Camping at Birch Bay State Park


Camping in Washington State Parks

From our home base in Vancouver, we’ve camped to the north along the Sea to Sky corridor and Sunshine Coast, west on Vancouver Island (ok, technically Victoria is more south than west from Vancouver, but on the rudimentary map in my mind, the entire Island is our western shield), and east in the Fraser Valley. One direction that has been missing so far is south to USA, due to the pandemic border restrictions in 2020 and 2021, and the arrival of Baby Bro in 2022.

This year, we set out to explore the new frontier on our family camping map. Two guidebooks offer fantastic information: Pacific Northwest Camping (which seems to cover most if not all worthwhile campgrounds in Oregon and Washington) by Tom Stienstra and Camping Washington by Ron C. Judd (which covers fewer campgrounds but has more personality and humor).

Booking a campsite in the Washington State Park system is done through their website: washington.goingtocamp.com, which is basically the same as the BC Provincial Park system. The user interface is identical, with one major difference: all reservable dates seem to be available without a 4-month rolling window. It means we could book as many camping trips as we want for the entire season.

So we did. We booked 3 separate trips to Washington State in May, July, and August, without much difficulty securing convenient sites at popular parks. There seem to be a lot more options to choose from south of the border within a 2-hour drive from Vancouver.

Birch Bay State Park

Quick Facts:
  • Washington State Park website: https://www.parks.wa.gov/170/Birch-Bay
  • Judd rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
  • Stienstra rating: 8 out of 10, Best for Wildlife Viewing and Best Waterfront Campgrounds
  • Access to water: walkable distance, but no view of the water from campsite
  • Coin-operated Free hot shower, flush toilets, drinking water source
  • Activities: playground, short interpretive trail, water sports
  • Beach type: mix of sandy and pebbly beach
  • Outdoor Fam rating: 7 out of 10

Our first State Park is Birch Bay, a mere 15 mins from the Peach Arch border crossing, as a stop-over before our trip further south to Dash Point. We wanted to cross the border on a Friday night before the long weekend instead of slugging through the border wait on Saturday morning.

The border wait on a Friday night was a tolerable 30 mins or so. We stopped at Blaine for a nice burger dinner, before hopping over to Birch Bay.

Birch Bay is a calm, perfectly semi-circular ocean bay sharing the same body of water on the Straight of Georgia as our Boundary Bay. The water was very inviting for a paddle, but I resisted as the day was getting late and it was only a one-night stop-over for us this time.

From the State Park, which is on the southern shore of the bay, the long pebble and sandy beach offers nice views of our Canadian coastal mountain range to the north across the bay.

There’s a playground near the Heron Centre, and some people put drift wood logs together to form some primitive seesaws.

According to the State Park website, the beach is good for clamming at low tide (a license is required), but a permanent-looking sign warns of paralytic shellfish poisoning.

The northern loop is mostly for RV’s, but it’s closer to the beach. It’s a short walk down a sloped path, cross a bridge, and we are right in front of the Heron Centre.

The southern loop seems more suited for tents with slightly more privacy, but it’s pretty crowded.

We booked Site 1, which was awkwardly close to Site 2, but thankfully our neighbors were a very nice Canadian couple who came down to test out their brand new Off Grid Trailer. They graciously showed us their new toy and we were impressed. Site 1 was also very small, so only 1 tent is allowed.

Our campsite was close enough to the beach that we went down again to watch the gorgeous sunset.

I woke up around 5am and treated myself to an equally gorgeous sunrise too.

One thing that was quite surprising to us was the lack of bear proofing in the park. The garbage bin was just regular residential style receptacle. We asked the camp host, and they said they basically never see bears. This was surprising and weird for us as Canadian campers. We are used to seeing bear warnings and bear-proof garbage bins everywhere.

Are you sure this is bear safe?

Another peculiarity that seems common in State Parks: their showers are coin operated. We weren’t used to paying for a hot shower in our Provincial Parks, but apparently it’s standard in most State Parks. Note to self: bring American quarters.

During a subsequent visit, this was replaced with a simple button for free hot showers.

This was the second time Baby Bro camped. He was around 6 months old first time, so he probably wasn’t too aware of what’s happening. This time, he was fully engaged and excited, which translated into frequent night time awakening. I wasn’t aware of it, as I was sound asleep, but Tina had to wake up many times.

It was somewhat chilly in the morning, so we made a quick campfire with breakfast before we took down camp.

Before we left, we explored the Terrell Marsh Interpretive Trail.

Overall, Birch Bay is a very worthy camping destination around 1 hour from Vancouver (plus border wait time). The bay looks very tempting for a paddle, and it seems quite beginner friendly too. The water is a walkable distance from the campsites, especially those nearer to the access trails, which is site 91 in Loop A (South) and site 34 in Loop B (North). The park is small and the flat beach is somewhat monotonous, so 1-2 nights would probably be enough for a visit here.

Trip Report: Shoulder Season Camping September 2023

We came back to Birch Bay State Park for a fall camping trip with our friends, David, Rofie and their son.

Since this is the shoulder season outside the reservable period of May 15 to September 15, all the sites were first come first served. We figured it was impossible for them to fill up all 166 sites in the fall, but we were briefly alarmed to find out upon arrival that the large southern loop was entirely closed, which made 50% the sites unavailable.

Thankfully, after picking the kids up from school and breezing through the border, we got to the northern loop on a Friday evening around 4:30pm. We found multiple RV sites to choose from as well as more tent-only sites.

During the shoulder season, only the top (northern) loop is open on a staged roll out.

They filled out that front loop of the northern campground first, before opening the back loop. During this sunny fall weekend, the northern campground was only about 50% full.

Sign reads: back loop is closed. It will only only open on weekends or if the front loop fills up.

This time we stayed for two nights at one of the 20 serviced sites (water and electricity) so that David and Rofie can use their electric heater to heat up their 3-season tent. It worked wonderfully and even eliminated the problem of condensation.

The forecast said overnight low was above 6°C but it felt a little colder than that. We have camped around that temperature in the spring but this trip felt considerably colder. It may have to do with stronger winds from the ocean that weekend. Thankfully we got a 4-season tent which kept us warm enough.

The electric outlet seems standard at RV campsites: two household outlets, and one 30-amp RV outlet. The base fee for a serviced site was $40 per night (vs. $25 for a non-serviced site) plus $10 for the extra vehicle. Cash only, so bring enough USD.

The washroom was spacious and clean, and we appreciated the heating in the washroom. They eliminated the coin machine and made the hot showers free.

As a priority to fulfill a promise to myself, I paddled in Birch Bay this time at first light. The bay was considerably less calm this trip, kicking up 3 feet swells and strong beach surfs. I thought of a surf-chasing SUP friend as I rode the ocean rodeo for 30 mins.

We used the campsite as a base camp to explore the nearby towns of Blaine and Bellingham.

We biked the waterfront South Bay Trail in Boulevard Park in Bellingham, which also featured a playground, an open field, beaches, a fishing dock, and a washroom.

The trail was beautiful, but busy with walkers especially on the boardwalk. Thankfully, our little bikers were skilled at avoiding pedestrians, and had a great time.

North of the railway track, the South Bay Trail gets a lot quieter and more shaded.

Overall, fall camping in Birch Bay was very enjoyable. The campsite and beach were much quieter, and it was not a problem finding a FCFS site even on a fair weather weekend. The 20 serviced sites did end up being all taken up though, so be sure to arrive early if having electricity is important to you.


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