A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Happy Camper: A Photographic Tour of Wild and Wonderful Campsites


When I was a kid, my family’s annual vacation entailed driving north to the shores of Lake Erie, where we would spend a week camping at East Harbor State Park near Sandusky, Ohio. My Uncle John, who lived nearby in a tiny carriage house in the small harbor town of Vermillion, would join us with his orange triangle tent pitched next to my family’s giant blue high-domed tent. We did all the usual family camping activities: built a camp fire, roasted hotdogs, made s’mores, lounged in camp chairs, told stories. During the day, we would go to the beach and swim in the great lake. We always took a trip to Cedar Point for a day of roller coasters rides as well. I was a very happy camper, indeed.

Oh, 1980s fashion. I love our poses, too. Not sure who took this photo of me and my brother Alex.
Two happy campers. Thanks to my Mom for digging out these photos for me.

I remember the warring sensations of thrill mixed with fear as I followed at night one of the many social paths leading from the tent sites to the restroom. The tall trees loomed above, and who knows what lurked in the dark. Moving quickly toward the beacon of the shower house’s light, I would hurry through the woods, both loving and fearing being alone there at night. Once, on my return to our site, a small, black creature ambled past. Animal lover that I am, I went toward it, for some reason thinking it was a cat. Upon closer inspection, the cat turned into a skunk, and I scurried away to the safety of the tent.

My brother Alex and I playing in Lake Erie at East Harbor State Park.

Later in childhood and into young adulthood, after my parents’ divorce, those trips morphed into a yearly camping vacation with my Dad, our extended family, and our horses at Brown County State Park in southern Indiana. What an enchanted childhood it was, to pitch a tent and have your horse tied outside. Through the fabric of the tent, I could hear my horse, Whisper, chomping hay and giving a big horsey sigh as he lay down to sleep. We would spend the day riding through the forest, racing up and down hills, urging our steeds over fallen logs, and galloping with wild abandon down the straight stretches.

At night, my aunts prepared dinner as us kids groomed our mounts then rode them around the campground, showing off for all the other horse folk. Each night ended with a family jam session around the campfire, singing and playing guitar. Neighboring campers always found their way over to join us, drawn by the music and mirth.

Those were even happier times. I recall sitting in school, oblivious to the teacher’s voice, lost in day dreams of being at Brown County. If we were lucky, we’d sometimes return again in the fall or spring for additional trips with our Dad and neighbors. Those were smaller, quieter trips, often in the “primitive” campsites which lacked electricity, but I loved it all the same. Not many kids have the good fortune to grow up camping with their horse. It truly was a childhood dream come true.

These experiences instilled in me, at an early age, a love for camping, and I’m grateful to my parents for choosing this as our big family vacation each year. True, it was car camping in parks with sites cordoned off and all the amenities of electricity, water, and showers at hand, but it felt wild to me at the time. I liked being out in the woods, falling asleep to the sound of the whippoorwills and Bob Whites in the trees, the smell of campfire in my hair for days. The hikes, the music, the laughter, and the sense of freedom that comes with being in the great outdoors was a formidable, and formative, component of my childhood.

As I grew older, I still sought out opportunities to camp, but they seemed fewer and far between. Somewhere along the line, I also developed a fear of being out in the woods at night and had trouble sleeping. On a trip through Quebec and New England during graduate school, it rained relentlessly and deluged my leaky, borrowed tent. Pitching it one night under a lean-to on Burton Island in Vermont, I lay awake all night convinced that rabid raccoons were trying to claw their way inside (I had seen a poster on the outhouse warning of rabid raccoons, with a picture of a raccoon with wild, bullseye red eyes.) On a trip to the Pacific Northwest, shortly before I moved here, I camped at the Cougar Rock Campground at MORA. I had purchased my first tent and sleeping pad from REI for the occasion. One night, I fidgeted in discomfort, waiting for sunrise to come because I was too scared of having a rogue bear encounter if I walked alone to the privy at night. I was 34 years old.

Writing this now, I laugh at that camper. Over the past three years I have evolved into an entirely new camper, someone who sleeps soundly in the backcountry and pitches a tent far from cars and crowds, or who even plops down on the trail in the middle of the night for a dirt nap, no need for a shelter. My camping life these past three years has been rich and full, and I have awakened in some incredibly beautiful places, as well as in some exceptionally strange ones. In all of these places, I also awakened next to Seth Wolpin, who taught me nearly everything I know about life in the backcountry.

