From the Blog

Tank Full Of Gas, Chapter Nine: Panther Creek, WA

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Camping on Labor Day weekend. No reservations. “Complete folly!” you say. And indeed, you would nearly be correct. Because this weekend was The Camping Trip That Almost Never Was.

Organized, forward-thinking people usually decide well in advance that they would like to camp on a holiday weekend such as Labor Day. Labor Day is one of the BIG summer weekends. Campgrounds are booked months in advance and are guaranteed to be swarming with humanity. And the likelihood of getting a campsite on a first-come, first-serve basis is a gamble. A risky gamble. A risky, foolhardy gamble. With sprinkles on top.

This time, Camper Dave and I were going camping with another couple, Adam and Carra, who had Friday off, so they could secure a campsite before the teeming hoards oozed out of the cities and took up all the nature for themselves. So we had a plan. And we felt pretty confident that we would have no trouble getting a camp site.

The plan was to go to Beacon Rock State Park, in the Columbia River Gorge, on the Washington side, about 35 miles east of Vancouver. It has a big rock! The second largest rock in the world! And hiking! And it’s near the river! And there were hot springs nearby! And it only had 29 first-come, first-serve sites, which sounded great to us.

As per usuals, we packed the car the night before. Camping, by the way, is a PRODUCTION. I love to camp. I vowed at the beginning of the summer that I wanted to camp at least once a month. But packing up for a camping trip is beginning to test my resolve. We’re not rugged or athletic or back-packy. We’re kitchen sink campers. There’s STUFF to bring. I have a hatchback and with the seats down, we easily fill the car to the roof. My tent alone weighs 40 pounds (maybe not). We frequently bring enough food to eat for a week. So even a “quick” camping trip is like going to Thailand.

On Friday, Adam and Carra set off mid day to secure our site. The plan was for me to pick up Camper Dave after work and head east to the Gorge. We knew traffic was going to be a crawl, but we knew we’d have a site waiting for us.

But I got a call in the early afternoon from Carra. Beacon Rock campground was full! WTF! She said the cell service was spotty, they were talking to a ranger and hastily got off the phone. Our perfect plan! Foiled!

Gah! Now I was at work, watching the minutes tick by, wondering if they would find another campsite or if we would have to cancel the whole trip. I thought about my packed-to-the-roof car and hauling all that stuff back up 3 flights of stairs to my apartment.

I hopped on the internets to look at other campgrounds. Most took reservations and seemed totally booked. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s Labor Day weekend! The biggest camping weekend of the year! The last hurrah before school starts! Only dumbasses try to camp without reservations on Labor Day! Us! Meaning us! We were dumbasses!

And because I’m a blabbermouth, I had told all my coworkers I was camping over the weekend. It was my excuse for the lack of makeup and the hiking shoes I was wearing in the office. I looked like a lumberjack. As my departure time approached, they wished me a good weekend of camping and I mumbled and thanked them and shuffled out of the building.

I was waiting for a call from Adam and Carra, The Recon Couple. It had been almost two hours. I took it as a good sign that I hadn’t heard from them. I hoped that they were en route to a different campground, or better, they were at a site and setting up camp, and therefore out of cell range. I picked up Camper Dave, not sure whether we should start driving or not. And just as he got in the car, Adam called. They found a site! We were camping!

When the campground was full at Beacon Rock, the ranger recommended Panther Creek campground, another 15 miles or so east on route 14, north of Carson. They got the last site in the whole place. What luck!

And it was a great campground.

It was tucked miles into the forest on a county road. It felt far, far away. The sites were situated on a half acre of land each, so despite the campground being completely full, it was private and hush. At night, you could see distant orange flickers of light from campfires through the trees. It was cozy. There were some people making noise and some families with loud kids. But they were so far away it was barely a distraction.

