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How to have a great Seattle Campervan travel experience

You should see Seattle by Campervan. Here’s why

I’m a Seattle area native. I grew up camping, fishing, hiking, biking and generally exploring the state of Washington.

I’ve indulged in the entire state. From the gorgeous Olympic Mountains and the beaches, islands and towns on the coast to the arid desert east of the mighty Cascade Mountain Range, and all points in between.

So when I say you should take a Campervan trip in the Seattle area, I know of what I speak.

Whether you want to explore the multitude of fascinating attractions within the city limits, or the wonderland of natural beauty that surrounds it, this post will bring you up to speed on one of the greatest campervan destinations in North America.

Washington State and Seattle area diversity

Not that you need to leave the Seattle area proper once you arrive by van, but when you see all that the region offers in outdoor and other experiences, you’ll want to see more than the city.

The western half of Washington state, where Seattle is located, features a forested, oceanic climate complete with lush, green forests, rain forests, two major mountainous regions and every imaginable water feature.

You’ll find endless, world class hiking, mountain biking and climbing areas, fishing of all kinds… all within 90 minutes of downtown Seattle.

Interested in a desert environment? You’re also within 2 hours drive of Eastern WA. But that’s an entire series of posts for another time.

Wa state ferry Wenatchee Seattle Campervan Travel Vansage
The WA State Ferry Wenatchee en route to Bainbridge Island. Image courtesy of Tobias Eigen.

What’s the best time of year to visit Seattle in your camper van?

Of course Seattle is famous for rain fall. But what’s not well understood by outsiders is that, late spring through mid fall, Seattle rainfall tends to be minimal, intermittent and even welcome.

For example, Portland, OR tends to have more consistent rainfall than Seattle in late spring and early fall .

The operative word here is consistent. So while Seattle averages a slightly higher volume of rain, Portland gets more continuous days of rain.

Not to pick on Portland (also a great campervan travel destination), but to point out that, in terms of rainfall, Seattle tends to get a bad rap compared to other towns.

Fact is, the minimal rain that falls in Seattle in late spring, summer and early fall is often welcome for its air cleaning and temperature lowering advantages.

The best months for Seattle campervan travel are May through early October

By May, Spring is in full swing and the temps are ticking up.

You might get an occasional rain shower, but with rain comes rainbows, so be prepared to be dazzled.

By mid October we tend to get more rainfall and the temperature starts to drop.

Also, mid October is when you’ll notice that the sun is setting earlier, resulting in shorter days and more darkness.

If you love snow sports, you’ll want to be in western WA in the late fall and winter. Once again, a topic for another article.

vansage Seattle campervan destination
Springtime Rainbow over Bainbridge Island. Photo courtesy of Mike McCune

Where to camp near Seattle in your van

First, lets get you set up with a home base from which you can venture out to explore the area.

There are several camp grounds, including state, federal and private, within 60 to 90 minutes of downtown Seattle.

Seattle area campsites

Boondocking near Seattle

Free camping is difficult to find close to the city of Seattle.

One issue to consider is that there are several homeless camps where people park all manner of vehicles including RV’s of all shapes, sizes, eras and states of disrepair.

Homelessness is a very real issue in Seattle and we don’t recommend parking in or near these camps.

But boondocking is possible outside the city and we found a great resource about Boondocking on WashingtonRVing.com.

We also wrote a guest post on the general topic of boondocking at one of our favorite travel sites, Alwayswanderlust.com.

Seattle Campervan Travel Vansage Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market, already bustling in the early morning hours. Please, I’m begging you, don’t say “Pikes”. It’s just Pike. Thank you. Image courtesy of WordRidden.

Stealth camping in and around Seattle

As long as your van is clean and low key, you should be able to park late, sleep and leave early in many Seattle area neighborhoods.

Again, Seattle has a significant homeless population.  As a result, home and business owners, the police and other authorities are weary and hyper vigilant about stealth camping.

Follow these basic guidelines for stealth camping success

Park late, leave early

Don’t try to hang out all day in a neighborhood parking spot. Only use it for sleeping.

There are a multitude of public parks in the city of Seattle and surrounding areas where you can park all day.

Lights out

If you’ve put in the work to keep your van from leaking light, great. otherwise, as soon as you park, kill the interior lights, including phone, tv and other digital screens.

Do all your cooking, personal hygiene and other evening rituals that require light use before pulling in to a neighborhood parking space to sleep.

No drainage, smoke, engine use or other sound

Don’t try to cook or do dishes or anything else. Again, get it all out of the way prior to parking.

Fully contained

Don’t unload any gear or open any hatches or pop the top… This is not the place to spread out.

If your van requires unfolding before you can sleep, best to find a campground or an RV friendly department store lot.

Where to park your van to explore the city of Seattle

In terms of parking space size, in most neighborhoods, you won’t have too much difficulty finding parking for a minivan, standard length cargo van or even a 144″ Sprinter.

But anything longer might require a park and shuttle approach when visiting the busier areas of the city.

When planning to spend a day in the city, my favorite place to park a larger van is just south of the Sodo neighborhood on either 1st Ave South or 4 Ave South, where there are many un-metered parking spots.

You can park and then unload your bikes, call an Uber, Lyft or Taxi, or catch a Metro bus into Pioneer Square or Chinatown a short distance away.

Here’s a great resource for finding parking, free and paid, in the Seattle area.

Here’s a Google map for Filson Bags and Apparel, an area where you’ll find some free parking on First Ave S.