With Seth as my wilderness guide, I have learned to be discerning and snobbish in all matters of gear, choosing the best and lightest options and doing the research to know I’ve made the correct choice. Seth instilled in me the importance of walking just a little bit further, scouting just a little bit longer, to ensure that we have indeed selected the absolute best camp site in the area. Or, how to gently carve one out for ourselves if no sites exist. Seth showed me how to seek out stunningly beautiful and remote locations that no one else seemed to know of. He taught me to paint routes in Caltopo and not to leave home without the GPX tracks. His attention to safety protocols shaped my approach to arranging an emergency contact who knows when and how to contact the rangers if they don’t hear from us, and to carry an inReach for added insurance. I learned how to hang a bear bag, tie a variety of knots, position a tarp, and that there’s no reason to pack anything other than Pad Thai for dinner. I learned how to use dryer lint to start a fire in the pouring rain and that thick plastic bags are great for wrapping up your feet in cold, wet weather. He showed me the value of having a tent for any and all occasions. When it comes to gear, Seth has a quiver of everything, and I am following in his footsteps as my gear closet expands. He insists that chocolate is the 11th essential and that, no matter how light we’re going, that there is always room to carry more. Along with a dromedary bag full of water, it’s also essential to tote ukuleles and recorders up mountains so that we can serenade the stars. He fostered my love for puff and showed me the importance of having an array of layers to prepare for whatever the weather throws at us, and to toss wet socks in the sleeping bag to dry when the skies soak us. Upon departure, one must always fold hands in supplication and say, “Thank you, Campsite.” I have learned all of this from him, and so much more. Most importantly, with Seth by my side, I learned to fall fast asleep in the woods, completely at ease and content.

I have shared with him three years of learning and growing in the woods, and it has been the most transformative and happy time of my life. I would like to think that perhaps I also taught him a thing or two along the way.

What follows here is a look at some of the highlights of our camping adventures. Seth and I have shared more than I can possibly include here, and the following must serve as representatives of a much larger quiver of experience. They also represent some of the happiest moments of my life.

I have organized the rest of this post based on the type of camping excursion and have chosen some highlights from each to share. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of all of our great (or weird) camping locations, but there’s enough to offer a taste of this part of our life together. To keep things manageable, I tried to limit myself to only including photos of the actual campsites or the view from the tent. That’s tough, because most of these trips were part of larger adventures that I would love to document here, so in a few cases, I allowed myself an extra photo or two. I also tried to keep the narrative component brief and will instead allow the photos to do most of the talking. That’s also difficult, because each of these experiences comes with its own unique and special story in our life. I hope you will enjoy this photo journey and the wild and wonderful campsites it takes you to.

Alpine Lakes

Horseshoe and Goat Lakes

This was my first wild camping experience, and it will forever remain my favorite. It was September of 2017. I had no real backpacking gear and had to borrow things from a friend so that this incredible guy I was falling in love with wouldn’t think I was a wilderness imposter.

It was a magical journey up a boot path to a hidden lake, where we plucked blueberries to toss into our tsampa, made s’mores over the flame of a gas stove, ate the most delicious risotto out of a pouch, bushwhacked up to Goat Lake, and fell asleep to the most peaceful and profound quiet I have ever experienced. You can hear more about it in this story I shared at Boldly Went.

The next year, icebergs on Goat Lake halted our plans to complete our Middle Fork Mega Loop. As consolation, we returned to our first campsite at Horseshoe Lake for another night at this special place.

In October, I will pass by these lakes once again, as I return with my packraft to complete the Middle Fork Mega Loop on my first solo packraft adventure. While I won’t camp on Horseshoe Lake, I will be sure to fold my hands in thanks as I pass.

I’m pretty sure he is saying, “One day, all of this will be yours!”
We watched videos on how to set up the Echo II tent for the first time.
Horseshoe Lake meditation.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Post-bushwhack respite on Goat Lake.
Coming down the “trail” from Horseshoe Lake. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Seth’s forest ballet.
Water whacking to our campsite on Horseshoe Lake. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Goat Lake iced over during an attempt at our Middle Fork Mega Loop in June 2018.
Returning to our special spot on Horseshoe Lake is not a bad Plan B.

Ancient Lakes

Technically, these aren’t alpine lakes, but camping here was just as splendid as any lake we’ve encountered in the mountains. We first visited Ancient Lakes, in eastern Washington, for a day of running through the coulees of columnar basalt in March of 2018. The landscape is so striking, and so completely different from the verdant west. We returned that May for camping and were treated to a great spot above the lake. It was warm enough then for the rattlesnakes to be out, and I had my first encounter with one and ran the scariest 10 miles of my life with rattles rattling from every bush it seemed. Shell shocked, we spent the rest of the day flying a kite and practicing the Riptide strum pattern on air ukuleles, repeatedly saying out loud, “down down up up down up.”

The coulees of Ancient Lakes.
View of Ancient Lakes from above.
Ancient Lakes tent view.
Tough to beat that backdrop.
Camped above Ancient Lakes.
Dusk on Ancient Lakes.

