Weary car campers who find themselves without a planned sleep stop on the road often settle for rest areas along the way. They catch some shuteye, maybe gobble a sandwich and a Coke, and brush their teeth in the public restroom before trying to sleep.
Trying is the best word for this, as anyone who’s slept in a rest area can tell you. Besides traffic pulling in and out constantly, there’s always the glaring lights over the parking area and the sharp grumble of idling truck engines to try to sleep through.
Every once in awhile, however, we’ll find an ideal, unexpected spot where we can conk out for a few hours.
An ideal spot means easy access, clean and relatively uncrowded, with a table and fire pit and maybe a body of water to sit beside while gulping a burger. There should be at least a pit toilet onsite.
And the place is free, or at least cheap.
I found myself in such a situation recently on an extended road trip that included a sunrise photo shoot at McNary Wildlife Refuge outside the Tri-Cities area of Washington. With many side trips en route, I had driven nearly 500 miles before realizing that I needed to get some sleep if I was to be ready to photograph at sunrise.
Driving west on Highway 730 on the Oregon/Washington border, I came across a little turnout into a place called the Sand Station Recreation Area on the Oregon side.
It’s situated virtually on the banks of the Columbia River in an area known as Lake Wallula. The lake is actually the reservoir behind the McNary Dam and is on the Columbia River.
At first the site appeared to be little more than a parking lot with picnic tables, and I passed it by thinking I couldn’t spend the night there. But swinging in from the other direction, I discovered eight sites with fire pits, tables and overhead shelters for RV and car campers. Tent campers could set up in several shady spots on the grass near the banks.
Except for a pit toilet, there are no services here. But it’s relatively quiet, and you can camp right by the beautiful Columbia, do a little wading by the shore, maybe even fish a little, and enjoy sunset with a moon-rise later in the evening.
Walking along the serene shore near sunset, I watched as dozens of tiny fish suddenly leaped into the air simultaneously for dinner. They kept at their frenzied leaping for quite awhile. Apparently the recent hatch of gnats meant a good feed for the sparkling silver fish, which seemed to glow in the late afternoon light as they leaped.
The sunset was quiet and magical, with a gentle breeze pushing the clouds away from the sun as they took on brisk colors. The site was mostly empty, except for a few campers who relaxed in the approaching sunset.
Best of all, it was free. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the site isn’t listed as a campground online. It’s first come, first served.