This is Carra, curled up in her sleeping bag near the fire trying to keep warm. And Adam, throwing wood on the fire, smoking a pipe and looking burly. The great thing about Adam and Carra is that they are both musicians, and either or both would break out into a song at any notice. We heard a spontaneous song about dried animal shit on a piece of firewood, and an epic fireside limerick about peeing in the woods. In a word: AWESOME.

On Saturday, our super-friendly camp ranger demanded that we go see Panther Creek Falls. It was a short drive away. It was not hard to get to, but it was obviously not well-known.

Amazing. Three waterfalls. No way to get them all in one photo.

I could have stayed there all day. But it was chilly deep in the woods and we needed more firewood. We headed into Stevenson, Washington, which is a cute, windswept town on the banks of the Columbia. The boys wanted to go to Walking Man Brewery, but it was closed until 3 pm. Bummer. This part of the country is nuts for beer. Stevenson has a population of 1,200. But it still had a brewery. We’re crazy for beer up in here!

We loaded up my truck with more wood and headed back to the wilderness.

We roasted potatoes and onions with butter, and green beans, zucchini, tomatoes and onions in “foil ducks.” I tried to look up foil ducks on the internets and it looks to be a name I’ve made up myself. Wahoo! I’m famous! Basically, we wrapped veggies with oil or butter and sealed it as tightly as possible with foil. You twist the long ends of the foil up into a handle so you can turn it over the coals. The handles look like duck heads. I’m smart. You have to pay me a dollar if you ever use this method of cooking.

We also sealed up some salmon with butter in foil packets and threw that on the fire too. It kicked ass! We ate like royalty! We polished the equivalent of 4 bottles of wine!

It was a three day weekend, but we struck camp on Sunday morning. The forecast threatened rain. And we hadn’t showered since Friday morning. I still smelled like rose petals, of course, but we were looking forward to getting home to a hot shower. We bid adieu to Adam and Carra and took the Washington route 14 back towards civilization.

We stopped at Beacon Rock, where we had originally planned to camp. The rock itself was pretty striking. We were a little too tired and lazy and stinky to attempt the hike. So I’m looking forward to coming back.

We checked out the campground and it was…kinda meh. The sites were tiny and packed together and over exposed. Some of the sites seemed nice, and perhaps the campground would be okay if it hadn’t been a holiday weekend. But it seemed like there were more tents and trucks than trees and foliage. We were thankful for our happy accident and to have camped at Panther Creek.

I had been through the Gorge before on a day trip. We had taken Interstate 84 which is a four lane highway. It’s pretty, but the highway insulates you from feeling like you are out in nature. This time, I was really impressed with the Gorge. We had more time to look around. The drive was totally enjoyable. The trees were big and green and tree-like. The mountains were huge and it really felt like a geologic phenomenon in process. In places, the immensity reminded me of the Grand Canyon, but green and with a frothy wide river in the middle.

Gorgeous gorge. I can’t wait to come back and see more. Perhaps we will make a reservation.

Other “Full Tank of Gas” Chapters:

Chapter Eight, Green Canyon Campground, Mt Hood, Oregon
Chapter Seven, Spruce Run Campground, Coast Range, Oregon
Chapter Six, Bend, Oregon
Chapter Five, Seattle, Washington
Chapter Four, Mt Saint Helens, Washington
Chapter Three, The Gorge and Hood River, Oregon
Chapter Two, The North Coast and Astoria, Oregon
Chapter One, Waipi’o Valley, Big Island, Hawaii


  1. Wow! Looks like fun! And what a great picture!! The waterfall picture looks like Maui! How cold was it?

  2. So, who first said “we need to put a tablecloth on the picnic table”? I’m guessing Camper Dave.

  3. oh the purdy waterfalls!!!!

  4. This is near one of my fav campgrounds in WA, at least that I know of. I camp here on 4th July and Labor Day every year – Paradise Creek. Check it out. It’s just up a bit from Panther and there is a place on the way to get cheap wood from a guy who owns the land it comes from. You’ll love it. Site 25 is the best but if you take it from me on those holidays I’ll come find you.

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