Alpine Lakes High Traverse

We explored this route through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in August of 2019. We took our time and lingered at three lakes along the way, where we enjoyed solitude and sweeping views. We gave the recorders a good workout, blazed through books, navigated by bearings, and, of course, ate a lot of chocolate. It was definitely a highlight of the summer.

View from our camp at Lone Duck Lake, named for the solo duck swimming around by itself. We promised never to reveal the location of this secret lake.
Perfect sun napping rocks on Lone Duck Lake.
Setting up camp at Lone Duck Lake. A good example of making a space workable for the tent.
A picture postcard alpine lake.
It’s recorder time!
We spent night two perched above a lovely little tarn.
Following a bearing across the talus.
View from our awesome camp on night three. We dozed in the sleeping bag, opened our eyes to this view, read, dozed some more, then ate Pad Thai.
The route lives up to its name with being up high and dotted with alpine lakes. We were happy to just lay there and take it all in.

The Coast

While alpine lakes have their special place in our hearts, it is the wild Washington coast that we love most. I recently wrote about our last trip there, and in that report I talk about our many experiences on the coast and explain why we cherish it above all other places. A trip to the coast means we also have the privilege of visiting our dear friend Mary, and stopping at her lovely home overlooking Discovery Bay is an important part of our coastal escape tradition.

We have made camp in the most spectacular places along this pristine stretch of coastline running from Oil City in the south to Shi Shi in the north. We have our favorite sites to which we return time and again, and on each visit we also discover new places to pitch our tent. Please permit me to indulge myself with more photos in this section, as we’ve had the pleasure of calling so many lovely spots home for the night along the coast, and it would be a shame not to share them with you here.

December 2017: First Trip

Seth proudly presenting our very first coast camp, north of Rialto Beach.
The kitchen at our first coast camp.
We called this the Huck Finn camp, as it had lots of platforms and hammocks made of driftwood and hemp ropes. Due to a deluge, we stayed here for a few days. We didn’t mind.
View from our tent along Toleak Point, on the southern end of the coast.
Seth taking it easy at our Toleak camp.
Sunset at Toleak Point.
Soaking it all in before we depart our beloved coast.

November 2018: With Sudeep

Our friend Sudeep came to visit from Nepal, and since he had never seen the Pacific Ocean, we felt obliged to make the introduction. We spent the Thanksgiving holiday playing in tide pools, introducing Sudeep to s’mores, singing songs, sharing stories, contemplating the enormity of the Pacific, and being the sole spectators of the world’s most breathtaking sunsets.

Breaking camp. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
All three of us crammed into my 2-person Half Dome tent.
Sudeep’s first s’more! He very politely humored me, but I don’t think he was impressed.
Playing in the tide pools.
Just another superlative sunset.
Love on the beach. Photo credit: Sudeep Kandel

View from our camp just north of Hole-in-the-Wall. This site has become a perennial favorite.
Sudeep races against the waves.
Showing Sudeep the ropes of overland trails. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Sudeep and I contemplate the enormity of the Pacific. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
All smiles after an alpine start in a successful race against the tides.
Seth’s bathroom typically looked like this after a wet beach adventure. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

December 2018: New Year

After our insane Christmas paddle trip on the Skagit (see details on that in the Rivers section below) we headed back to the coast to ring in the New Year. We returned to what would become one of our favorite camps on the southern section of coast. On our way there, Seth said, “I want you to spread my ashes here when I die.” I feel the same way about this place.

We did have a wild night there when an unexpected wind storm blew in. We stayed awake all night trying to hold the tent in place, and it seemed at any moment a tree would fall and crush us, or the rising, raging tide would swallow us. I must admit that it is the most scared I have ever been; the stakes felt real, and high. The situation was largely out of our control. We waited until the tide was low enough to get around the headlands, packed in a flurry, and fled. It was definitely a most memorable night in a tent!

It doesn’t get cozier than this. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

November 2019: A Holiday Tradition

A trip to the coast was now firmly a holiday tradition for us. This time, we made camp at Hole-in-the-Wall and spent our entire time there relaxing and feeling happy to be in our place.

I will never tire of this view.
Of course we brought the recorders!
The tent tucked behind driftwood. We tried to bushwhack to the top of the hill behind it, after speculating for a couple years as to what was on the other side. It will remain a mystery.
Reading by a campfire, another favorite pastime. Note the obligatory Pad Thai staying hot near the fire as it rehydrates.

March 2020: Isolating

I wrote a detailed report about this trip, which we took as a consolation after Covid canceled our trip to Nepal. This time, we went north of Ozette to Shi Shi, the only section of the coast that I had not traveled. As you might imagine, it did not disappoint. I’ll include here just a few campsite photos, as the trip report includes a full album of stunning photographs.

