If these backcountry campsites aren’t on your list, they should be. Even if you’ve already been there, go back. You’ll have to work for it, but that only adds to the beauty. Here’s a rundown of the best backcountry camps in the Pacific Northwest.
Aasgard Pass, the Enchantments, WA
Rising 2,300-feet in a single boulder-choked mile from Colchuck Lake, Aasgard Pass is the most direct, rugged, and rewarding way into the Enchantment Lakes basin, the base for exploring the lakes or climbing Prusik Peak, The Temple, Dragontail Peak, or Little Annapurna. The view from the top can’t be described, but the basin is full of glacial tarns, flat granite shelves, wildflowers, and mountain goats. On clear days the view spans the Washington Cascades from Mount Baker to Mount Adams, with Mount Stuart looming to the west.
The catch: You need a highly competitive lottery permit for high season (summer) use.
East Zigzag Mountain, Mt. Hood, OR
Climb through subalpine forests to camp on a small rocky outcrop with stunning views of Mount Hood. To the northeast, you’ll have views across the Columbia Gorge to Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. A combination of wildflowers and sunrise can be a photographer’s dream.
The catch: No water. Either melt snow or hike to a nearby lake to fill up.
Whaler Island, British Columbia
Play at being a Canadian Robinson Crusoe on this tiny, sand-dune island in the midst of Russell Channel on Vancouver Island’s west coast. It’s reachable only by sea kayak, and it’s exposed location keeps campers to a minimum. Frolic on the sand, watch for gray whales in the channel, camp amidst the dunes to stay out of the wind and take in sunsets over the Pacific.
The catch: If the wind picks up, kayaking back can be a challenge.
Thunder Mountain, Alaska
Perch on a flat tundra and wildflower meadow with sweeping views of the 12-mile Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska’s coast range, and Gastineau Channel. Nearby Heinztleman Ridge is the gateway to the Juneau Icefield. The trail is steep, muddy, and often unmarked, but worth it when the view is clear. Be careful on the steep exposed trails that approach Heintzleman Ridge.
The catch: Southeast Alaska is known for constant drizzle, not thunderstorms. The name comes from spring avalanches. Be careful when there’s heavy snow.
High Camp, Boston Basin, North Cascades National Park, WA
The names of the mountains ringing Boston Basin—Mount Torment, Forbidden Peak, and Sharkfin Tower—tell you how imposing the alpine landscape is in this section of the North Cascades. Boston Basin is the jumping off point for these climbs, but also a spectacular destination in its own right: a glacier-carved cirque laced with waterfalls and the Boston Glacier, the park’s largest. High camp is high indeed, at 6,400 feet, well above treeline this far north.
The catch: Camping is allowed only at High Camp and Low Camp, and permits are required.
Chilean Memorial, Olympic National Park, WA
Wedged into a perfect crescent cove between the rugged Cape Johnson and Hole in the Wall, on the Olympic Wilderness Coast, the Chilean Memorial is a critical campsite between two headlands that can be rounded only at low tide. It’s also a spectacular spot for sunsets—which is saying something considering its part of a trail that goes down the Pacific Coast for 37 miles.
The catch: The Park Service requires permits. All food must be kept in bear canisters.
Coleman Glacier Terminus, Mount Baker, WA
Camp at the foot of a giant sheet of ice on the west slope of Mount Baker. Listen to the ice clink and chunk all night long, and wake up early to watch the lights of Bellingham to the west flick on as the sun rises over the volcano. This camp is also the jumping off point for mountaineers on the Coleman-Deming Glacier route up the mountain.
The catch: You may be woken up by climbing parties getting started in the middle of the night. Or you may be one of them.
Chambers Lakes, Three Sisters Wilderness, OR
The Chambers Lakes are a series of glacial tarns—some with miniature glaciers calving icebergs into them—in the high country between Oregon’s Middle and South Sister. Hike to Camp Lake, where the trail ends. Then it’s exploring with a map and compass. The good news is that the trail-less nature keeps visitors to a minimum. Each lake is a slightly different shade of blue or turquoise, and incredible ice caves dot the landscape.
The catch: A forest fire burned the area around the Pole Creek trailhead in 2012.
Wildhorse Lake, Steens Mountain, OR
In the far southeastern corner of Oregon, Wildhorse Lake is a short 1‑mile descent from Wildhorse Overlook near the top of Steens Mountain. The trail makes up in steepness what it lacks in length. Since you’re descending first, it’s easy to descend farther than you think. Wildhorse Lake is in a high alpine meadow environment with an in-your-face view of Steens Mountain’s fascinating glacial-carved and fault block mountain geography and the Alvord basin.
The catch: The Steens Mountain loop road is often closed until mid-July.