I found Wanapum State Park the good old fashioned way … a Google search. I was looking for a campsite that I could book ahead of time and that was somewhat near Ellensburg. My oldest daughter is attending college there in the fall and needed to attend an orientation session so I thought it would be fun to do a little camping after we dropped her off. So I Googled. Found a few choices, asked questions, did the research, and chose Wanapum. I couldn’t have been more excited, my head fill with dreams of screen-free family time, laughing and hugging, and la-de-da good times.
And we did get all that, but … well … this isn’t called a Love-Hate Story for nothing.
Check In. Set Up. Easy.
Wanapum State Park is located just off I-90 somewhere between Ellensburg and Spokane. After dropping Aubrey off at CWU, we headed on, but as soon as we left Ellensburg, the terrain changed. It’s basically a desert, and I wasn’t expecting or prepared for that.
To be fair, I don’t think the area is actually classified as a desert, but it was dirt, sand, rocks, and sage brush as far as the eye could see (minus the beautiful view of the river, of course) and anything green has to be watered constantly to stay that way. I’m calling it a desert.
But we kept following the signs and were pleasantly surprised! The Wanapum Recreation Area is a beautiful little, constantly-watered oasis on the banks of the Columbia River.
Our tent site was large, clean, and very well-kept. We popped up our tents and unpacked quickly and easily. We were near enough to the restrooms and showers (which are clean and well-lit) for easy access but far enough away (if you know what I mean). So far so good! After a quick dinner of hot dogs and mac salad, we settled into our two tents – the big one for the kids and the small one for me and Josh – for a good night’s sleep.
Or so we thought …
When they say “high winds,” they mean it.
While I was researching Wanapum State Park, I read several references to “high winds.” In all my wisdom (har-dee-har-har) I thought, “It’s a state park. People camp there all the time. How bad can it be?”
Famous last words.
On our first evening, we noticed the wind throughout dinner and during our walk around the park. It was actually quite nice! I had also read that mosquitoes could be a problem there so I was happy to have a good, strong breeze to keep them away.
Then we went to bed, and the wind grew stronger. And stronger. And STRONGER!!! I’m pretty good at setting up a tent and staking it down, but our rainfly was whipping! The wind whirled around our little tent, and it was noisy and honestly a little scary. Then somewhere along the middle of the night, the kids showed up outside my tent door, more than a little freaked out.
“Mom, our tent is flat!”
Sure enough, the wind was so strong it was blowing the tent over. It was still staked down, not flying away or anything, just … flat.
We popped it back up a few times, but the wind kept pushing it back down. There was no beating the wind. Bleary-eyed and sleepy, the two girls and the dog squeezed into the little two-man tent with Josh and me. It was … cramped … to say the least. Half an hour later? The wind was GONE. Dead silent. The girls decided to make a second try at their tent. That lasted for about another half an hour before the wind returned, the tent was a pancake once again, and I was up tucking two tired and still freaked out girls into the car for the night.
Camping Day One: I’m soooo sleepy.
The next was cloudy and overcast. Thank goodness.
I never thought I’d say this, but seeing as how we were camping in a desert, I was happy for the cool temps. We had planned to hike the Gingko Petrified Forest, check out some petroglyphs I’d read about, and take a dip in the Columbia River.
(This is where the love comes in.)
We saw some pretty amazing things on this trip. None of us had ever hiked in a desert …
Seen petrified wood …
Or petroglyphs like this …
Or dinosaurs this this …
There are two trails through Gingko Petrified Forest, a short interpretive hike where the majority of the petrified stumps are and a longer trail for hiking. We did about 90% of both. There is about a 300 foot elevation gain on the longer trail and Alli wasn’t totally into it, but it’s completely doable for families and definitely worthwhile.
We stopped by the Wanapum State Park Museum to learn how the petrified wood was created and check out some views of and across the Columbia River, and we also walked down a short path to see the petroglyphs.
Every enjoyed the morning. In the afternoon we walked down to the swimming area where Alli splashed in the cold water, and the rest of us just rested on the sand. Lunch and dinner were a breeze. The kids decided they’d sleep in the car that night. Everything was good again.
And then it began to rain.
The large tent was flat-ish which rendered the rain fly useless so we decided to put most of our stuff in the back of the car, take down all the poles, and weight the fly down with coolers and totes to keep it from blowing away. The girls tucked into the car, and Josh and I went to our little tent for the night.
And it rained. And it rained. And it rained. There wasn’t much wind that night, which was weird, but the rain took it’s noisy place.
Camping Day Two: Color me over-tired.
The return of the sun.
I woke up early again on the third day (I don’t think I slept past 6 am the whole time) to a beautiful sunshine and a lot of wet camping gear. After breakfast we popped the tent back up and started drying everything off. The sun plus ALL OF THE BEACH TOWELS and a little elbow grease did the trick. We had our campsite back in order in no time and headed off for a short hike and some quality frisbee time.
In the afternoon we headed into Ellensburg to pick Aubrey up from college (more on that another day … I am NOT ready to discuss sending my first baby to university), picked up some duct tape for a temporary fix on the broken tent pole, and had dinner before returning to Wanapum.
It was already pretty windy when we got back. We rigged the tent pole with duct tape, made s’mores around the camp stove, and took a another stroll around the camp before calling it a night. The three girls had decided to give our duct taped-tent a chance.
We went to bed around 9:30 and were in tents for just a few hours before the tent was flat again, and three girls squished into the car. The wind that third night was the strongest yet. I knew my tent (much smaller and lower to the ground than the big tent) was safe, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared … or that I slept a wink that night.
Camping Day Three: I. Am. Exhausted.
The fastest campsite breakdown EVER.
I was up at the crack of dawn again on Saturday morning so I took the dog and my camera for a walk, and I got to see this happen.
It was an amazing way to start my day no matter how tired and cranky I was feeling.
Then the propane canister on our camp stove ran out and our back up turned out to be faulty. That meant I drank lukewarm coffee and couldn’t make breakfast. We were all tired and cranky … and done. Everyone pitched in, rolled up sleeping bags, folded tents, and packed totes and backpacks. We broke camp in record time and headed to Ellensburg for an on-the-go Mickey D’s breakfast and to head home.
It rained at Snoqualmie Pass, and I never thought I’d be so happy to see mountains, evergreens, and cloudy skies in my life.
A few last thoughts about Wanapum State Park.
- I would totally recommend camping at Wanapum … but only with a camper. The winds are just too strong for tents in my opinion, even small, low profile tents.
- The showers were clean … and coin operated. The showers cost 50 cents for every three minutes. I didn’t see this info on ANY website so I brought ZERO quarters. We were able to buy quarters from the camp host, but not as many as I would have liked. If you’re camping there, pack a few rolls of quarters.
- Vantage, Washington is small. There’s a gas station, two restaurants (that close very early), and not much else besides desert. You probably won’t be able to restock anything that you forget unless you drive back to Ellensburg, which is about a half hour away.
- The Petrified Forest, Wanapum State Park museum, and petroglyphs were amazing. In fact with all our difficulties, they made the whole trip worth it for me. Although the terrain was much different than what I pictured, it was beautiful in its way, and I am so glad I got to experience it.
I loved our trip to Wanapum; I hated the issues.
Tent poles snapping, airbeds crapping out on us, and unexpected rain all conspired to make this trip miserable, but with all the problems we had, it was still a wonderful trip. We saw amazing sites, experienced a side of Washington we never knew existed, and enjoyed three wonderful days of family time. I’m not planning a return trip just yet, but I would definitely recommend a visit for you and your family!