Our first camp on this trip, above Seafield Creek.
This goes down in history as one of the best campsites ever. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
This is the life! PC Seth Wolpin
Hangin’ loose at our coastal high camp.
We had to clear a spot of rocks to make it work, but it was well worth the effort.
Site cleared, tent pitched, fire burning, and everything in its place.
One last sunset at Sand Point.
Saying farewell to the coast from the top of Sand Point.


The Cascades have been our playground, and we have spent many a night camped on the flanks or the summit of a beautiful mountain. What a life, indeed! Here are a few with particularly stunning views.

Earl Peak

True, we had to haul water up the steep trail to the saddle below Earl Peak, but the views of the Stewart Range and Teanaway Country rewarded the effort. We brought our ukes for a mountaintop jam session, scrambled a fun ridge traverse, and outran a thunderstorm.

Camped below Earl Peak.
Mountaintop serenade.
Sunset from camp with Mt. Stewart as a cinematic backdrop.
Twilight falls on the tent.
A most memorable ridge traverse with big views of the Stewart Range.
Nice spot for a mid-traverse nap.

Cascade Pass

The fabled Cascade Pass lived up to its reputation for being one of the most stunning locations in the North Cascades. We had planned to explore part of the Ptarmigan Traverse, but I had some trouble crossing a washout, so we decided to pitch the tent in a picture-perfect spot and call it good. I remember thinking, as the sun set over the jagged peaks, “I can’t believe we live here.”

After seemingly endless switchbacks, the view from Cascade Pass greets you.
How many people get to open their tent to a view like this?
Sun sets over the North Cascades.
The next morning, the world was socked in.

Revolution Peak

While we didn’t make it to the summit of Revolution Peak, we nevertheless scored an incredible campsite from which the Central Cascades unfolded before us. It was one of the most spectacular mountain sunsets I’ve witnessed. This was October of 2018, and the fall colors were on point. On the way back to the truck, I lost both my hat and recorder, so keep your eyes open for them if you find yourself in this sweet little spot.

Central Cascades panorama, Tahoma in the distance.
Tahoma tent view.
Crisp autumn evenings call for campfires.
Twilight mountain magic.

Mt. Ellinor

Spending the night on a mountaintop and awakening to the sun striking summits hovering above the clouds is about as magical as life gets. This will forever rank among my favorite campsites. While I wrote a lot of words about the experience of camping atop Mt. Ellinor in a previous post, all you really need is to look at these photos to see why it was so awesome.

The stoke is high. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Peaks of the Olympics peek above the clouds at sunrise.
Photo taken from inside the tent. Pinch me.
Reluctantly breaking camp. Photo credit Seth Wolpin.

Harvey Manning’s Absolute Last Chance Promontory

Besides having a great name, Seth had been talking about this as a nice campsite since I met him. With the purchase of my very own ultralight backpacking tent this spring–the Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum–it seemed like the perfect excuse to finally give old Harvey Manning’s Promontory a visit. With its sweeping views of the Middle Fork Valley, a place we spent a lot of time exploring, it was a fitting location for what turned out to be our last tent camping adventure together. While the evening included a serene sunset over the Central Cascades, the night provided an opportunity to see if the Tiger Wall would pass a wind and rain test. It did.

Promontory Panorama.
My Tiger Wall seems right at home nestled on the Promontory.
Taking in the Middle Fork valley from our camp on the Promontory. We enjoyed one of our favorite pastimes, pointing to and identifying all the peaks in view.


Exploring the wild via watercraft has replaced running as my favorite way to experience the world around me. As a kid, I grew up swimming my horse up, down, and across the Whitewater River in Indiana. My brother, myself, and our friends would find ourselves miles upriver from home, riding bareback as our mounts splashed through the water and loped along sandy beaches (apologies to my mother who is learning of this only now by reading this post, but it was the absolute best part of our childhood and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.) We also made a yearly canoe trip on the Whitewater, and later I made a yearly canoe trip on Sugar Creek in central Indiana.

Despite all this time on the water, I had never actually camped on a river until Seth and I made our first canoe journey on part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the Adirondacks. The experience tapped into my nostalgia for a childhood spent playing in the river and whet my appetite for the many river adventures to come (stay tuned for a separate post that highlights some of my favorite paddling experiences over the past few years and a few that I’m planning for this fall.)

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

For our first big vacation, Seth and I traveled to the North Country to visit his Mom, Stepdad, and Sister at Camp High Skies near Potsdam, NY. Wanting to show me the Adirondacks while also trying something new, we borrowed a lightweight canoe and other paddling gear from a family friend and set off for an incredible adventure. Starting at Long Lake and paddling a series of rivers and lakes on our way to Saranac Lake–including going through locks!–we had the opportunity to camp in a lean-to each night. With a roof over our heads, there was no need for the tent, save for the night we spent on an island–which we had entirely to ourselves. It was an unforgettable experience, and I would love to return one day to complete the entire 740 mile route.

