Tent or RV, camping is one of the favorite pastimes of many Americans. Luckily, the Walla Walla Valley and the nearby Blue Mountains offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors up close. But camping itself is nothing new. Turn back the calendar and you’ll find that camping in the Blue Mountains dates back centuries.
For local tribes, including the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, “camping” was an integral part of their culture as they followed their “first foods” through the seasons. By the early 1900s, harvesting of salmon, roots, berries, deer, and elk required their camps to be moved from the banks of the Columbia River to the foothills of the Blues, to the higher elevations of the mountains, and back to the valleys, around to bring their teepees with them.
Some of the first European visitors to southeast Washington and northeast Oregon explored what are now the Blue Mountains. One of these, David Douglas (whose namesake is the Douglas fir), made four “camping” trips to the blues in the 1820s, where he studied native plants and collected specimens. But while he wasn’t looking for relaxation, he was enchanted by the beauty and wildlife. Douglas commented, “On the open rock faces of the north side [of the Blue Mountains] An abundance of delicious golden currants just reached the perfect ripeness for snacking. Whole swaths of land were ablaze with the beautiful yellow flowers of the brimstone lupine.”
Recreational camping did not become a popular pastime in America until the early 20th century, when automobiles became readily available and campers flocked to the newly designated state and national parks and forests. Although the Great Depression and World War II caused recreational camping to decline, it is now more popular than ever. A remarkable 62% of American households go camping at least once a year.
As the Walla Walla Valley’s population grew over the decades, the nearby Blue Mountains became a popular local destination for campers and hikers. While many early photographs show hunters camping in the mountains, more and more of them show recreational camping. From purists who enjoyed sleeping under the stars, to tents, car camping, and caravans (which allowed campers to bring their bed and kitchen with them), camping became a popular activity for a wide audience. However they traveled and camped, it was hard to resist the mountains and wild places in our area.
Camping was also an inexpensive way to visit a more urban destination. The City of Walla Walla established Wildwood Park on Mill Creek on Division Street as a popular “auto campground” and tent campground that gained a reputation for “embodying all the desirable attributes of an ideal tourist camp.” Some visitors came to see Walla Walla and others to attend events such as the famous Tractor Show in 1919 and a number of Chautauqua programs in the 1920s. In 1928, however, the city decided to end auto-camping in the park after neighbors complained that “a motley mob congregated there every night, some of them respectable tourists and many of them tramps.”
Today there are two private RV parks in Walla Walla, Blue Valley RV Park and RV Resort Four Seasons, and Trails West RV Park in Milton-Freewater. Camping is available at Lewis and Clark State Park between Waitsburg and Dayton and at many campgrounds in the Umatilla National Forest in the Blue Mountains. For information about camping and cabins in the Umatilla National Forest, see fs.usda.gov/activity/umatilla/recreation/camping-cabins.
Whether you prefer to pitch a tent, drive an RV, or tow a trailer, nature is calling. No matter how you recreate, it’s time to camp!