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Having just moved to the Pacific Northwest this summer, I knew I wanted to plan one last foray into the outdoors before the autumn rains took hold of the skies.
A friend recommended the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington’s Central Cascades, also known by its more whimsical name, the Enchantments. With sheer granite mountain peaks and turquoise-blue alpine lakes, it seemed like the perfect place to spend a few nights under the stars.
But I was hardly alone in my interest. Options to book a campsite on state booking sites like Recreation.gov were long gone.
Thankfully, as an experienced Airbnb user, I recalled seeing campsites pop up in previous search results and turned my attention to the vacation rental platform. Indeed, once I sorted by campsite, under the “unique stay” category, I found around a dozen listings in my desired location. I booked two nights at a campsite near Leavenworth for $105 per night, near the trailhead where my friends and I planned to hike.
But like most best-laid plans during COVID-19, I had to reschedule my trip multiple times as a result of wildfire smoke. For this reason alone, I was especially glad to have booked through Airbnb.
Unlike other campsite booking platforms, Airbnb was highly flexible and made it easy to reschedule and message the host. Not only was our host understanding, but she provided us with updates on smoke conditions, too.
Had I booked a federal campsite, I would have simply lost my reservation. According to Recreation.gov’s refund policy, users may apply for a refund if the campsite was closed during wildfires, but it’s unclear whether smoke conditions would qualify for a full or partial refund.
While I paid more to book through Airbnb, it was worth the added convenience and flexibility. Though, there were also some unforeseen aspects to planning it this way that I wish I knew about before. Here’s what my experience was like, and what you should know if you’re considering camping through Airbnb.
I booked White Aspen Camping, a privately-owned campsite that lists seven campsites on Airbnb.
Each campsite has a capacity of between two and eight guests, so even when totally full, there would never be more than about 30 people on the property.
It’s located on top of a mountain ridge with a spectacular view of the valleys below, and the area seemed pretty spacious. For $105 per night, we would also have access to running water and amenities like fire pits, picnic tables, garbage cans, and, most impressively, a flushing toilet. These would all have been absent from the federal and state sites I was considering.
The property also offers a glamping tent with luxury amenities like a propane grill, outdoor shower, and more, but my friends and I were fine to rough it.
We would be staying at one of the rustic campsites. We’d need to pitch our own tent and cook our own food but wouldn’t have to worry about taking out our trash and could use a shared restroom comfortably.
What ultimately sold me on this Airbnb, however, were the views overlooking the mountains, particularly one extremely vibrant sunset photograph. Although it didn’t have many reviews, each one mentioned the spectacular view as the main selling point.
Some did warn that the site could be windy, being on the top of a ridge, but at the time that seemed like a worthy trade-off.
The listing advertised 673 private acres, which offered “thousands of miles” of trails, which I thought would be a nice option for additional hiking. The location was also perfectly poised to watch both the sunrise and sunset, which felt like getting a two-for-one deal.
Before booking, I was sure to consult carefully for proper COVID-19 policies.
The listing stated that the hosts had committed to Airbnb’s enhanced cleaning protocol, but since this is a campsite, the only things that needed to be sanitized were the bathrooms and picnic tables.
The campsite does host other people camping, but on the weekend I visited, it was mostly empty.
As part of Airbnb’s COVID-safe guidelines, the host committed to sanitize all surfaces, use approved products, wear a mask and gloves, and follow local guidance. Our check-in, however, was not contactless as the host had to guide us to our site. But she did stay six feet away at all times and we were always outdoors with a persistent wind.
When we arrived, the bathroom appeared sparkling clean and felt safe to use. The irrigation system was impressive and the flushing toilet was probably the cleanest I’ve ever seen in a forest.
Had there been other guests, I do wonder how it would have been possible to sanitize the bathroom and high-touch surfaces between every use.
Of course, because this was a camping site, the use of the bathroom would have also been optional, and most guests use their own supplies.
Since this campsite was located on private property, our host included driving instructions from the nearby town of Leavenworth to help navigate backcountry roads that seemingly led to the middle of nowhere.
The directions were clear and a sign advertising the campsite led us up the right road. But we didn’t have any cell service and it was raining heavily, which made the roads feel precarious.