You can read Seth’s trip report here.

Starting our journey on Long Lake. Can you tell by looking at the photo that we were total noobs who had no idea what we were doing? Photo credit: Tammy (who also gave us a lift to the put in)
Recorder practice in the lean-to at Long Lake.
View of Long Lake from the lean-to.
Still practicing the recorder by headlamp as the sun sets over Long Lake.
There was much reading in the hammock on this trip. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
All smiles making camp at our next lean-to. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Basking in the joy of having an island to ourselves.
Sometimes we paddled hard… Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
…and other times we enjoyed a lazy float. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
The route included several portages, over which we carried our gear and the canoe.
Not wanting this trip to ever end, we lingered for hours on a deserted island before concluding our journey in Saranac Lake.

The Skagit River

Our paddle of the Skagit River in December of 2018 will likely go down as the most bone-headed outing of our relationship. Allow me to set the scene: It is late December. The water is beyond ice cold. We have no whitewater experience. The river is high and swift. We don’t have dry suits. We have only a hodge podge collection of wet suit parts. I have never paddled a kayak on a river. Seth has never paddled a packraft on a river. What could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately for us, we survived this excursion without incident. The universe repaid our foolishness with lovely campsites on gravel bars and beaches, more bald eagles than we could count, the thrill of Class II+ rapids (and not going for a swim through them), and a taste of what river camping in the great Pacific Northwest holds.

You can read Seth’s trip report here.

A tad bit intimidated by the swift current at the put in. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Our Skagit paddle adventure was, fortunately, more beautiful than terrifying. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Our first camp on the Skagit. Note the snow on the driftwood. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Skagit tent view. We thought people were throwing large rocks in the river that morning but soon realized it was the bald eagles diving for fish.
Enjoying a calm yet swift section of the Skagit.
After clearing out some rocks, we made a lovely little camp here on our second night.
Gravel bars and mountains, the standard backdrop to river camping in Washington.
With wet, frozen fingers and a ridiculous amount of layers piled on over a wetsuit, this pee break took me 30 minutes. I timed it. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

The Skykomish

After a nerve-wracking weekend of paddling a tippy kayak in a “whitewater fever” course I took on the Snoqualmie River, I gladly traded that terror for the pleasure of paddling a packraft. We made our way to the “Sky,” me in the small little Scout and Seth in his Alpacka packraft. We had a blast in the big-enough-to-be-fun-but-not-too-scary wave trains and rapids, and pitched our tent on a perfect gravel bar before enjoying a stunning sunset over the mountains.

Making camp on a gravel bar along the Sky. We often manage to find a camp that includes a giant log that can be used for hanging gear to dry.

Sunset over our Skykomish camp.
Surrounded by mountains at our Skykomish camp.
Packrafts double as camp chairs.

The Wenatchee

This was a nice break from some seriously hot August weather. Our friend Jessica met us at Lake Wenatchee, where we paddled around a small island before heading down the Wenatchee River, which emerges from the lake. This section of the Wenatchee was an easy paddle, and Seth and I camped on a river island along the way to extend the trip. This was the first (and, so far, only) time that I had to paddle across a river and back in order to take care of personal business, which was quite an experience in itself.

Since I was in the tiny Scout, we strapped most of the camping gear to Seth’s raft. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Kicking back on our river island in the Wenatchee. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

Paddling back to the island after seeing a man about a horse on the mainland. Maybe TMI, but it was certainly a memorable camping first. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

The Yakima

We had learned a lot in the year since our first December river camping trip and felt good about making another go at it. This time, we were equipped with more paddling skills, more river knowledge, and dry suits. I even had my own packraft now. This was our first real packrafting trip, which included both packing our camping gear on our backs and rafting down a river. We started by bushwhacking up to the Yakima Skyline ridge, where we spent two nights camping with the coyotes. We were at the edge of comfort in those cold temps, but the beauty and solitude made this a most memorable Christmas camping trip. On the third day, we made our way down to the Yakima, which swiftly and sweetly carried us back to the car.

We first had to ferry across the Yakima in order to access the ridge.
We’re real packrafters now!
After a wild bushwhack, we camped at the crest of the ridge. At night, the coyotes yipped, their voices ringing through the crisp Christmas night.

Setting up camp the second night. We were in the tent before 5pm, thanks to the cold, short day.
Watching the sun set from inside the tent.
Frosty grass at dawn.
Hotel takeover, Ellen and Seth style.
Drying gear and thawing ourselves before attempting another leg of the Yakima.
Typical post river camping scene.

