Cold weather last weekend ended another busy camping season across Washington, where crowds have begun to level off after two years of growth.
Officials said pandemic restrictions on other summer activities have contributed to unprecedented use at campgrounds across the state over the past two summers. Numbers remained high this summer, even with an unusually cool spring followed by warmer-than-average temperatures in early autumn.
“It seems to me that people have ‘discovered’ public land in pandemic times and are still enjoying it, albeit not quite at the pandemic level,” said Diane Priebe, the outdoor recreation planner at the Wenatchee Branch of the Bureau of Land Management.
Stacia Glenn, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, noted similar views from DNR employees, even though the agency didn’t start tracking campground use until 2022. Emily Masseth, spokeswoman for Washington State Parks, said an occupancy rate of 67.85 percent remained virtually the same in 2021, reaching 67.15 percent in 2022.
Priebe said usage at sites managed by the Wenatchee Field Office peaked in 2020, largely due to an increase of nearly 90,000 people in the Yakima River Canyon compared to 2019. Those numbers fell from 577,000 to 502,400 in 2021 before rising again to 560,400 this summer.
Left to right: Robyn Raya, Richard Valdez, 11, Paris Valdez, 18, and Richard Valdez Sr. prepare for dinner on a family camping trip at Bumping Lake in Yakima County on Friday, August 7, 2020.
On-site reports from staff and Priebe’s own observations pointed to less busy weekends this summer, as well as more family-oriented crowds. She said fewer people dropping out during the cold spring were largely offset by full campsites in late September and early October, when they typically become less popular.
Additional rainfall in the spring meant the DNR allowed bonfires for a month longer than usual before conditions became too high, before the risk of wildfires became too high. Glenn said the extension resulted in more people camping later in the season.
Distributed site usage increased significantly in BLM areas from 2020 to 2021, increasing from 65,938 to 78,208 at the sites outside of the Yakima River Canyon in the region. Those numbers fell below 76,000 in 2022, and Priebe said overall visits, including daytime usage, didn’t fall much this summer.
More people often means more litter is left behind, although Priebe said she’s noticed less litter this summer than in previous years. However, she noted that long-term campers on public lands sometimes cause problems by leaving major clutter.
Continued popularity meant a busy workforce for local BLM workers who were unable to hire their usual third seasonal worker. Priebe said other offices were experiencing these bottlenecks to a greater extent, and Glenn said the DNR’s staffing levels fluctuated from year to year.
They often rely on the help of volunteers, many of whom stopped meeting for work meetings at the height of the pandemic. Glenn said anyone can sign up at www.dnr.wa.gov/volunteer to pick up trash, replace and fix signs, or educate visitors about public lands.
“We are incredibly grateful for the hard work and dedication of our volunteers,” said Glenn. “The number of volunteer hours has decreased since the pandemic, but is slowly increasing again.”