an issue when you know your campanions ahead of time).
- Osprey Campground includes 44 tent sites with no hookups. Many are designated as walk-in sites, and tend to be small. Best sites are 236, 237, 238, 239, and 242. This campground has a walking trail to the picnic area on the Lake (Stacel Point). Some road and pedestrian noise occurs (it is adjacent to the Group Camp), but is the best tent-only area in the park. (see comments below)
-Elk Plain Campground includes 25 sites, 24 with water & electric hookups 30/50 amp, plus one walk-in site (#308, which may be the best single site, and the only one allowing tents, but has much foot traffic to the Lake). But this one is a quandary. It has the campsites closest to the water, but it is essentially a small tight triangle centered around a children's play area. It is so tight, in fact, that many people fired up their charcoal grills right on the narrow road, making it only a matter of time before they get knocked over and someone gets hurt. For the more careful campers who enjoy fishing, and who find it beneficial to have their children in view, I think it can work. Other fisherman might want to consider Rocky Point CG.
- Rocky Point Campground includes 25 RV sites, all with water & electric hookups 30/50 amp. No tents are allowed. This is close to Highway 7, and has the most highway noise of the four campgrounds. Best sites are 407, 408, and 409. The strength of the other sites is the easy lake access, taller trees and vegetation, and reasonable privacy for sites on the periphery (the sites in the center are closer together). It is located about 4 miles from the main campground. It not only has the best fishing (feeder streams enter the lake here), but also very wooded, some with lake views, many of which have good privacy. If you are a fisherman, you might consider camping here first. The kids will also like it, as there is plenty to do.
-Stacel Point Day Use Area is located within the Main CG complex. Here you’ll find a swimming beach, playground, open lawn areas, a picnic shelter, 45 picnic sites with tables and grills and a bathhouse with showers. This is open year round, but note that alcoholic beverages are prohibited.
-Sunny Beach Day Use Area is located just one mile from the main park with excellent swimming and human-powered boat facilities. It has multiple smaller swimming areas and picnic sites. It is very crowded in warmer weather, but for all the right reasons. Note this is closed Sept. 16 to May 14.
Trip Notes: We have mixed feelings about Alder Lake, some very good (the Group Sites and Osprey CG in particular), and others less positive. The Main CG was designed a long time ago, with sites wide and shallow, following the contour of the roads, rather than extending back into the woods. It is the first camping experience when we felt intruded upon by other people's children. This was due more to the design of the campsites, than the individuals in question (most of whom were great neighbors). I can only recommend camping for those with families and RVs (the tent sites are far too open to recommend) or those who don't mind the higher level of activity. Camper beware.
On a more positive note, the Group CG and Osprey CG (which are adjacent to one another) are the park's strength. The excellent group camps are grassy, well designed, and spacious, but lacking privacy. I recommend these for large, mixed groups, as the bathrooms and shelters are quite good. One even has its own cooking shelter. For tent campers, this is where you want to be. The walk-in sites are extremely well designed on a hillside, but all terraced and flat, albeit somewhat small. The parking is designed so that you won't have to carry your equipment far, and, unlike the main campground, the sites are surrounded by tall trees and vegetation, making for average to good privacy with good shade, keeping the temperatures cooler in hot weather. It also has a footpath directly to the beach. I asked several campers why they liked tent camping here, and their responses were "my family feels safe here," and "there are no animals we don't want here." This is family camping at its best. The rest I can recommend only with reservation.
Osprey Campground at Alder Lake Park offers the best camping
For more photos of Alder Lake Park click HERE