Random and Bandit

This post has, to this point, featured jaw-dropping campsites that we intentionally sought out or worked hard to find. There have been plenty of times, though, that we just needed a place to lay our heads for the night. The campsite wasn’t so much the destination as it was a waypoint. We’ve called flat spots (and some not-so-flat ones) on abandoned logging roads, in clumps of bushes, urban forests, and off-trail patches home for the night. I wish that I had more photos of this type of campsite, some of them random spots in the woods, others stealthy bandit camps, because they represent some of the more creative places we’ve spent the night. While they might not have the big views, they are nevertheless memorable because of their unconventional nature.

Granite Lakes Trail

This was an early camping trip during which we left autumn and walked into a winter wonderland. We had planned to camp up at the Granite Lakes, but given the deep snow, we had to abandon that plan. With daylight waning, we headed down to a lower elevation and happened upon the perfect little patch along the trail to pitch our tent. We could hear Granite Creek roaring below and we prepared dinner in the vestibule while laying inside the tent. That night, a loud thumping noise awakened us. It sounded like someone lobbing snowballs at the tent. Turns out that it had started to snow even at this lower elevation, and giant clumps of fresh snow plopped down from the branches above us.

Walking into winter.
Winter was in full effect by the time we reached the Granite Lakes. Not having the snow tent with us, we had to leave this winter wonderland.
Our little trailside home, nestled in the first snow.
We hadn’t expected to wake up at the snow line.
Waking to winter on the Granite Lakes Trail.

Mount Gardner and Little Saint Helens

Not long after our Granite Lakes adventure, we had another weekend of carving campsites out of thin air. The first night, en route to Mount Gardner, we chose a flat spot near a mountain creek (where I explained to Seth the difference between a river and a creek). It was by no means an exceptional site, but I enjoyed the experience of looking for a place that was good enough to call home for the night. The next day, deep snow prevented a summit of Mount Gardner and Little Saint Helens. We were moving slowly, and getting cold. It was dark by the time that we found a passable place to camp. Since young hooligans frequented the forest road at night, we made our way down a decommissioned forest road until we were far enough into the bush to be out of sight, no reflective components of the tent detectable by headlight (unfortunately, I have no photo of this spot.) By this point, I was an ace at making dinner and s’mores in the vestibule while wrapped in the warmth of the sleeping bag inside the tent. We were both a little on edge as vehicles passed by in the night, but ultimately we went undetected.

This spot will do. Calling an unused forest road home for the night.
Ditching our summit plans and searching for shelter.

Snoqualmie Falls Urban Bandits

Seth and I were working on a project to cross the state of Washington on foot while pushing our camping gear in a baby jogger, and the first piece of this was our epic Hyak to Lake Forest Park run. We broke this 75-mile route into two days, and we found ourselves looking for a place to land as we left the warmth and comfort of the brewery in the town of Snoqualmie Falls. We had even contemplated dishing out a ridiculous amount of money to stay at the lodge by Snoqualmie Falls (of Twin Peaks fame), but no one answered at the front desk. We were perhaps a bit on edge after learning that a mountain lion had killed a cyclist not too far from our route earlier that day. Polishing off the last of the garlic fries, we made our way into the twilight in search of an indiscreet place to camp. Down the road a bit, we found a small copse of trees, just off the main road. We waited until no cars were passing and then dove in. There were many informal footpaths crisscrossing the woods, and we feared we were imposing upon a camp used by people experiencing homelessness. This sparked a long conversation about the incredible privilege we had to be doing this by choice. While I don’t have a photo of that bandit camp, the following pics show the baby jogger in action.

The baby jogger shredding the trails.
One of the many perks that comes with pushing your gear in a baby jogger: you can bring gourmet vegan cheese and the soda stream. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

South Cle Elum to Hyak

On yet another baby jogging adventure, we once again needed an inconspicuous place to pitch our tent for the night. We definitely put into practice Seth’s method of keeping up the search until you find just the right spot. This time, we scrambled up and over a boulder field, down to the banks of the Yakima River just west of Lake Easton. In higher-trafficked areas like The Palouse to Cascades Trail, we always seek places that are out of sight in an effort to avoid catching the eyes of passersby in the night.

Baby jogging our way across the state.
Boulder scrambling rewarded us with this riverfront view.

Columbia River to South Cle Elum

Continuing our run across Washington project (which I must now, sadly, complete on my own), we ended up in perhaps our most unconventional bandit camp. You can read the full trip report here, but the short version is that we had spent an absurdly hot day running across the semi-arid desert of eastern Washington and were desperate for a campsite as we raced against the setting sun. Running along an access road that paralleled I-90, we scanned the horizon in what appeared to be a futile search for shelter in this flat and treeless landscape. Growing anxious, we lucked into a spot on a small rise above the side of the road. We followed a faint game trail, littered with coyote scat, which led us to a small spot concealed by sagebrush. We were out of view and safe for the night. It was such a neat feeling to have created a home out of thin air, and we thanked the coyotes for allowing us to crash there. In a weird way, this is another one of my favorite camping experiences. It was just so unexpected and showed up exactly when we needed it. By being bandits in the bush, it felt like we were getting away with something we weren’t supposed to do.

