For some kids, it was the golden arches. For me, the most magical sign in the world was a big oblong, brown-and-cream Forest Service sign. It doesn't matter which forest -- I loved those things; still do. Most of them seem to date back to the '40s and '50s, and with their cursive "National Forest" logo and strange shapes, they seem bent on conveying the boundless optimism of a 1963 station wagon heading into the woods for a weekend of fishing, cooking and, above all, playing with the campfire.
Those signs provided all the inspiration we needed for this short list of favorite state park, national forest and national park campgrounds. Some sit well within the boundaries of the Inland Northwest, some are more than six hours away but well worth the drive.
Apgar Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana -- Located one mile northwest of the West Entrance on Going-to-the-Sun Road, 406-888-7800 -- Located on the south shore of icy, deep blue Lake McDonald in West Glacier, the Apgar Campground is in the big leagues as far as national park service campgrounds go. At the entrance is a store (well-stocked with copies of Bear Aware and bear bells, last time we checked), as well as a visitor's center. In addition to all the boating and hiking opportunities at this end of the park, consider taking the aptly named Going to the Sun road at least as far as Logan Pass. The road, still widely considered an engineering marvel, was completed in 1932 and offers stunning views of native hemlock, aspen, fir and cedar as well as a handful of awe-inspiring switchbacks. Also, stop by the Lake McDonald Lodge (designed by Kirtland Cutter) for a little breather as they did in the old days before taking on the journey up to the Continental Divide.
Birch Bay State Park, Washington -- Eight miles south of Blaine on Birch Bay, 360-371-2800 -- There's the Pacific Ocean -- the windy, cold, deep Pacific Ocean and then there's what we call Pacific Ocean Lite. And this, my friends, is what you'll find at Birch Bay. Nestled east of Vancouver Island and protected by all those handy San Juans, Birch Bay almost feels more like a big, smooth lake (teeming with crab, rockfish and other saltwater delectables) than ocean proper. The campground sits under a dense canopy of Douglas fir, while a half-mile path leads you through gorgeous old-growth cedar and ferns the size of Volkswagens to the beach. If you're feeling sandpiper-y, grab a bucket and start burrowing in the sand for the region's famous geoduck clams.
Noisy Creek Campground, Sullivan Lake, Washington -- Eight miles in on Sullivan Lake Road 9345, www.reserveusa.com -- We have to admit, this one is a big staff favorite. Sullivan Lake falls under the jurisdiction of the Colville National Forest and as such, it's one of the prettiest li'l forest campgrounds you'll ever find. A hiking trail leads up to a bluff overlooking the lake (we once inadvertently crashed a marriage proposal in progress here -- no joke!), and other trails lead to cool mountain streams and thickets of thimbleberries. Many campsites are right on the lake, but others follow the happy gurgle of Noisy Creek well back into the woods. Bears in the area dig the ample huckleberries, some of which we found right next to our tents last year (eeek!)
Wilderness Gateway, Boulder Creek/Lochsa River, Idaho -- Idaho State Highway 12 at Milepost 122, www.reserveusa.com -- The name just kind of says it all, huh? If you're making the trek down here, it better not be to plant your ass on a stump and roast marshmallows all weekend. A portal, if you will, to the mighty Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, this handy spot is located right where Boulder Creek meets the Lochsa River. Whitewater rafting is king here, and one local river guide once joked to us that his outfit hands out "crash helmets and Depends" for certain local sections of the Lochsa. You can also camp with your favorite pack animal (llama, horse, mule, etc.) in Campground D, or let the kids get it aaaaalll out of their systems in the nearby playground.
Beaver Creek, Priest Lake, Idaho -- 12 Miles East of Nordman, 208-443-2512 -- At one time a Forest Service Ranger Station (from the 1920s to the '50s), Beaver Creek sits just northwest of Priest Lake and offers swimming, boating, backpacking and hiking opportunities. The famous "Thorofare" from Priest Lake to Upper Priest Lake is less than a mile from the shore, making this a popular site for kayak and canoe enthusiasts intending to journey "North of the Narrows." Extra added bonus? Priest Lake is considered the nation's most primo huckleberry picking region in mid to late August.
Moran State Park, Orcas Island, Washington -- Five miles south of Eastsound, (888) CAMPOUT -- You'll need to take the Washington State Ferry to get here, but it's worth it as this is one of the state's largest, and most beautiful, parks. Consisting of 5,000 acres and five freshwater lakes, Moran is well stocked with rainbow, cutthroat and kokanee trout, as well as large mouth bass. Nearby, Mt. Constitution is the highest point in the San Juan Islands, and views from the stone Civilian Conservation Corps tower at the summit are unparalleled. Mount Baker, the San Juan Islands and the city lights of Vancouver, B.C. are all within viewing range, and some people like to come here to scan the waters for resident pods of orcas.
Minam State Recreation Area, Oregon -- 15 Miles East of Elgin off Oregon SR 82, (800) 551-6949 -- Minam is primarily for those looking for a great put-in spot on the Grande Ronde. The Wallowa River runs right by the campsites (12 only, nestled in a remote and steep mountain valley), and from there you can raft down to join up with the punchy Grande Ronde. A nearby mercantile offers both raft rental and move-your-vehicle-to-the-take-out-point services. There are several picturesque trails in the area, and the river journey is fun for the variety of geology along the way -- you start in the green of a mountain forest and end in arid, rattlesnake country the closer you get to the Washington border.
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, Washington -- 17 miles north on Highway 17, (888) CAMPOUT -- Okay, so say camping isn't really your bag but you don't want to miss out on all the fun that can be had with an ice chest, a few good ghost stories and campfire that lasts until three in the morning. Buck up, little buddy, Sun Lakes is the campground for you. Located in the shadow of a once mighty Ice Age waterfall, Sun Lakes is sheltered by a 400-foot cliff and has all the modern conveniences of home, including nearby convenience stores, flush toilets and its own golf course. Camping has never been simpler.