In fact, a large puddle in the middle of the road seemed impassable. Thankfully, we were able to communicate our concern to the host, who offered to drive down to meet us and guide us through.
She led us to the campsite where she explained how everything worked. As soon as we arrived, we were also happy to find that all our phones (T-Mobile) were able to pick up a 4G signal.
The campsite was pristine and well-manicured with trails that wove between neighboring campsites, the bathroom, and the picnic area. The area for our tent was also very clean and we did not have to spend any time picking out rocks to make it flat.
There were multiple picnic areas and fire pits available where the views were the best, and many campsites were set behind trees to provide some shelter from strong gusts of wind.
Our host, who lived on the property, also offered to sell us firewood. It was easy to communicate with her and nice to know that someone was nearby in case of emergency.
The location was superb with a spectacular view overlooking the valley and the sun setting over the mountains across the way. Although it was cloudy when we arrived, the fog lifted in a dramatic display of clouds that seemed to be flying right towards us.
During our stay, there were only two other groups. It was quite peaceful and secluded, but the whooshing wind did drown out most of the other natural sounds. Walking around the site, we didn’t once run into any other guests and even though we could see other tents, it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
We made good use of amenities like a water spigot, which came in handy for washing dishes, and the bathroom, which also provided shelter from the wind when we needed to get changed.
The picnic tables were wet, so we used our own camping chairs. Even though this location billed itself as a luxury campsite, we still needed to cook our own food and wash and dry our dishes. But provided trash cans meant we didn’t have to worry about taking the trash out with us.
Because our trip was rescheduled from its original dates, the site was a lot colder than expected. The wind conditions were extreme and it was very difficult to keep a fire lit. As a result, after one very cold night, we opted not to stay for a second and drove home early.
This, however, was a risk we expected and not our host’s fault.
Despite our early check-out, I still believe that choosing an Airbnb campsite instead of a traditional one opened up a new world of camping possibilities. A mountain ridge like the one at White Aspen was a rare place to camp, even more so thanks to provided running water and amenities.
And because it was privately-owned with a host, it added a new element of hospitality to the experience.
At the same time, there were several details I didn’t consider, such as road conditions, extreme weather, and how those may impact a location. Next time I camp through Airbnb, these are all things I will ask my host about.
While Airbnb offers an easy booking process and many unique and rugged locations that experienced campers may enjoy, novice campers should be prepared to do plenty of research and ask a lot of questions before making plans to pack up the car and hit backcountry roads.
Who stays here: This was kind of like glamping for people who are against glamping. Although White Aspen does offer a glamping tent on the property, their rustic campsites offered a standard camping experience with just a little bit of added comfort, i.e. running water and a bonafide flushing toilet.
We like: In a place this remote, I might have felt anxious about spending the night so far away from civilization. However, the knowledge that the host was living on-site, and only a message away felt reassuring.
We love: I won’t soon forget standing at 5,000 feet elevation and watching the clouds roll beneath my feet in an exclusive location that we pretty much had all to ourselves. It felt like a true rarity and a one-of-a-kind experience.
We think you should know: For a campsite that costs about the same as a basic hotel room, we certainly didn’t pay for a good night’s sleep. But we also weren’t expecting one. and were paying for the location. However, once you factor in the spectacular location, amenities, and on-site host, the price felt justified.
We’d do this differently next time: I would have asked for more information about the road conditions. I also would have felt extremely anxious in a basic rental car.
By nature, camping trips are risky business. Our trip had a lot of obstacles and mishaps from smoked-out weekends, big puddles, and high winds. It wasn’t exactly the whimsical escape into nature I envisioned.
However, my choice to camp through Airbnb offered added flexibility, inventory, convenience, and amenities over booking through a traditional camping platform.
If you’re considering a camping getaway, Airbnb is well worth a look to see if it fits within your needs and budget, especially if other major options are all booked up. And although there are likely similar backcountry campsites, they will require more camping know-how and you won’t always be able to bring your car. Not to mention, an on-site host, toilet, and running water cannot be guaranteed.
Although the timing wasn’t great for my particular trip, I’d happily give the site another shot in the summer when conditions would be better suited to enjoy such an incredible location.