You’d never guess that a busy interstate highway was just on the other side of the bushes.
Sunset at our coyote bandit camp. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
We camped near the river on the second night, choosing this spot after backtracking nearly a mile because it was the only place to access the river for water.

Lake Nadeau

This was another randomly selected site that came with some little surprises. We had started in the Middle Fork Valley and came up over a pass near Moolock Mountain. On the eastern side of the pass, several lakes lay nestled below. We chose the central one, Lake Nadeau, as our goal. We spent quite a long time walking around looking for an ideal spot, but we were met only with brushy brambles and steep shores. We finally had to settle for a flat spot in the middle of the trail. As for the little surprises: first, this location had the most incredible echo I have ever heard. We spent much of the evening calling out words and sentences, only to have it repeated back to us. It was uncanny, and I’d never experienced anything quite like it. Later that night, we spooked at the sight of what we thought was a headlamp coming over the pass. Who would be coming out here at this hour? Our nerves eased when we realized it was the moon cresting the ridge, and what followed was one of the most spectacular moonrises of memory. It goes to show that even a random campsite that lacks the grand views still has the potential for some natural magic.

Looking down at Lake Nadeau (left) from the pass.
Our little site carved out of the rocky trail.
We still had a great view from the tent, and that echo off the surrounding rocks was simply amazing.


In April of 2019, El Blanco Beasto, a VW Westfalia, entered our life and added an exciting new way to camp. Seth put a lot of work into rigging out the Westie, adding burly tires and bumpers, a solar panel and batteries, tables he built himself, an awning, a propane heater, and a fridge, to name just a few of the personalized touches. Words cannot express how much I loved our travels with Blanco. As wonderful as tent camping is, there’s something to be said about having the creature comforts of a van. We could make dinner on the stove, curl up with books on the couch in front of the heater, look out the window at a picture perfect vista, and then climb up into the loft to sleep. Much like searching for the perfect tent site, we also wound our way down forest roads looking for a good pull out to park for the night. We sure did find some real gems. We also had the tent camping equivalent of bandit and random camps, parking at trailheads, in horse pastures, in parking lots, on the street in front of friends’ houses, and in dirt turnouts we’d hoped would see no traffic. I’ll never forget our first night in Blanco, parked way back on the Middle Fork Road. We weren’t accustomed to sleeping somewhere in the woods that saw vehicles passing throughout the night. It was a tense night, but over time we became experts at finding quiet places off the beaten track. After a long day on the river or in the mountains, it was such a wonderful reward to have Blanco waiting there for us. During the shutdown this spring, we even slept in the loft while parked in my driveway, just to feel like we had made a little escape. While folks move toward the van life and trick out Sprinters with all the fancy accoutrements, I will take the classic simplicity of a Westie over any other ride. Thank you, Blanco.

Camping by the Sauk River with our new packrafting friends. I was making mac and cheese in the van (our standard Westie dinner) while the rest of the group jammed by the campfire.
Crewing friends biking the Lewis and Clark trail. We had a nice jam session that evening that included the classic musical combo of a recorder, a ukulele, and a harmonica.
This was one of our best turnout sites, located near the Glacier View Wilderness. It wasn’t too far from home, and we had a front row seat to watch the alpenglow on Tahoma.
Nothing beats looking up from a good book on a comfy couch in the warmth of a Westie to see a view framed like this.
Watching the sun set over the San Juans near Oyster Dome. We were maybe not supposed to be there after dark.
Not bad, Blanco.
Blanco waiting patiently for us at the Ozette Trailhead. Note the new bumpers!
Going stir crazy at home during the shutdown, we found a local forest road to escape for a night in the woods (or what was left of them here.)
Seth admiring Blanco. We might have loaded up some of those rocks to use as a garden border.
Blanco is the epitome of coziness.


After months of searching and looking at a dozen boats, Seth and I found the absolute perfect sailboat. Cimaise, which roughly translates from the French to something like a picture frame, is a 34′ Jeanneau Melody and is one stunningly beautiful boat. A sailboat is similar to a Westie in that your home for the night is mobile, and you have the opportunity to moor it in some incredible places. This opened up another thrilling new way for us to camp. I also started learning to sail and was amazed by how much I truly enjoy it, and that I’m actually pretty good at it, too.

