A while back we looked at utilizing fairgrounds as an alternative to campgrounds and RV parks. Another often overlooked alternative is Corps of Engineer recreation areas.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers, often abbreviated to COE, is an agency of the United States Federal Government. Nationwide the corps manages 12 million acres of public lands and waters in 43 states.
One of the corps main functions is the design, construction and operation of dams, canals and flood protection. Along with providing 24% of the hydropower for the United States, the Corps also provides outdoor recreation opportunities. The Corps list the following activities that are available for public enjoyment: hiking, boating, fishing, camping and hunting, and for those slightly more adventurous, there is snorkeling, windsurfing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and geo-caching.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Portland office of the Corps oversees the dams in the lower Columbia River and much of the shoreline above and below the dams along with smaller dams and reservoirs in Oregon.
A quick search of their website reveals they control: 24 formal campgrounds with 1,163 campsites, 135 parks on the water and 180 miles of hiking trails.
While some of the camping areas they control are conventional campgrounds (similar to state parks in the Northwest) with partial or full hookups that you can easily find in campground directories, many others are listed as recreational areas where dispersed camping is permitted for free.
At a dispersed camping area, you typically won’t find picnic tables, campfire rings or garbage collection, but you will find waterfront campsites where you can stay for free up to 14 days! Some of the areas controlled by the Portland Corps are paved, others are gravel and most all offer vault toilets.
To locate a place to camp, visit the Portland Corps of Engineers website recreation page and click on the individual recreation areas listed in the lower right hand column to see what activities are permitted at each location along with operating season, fees (if any) and a list of amenities such as boat ramps, etc. You will soon discover the majority of free camping options lay along the Washington or Oregon shores of the lower Columbia River. The accompanying photo shows what a typical listing looks like. After you find one that sounds appealing, just follow the driving instructions and enjoy.