Car Camping and Quiet are a Challenging Pair

The coast of Olympic National Park : NPS PhotoCar camping has been on my mind the last few days. Typically the experience of setting up a tent in the backcountry is filled with the natural quiet that is difficult to find elsewhere. But I hold out little hope for any kind of quiet when I car camp. Don't get me wrong, I happen to love car camping. It is quick and easy, and it is typically a great place to meet and talk with other like minded traveling folks. Not to mention it can be 10s of dollars cheaper than even the tightest budget hotels.

Of course, there are many contributing factors to noise levels in car campgrounds whether they are in the National Parks or elsewhere. Obviously factors like distance off the main road (or highway) can influence noise levels from passing cars. And, as you'd expect, the time of year plays a big part too. Spring break for college kids might catch you off guard if you thought you were visiting some particular paradise during the "off-season" of March or April. The summer months always bring crowds of campers, so arrive early, and expect a more pronounced blare to the forest ambiance.

None of this information may be new to you, noise in campgrounds really isn't anything particularly noteworthy. But I have had the sense lately that the environment has changed within campgrounds, and I had a tiny confirmation of this from a recent newspaper blurb from the Star Tribune of Casper, Wyoming (Campgrounds Face Closure). The article focuses on campground closures within the National Forests, but it is not a stretch to apply the same logic to our Parks.
Driving to a campground and pitching a tent has been replaced by 30-foot RVs that haul ATVs on a trailer and demand full utility hookups. Campers are more likely to entertain themselves with ATVs, motorbikes, video games and satellite television than by hiking, fishing or just messing around in the outdoors, [Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics] said.
Anyone else agree with Andy? It sure seems like I see a lot of RVs in todays campgrounds (although, as an interesting side note, Death Valley National Park says they had recorded a 28% drop in RV traffic between 1979 and 1995). Maybe it is the size of the RVs that bug me, but it is also the noise. There are machines running all the time on modern RVs. Whether it's for air conditioning or to generate electricity, the noise is ever present. My point? If you are looking for a quiet overnight stay when you camp, you may need to put in a little bit of research.

For instance, Kalaloch campground on the Pacific coast in Olympic National Park is a wonderful place. It is frequently listed in the "not to miss" category of guide books. Because of this wonderfulness everyone wants to camp there! If it were not for the ocean only steps away from your campsite though it wouldn't be nearly as attractive, especially at $18 a night. There are 175 camping spots, but only a handful are close to the water. During the time of year when reservations are not accepted, RVs will jockey for position and make deals with other RVers to grab their prime spots as they depart. If you happen to be a late arrival (which may mean 10 a.m. without a reservation), you may end up in the handful of spots that are spitting distance from highway 101; not nearly as fun. As described by a recent cross-country traveler:
The crowds we camped around at Olympic NP were the worst of our trip. The first night we stayed at a beautiful Pacific Ocean beach campground at Kalaloch. Radios blared from the time we arrived, 5:00pm, until 1:00am. At 12:30 a raccoon, presumably spooked by the partying college students, jumped onto our tent. Michael did his best pinball bumper impression and knocked him off. Thankfully, the wily bandit quickly scurried away. We think he tripped on our black tent anchoring rope. The night before, at 1:30am, a man across from us had his cooler's contents stolen by rowdy kids.
OK, time to turn the tenor of this post around. I really do enjoy car camping. But in my quest for peace and quiet and escape, I have learned that a little more effort is required. Some suggestions to those of you that also value a quiet nights rest. These are specific to Olympic National Park but you may be able to apply the same type of reasoning at other places. At Olympic, if you want to camp near your car and near the Pacific, try this: Check the availability of the separate group site. If it is unoccupied (and you've been given permission to stay) you'll find that it is so far away from the main campground that it would be impossible to hear a loud radio at that distance. If you can leave your cooler in the car, try this one: Hike to your camping spot. You can park your car at Rialto Beach, and as long as you've hiked up the beach at least a mile, you have officially reached the "backcountry" (backcountry fees may apply). At the one mile mark, there are more than a few places to set up your tent. Hiking a mile with limited gear under your arms isn't as grueling as you may think, especially if you take time to stop and check out a few tide pools along the way. And one final suggestion for quiet: Look for campgrounds outside the Park. In my travels I've found that more primitive campgrounds run by the Forest Service, state parks, BLM, or others are frequently passed up on the way to the more crowded campgrounds of the Park Service.

If you find that any of these ideas are worth a try, I guess there is a chance we'll run into each other this summer. Just keep the radio down if you don't mind, I'm trying to get some sleep!


Great pointers for selecting campsites in Olympic, Jeremy. There's nothing worse that pulling into what you think is an idyllic site only to be overrun by others who quickly pollute the setting with blaring stereos, generators, and all-night parties. Another good reason to focus on shoulder-season visits to the parks.