We mostly spent nights on Cimaise docked in a marina, but even that felt like an adventure. The first taste of what it would be like to sail from island to island and camp in hidden coves came when we sailed (well, mostly motored, due to lack of wind) from Anacortes to bring Cimaise home to Tacoma. The previous owner, Mike, came with us to help us learn along the way. It was a thrill to know we had an idea of where we would dock for the night, but that the possibilities were also open. It was the sailboat equivalent of looking for the perfect site. We ended up pulling into the public docks on Bainbridge Island. It was like showing up at a car camping site, where you pay at a pay station and put the receipt on the “dashboard,” except it was a million times more exciting. We joined other boaters as they walked into town to resupply and daydreamed about our own sailing adventures. I will never forget these nights sleeping on the water and hope to one day have the experience of anchoring off islands around the world. Thank you, Cimaise.

Setting sail from Anacortes and heading toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Leaving the San Juans and sailing south. I thought being far off the coast would be scary, but instead it was exhilarating.
Our first docking at a marina en route, at the Bainbridge Island public docks. It was like car camping, but with a sailboat, and way more exciting.
Walking back to the public dock from town. You can see other boaters carrying provisions back to their boats.
Sailing wing on wing.
We’re sailing! Note that I’m smiling even though Cimaise is heeled out a bit. Photo credit: Mike Bancroft
Motoring into Tacoma after going through our first squall.
We made it!
“Camping” on Cimaise, docked in Tacoma.
The Skipper looks quite relaxed even though this was our first time taking Cimaise out on our own. We did great!
Enjoying being at the helm on our first trip out to Commencement Bay with Cimaise. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Even Buster enjoyed chilling on Cimaise.
Sparkimus loves tents, but Buster prefers boats.


Gem Lake Femquest

I took my first solo camping trip in October of 2018. While I had car camped by myself before, I had never actually walked out into the woods on my own and stayed the night. Seth went on a “Manquest” solo camping trip, so I went on a “Femquest.” Initially, I wanted to hike out to Upper Wildcat Lake, as it seemed remote enough that I might have it all to myself. After seeing a video of a spot above Gem Lake, which was on the way out to Wildcat, I decided to aim for that. While I had the knoll to myself, there were other parties below on the lake. All the same, I had a little taste of solitude. I was, admittedly, a little nervous that night and listened to podcasts to help me fall asleep. I spent the next day using the map to identify the surrounding peaks, scrambled up Wright Mountain, and sat in the nook of a tree to take in the views.

The approach to Gem Lake. I camped at the top of the boulder field above the lake.
Nice view from the tent!
View of Gem Lake from my camp.
Looking down at my camp from the summit of Wright Mountain. If you zoom in, you can actually see my tent on the ridge above the lake on the right.
What a great spot for my first solo camp.

Lake Terence and Moonshine Lake

My second solo camping trip came this summer. I made my way out to Lake Terence, a seldom visited alpine lake below Davis Peak. It lived up to this reputation, as I didn’t see another person until the afternoon of my second day, when a forest ranger came out to destroy illegal campfire rings. This was my first experience being entirely alone in the woods; the next closest person had been the ranger camped 6 miles away. It was an excursion that entailed a range of emotions, but I felt braver, more skilled, and more confident than on my Gem Lake Femquest. I thoroughly enjoy the work entailed in making camp, and on this trip it served as a welcome distraction from the thoughts clouding my mind. The second night, I hiked to Mooshine Lake, which was surrounded by meadows of wildflowers. The entire outing led me to reflect on just how far I had come in my three years of rambling through the backcountry.

Lonely Lake Terence.
My first truly solo campsite, near Lake Terence.
The wildflower meadows surrounding Moonshine Lake.
Camped near Moonshine Lake.

Alpine Lakes Circumambulation

I embark now on a solo journey. This new life will commence with my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation, a 145 mile, 14 day loop through the part of the Washington wilderness that has been such a tremendous influence on my development as a camper, and as a person. It will be the longest amount of time I have spent in the backcountry, and the longest amount of time I have spent alone. Look for a full trip report later this fall.

Going solo is not a path I have chosen for myself, but it is the only way open to me. There is nothing else I can do but strap my gear on my back, enter the wildness of this new landscape, and try to find my way.

Tent Credits

A number of tents sheltered us on these wild excursions. Thank you, Tents.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II

Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2

Big AgnesTiger Wall Platinum 2

Black Diamond FirstLight

REI Half Dome 2 Plus

My new Tiger Wall Platinum 2 getting a full cat inspection.
Sparkimus and Max on a backyard camping trip in the FirstLight.


  1. Dad

    Where do I look for Pics from the September 2020 journey?

    • Ellen Bayer

      I’ll post them here later this fall once I’m back from my autumn adventures. Website subscribers will receive an email notification from me once the new posts and pics are up, so stay tuned!

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