 

You should also visit the Filson store while you’re there. A must see destination for any Vanlifer or outdoors enthusiast.

Caution: Check the schedules for The Seattle Mariners and The Seattle Seahawks before going anywhere near the Sodo neighborhood  as that’s where their domes are located (SODO: South of Domes).

Traffic will be bonkers if either team is playing. Street parking will be non-existent.

How to get around Seattle without your van

When I visit a new city, I like to park my van and use other transport to explore, if possible.

Seattle is a relatively small city and has good options for transport, public and private.

Any neighborhood on the list below is walkable so it’s just a matter of parking nearby if possible.

  • Bicycle: I like to carry bikes on my van, and Seattle is a reasonably bike friendly town, though there are some serious hills between each neighborhood. If you’re more of a cruiser vs serious cyclist, you might want to park close to the area you want to explore before pedaling out.
  • Uber, Lyft, Taxi: You’ll have better luck with Uber and Lyft than taxis in Seattle and I recommend downloading their apps.
  • Monorail: The Seattle Monorail is a remnant of the Seattle Worlds Fair. It takes you from the downtown core to the Seattle Center and The Space Needle. Not a great distance, but a fun tourist adventure.
  • King County Metro Buses. I love RapidRide from downtown Seattle to West Seattle and other destinations. It’s fast, frequent, cheap and relatively clean. As their site says: “RapidRide buses come so often, you don’t need a timetable. Just show up to your closest RapidRide stop and a bus will arrive shortly to take you on your way”. 

Top 5 to-do’s in Seattle

Pike Place Market

In so many towns the top tourist attractions are not that great. Seattle is an exception to this rule and Pike Place Market is truly exceptional.

Plan for at least 2 hours of exploring all the shops on every level, plus eating breakfast, lunch or both.

It’s not just a produce market. There are restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, art galleries, a magic shop, handi-crafts, exotic imports and much more fun stuff to see.

Park the van: There’s no free parking in downtown Seattle. Smaller vans can park in the market garage, long vans should park outside the city and find other transport in.

Seattle Waterfront

The waterfront is great for an authentic NW seafood experience and just to be near Puget Sound, but it’s not really an all day destination.

Plan to spend an hour or two there after seeing the Market, exploring Pioneer Square, or before boarding a Ferry.

Park the van: Metered parking along the waterfront. Expensive lots nearby.

Seattle Coffee Vansage seattle campervan travel
Explore Seattle’s locally owned coffee shops where you’ll find some of the finest coffee in the world.  

Washington State Ferries

A ferry ride across Puget Sound on a sunny day is a singular experience. The air is so clean, the sea and sky so blue and enchanting, it’s sure to be among your most memorable travel experiences.

Catch a ferry from the dock on the waterfront, from West Seattle at the Fauntleroy dock or north of the city in Edmonds.

I like to take friends from Seattle across to Bremerton. It’s a full hour and their are some great restaurants on the Bremerton side.

Park the Van: On the Seattle side (see ‘Where to park…”, above) and walk on to save some money (“over length” charges are steep!) and there’s plenty to do within walking distance in Bremerton.

The Wa State Ferries website has easy to follow time tables for all boats.

For events near the Wa State Ferry docks

  • Bainbridge Island offers many arts, food and other events year round. Catch the Seattle to Bainbridge Island Ferry from the waterfront dock
  • On Vashon Island, you’ll find a unique, almost separatist island culture of farms, arts, and events year round. Catch the Ferry at the Fauntleroy dock in West Seattle. It’s a bit of a hike into town from the dock, so it’s best to drive on.
  • Bremerton is the largest Ferry destination city and their events calendar proves it. Again, the boat ride alone is worth the cost of crossing, but there’s plenty to see there as well.

Seattle Center including The Science Center and The Space Needle

You can make a quickie (under 2 hours) of The Seattle Center if you just want to ride up The Space Needle to experience the wonderful windowed elevators and revolving observation deck.

Or you can plan an entire day to see The Seattle Science Center or visit the amusement park and various shops.

And then there’s Bumbershoot andr Folklife Festival, which are potentially weekend long experiences. If you love music and arts and can brave massive crowds, schedule your trip around those events..

 cherry trees arboretum vansage Seattle Campervan travel
Seattle Arboretum Cherry Blossoms. Image courtesy of Hugh Millward

Seattle Parks

Seattle being the green wonderland that it is, many of our parks are spectacular.

Early city planners had the foresight to preserve large tracts of land for parks.

In 1903 the Olmsted family (of Central Park, NY fame) began a long relationship with Seattle to design many of our parks.

Volunteer Park

If you’ve got a brood of youngsters or some dogs to run, this is a great place to park for a few hours, stretch out and play in the vast green fields.

This park features a fabulous Conservatory packed with tropical horticultural treasures.

Use this park as a jumping off point to explore Capitol Hill from 19th Ave E down to Broadway.

Washington Park Arboretum

This park is located on the shore of Lake Washington and features a vast collection of native plants and some great walking trails.

This is where to go to shoot pictures of cherry blossoms, stroll lazy ponds and just relax is a gorgeous wooded wonderland.

Lincoln Park

My personal favorite, it’s located on Puget Sound below the south end of the West Seattle neighborhood. The Fauntleroy Ferry dock is located at the south end of the park.

Featuring unique views of Puget Sound, a network of hiking trails, a lovely stretch of beach, picnic benches and fire pits, a public swimming pool, a playground.

Plan for a couple hours here before or after your Vashon Ferry ride. There’s ample parking in several lots along Fontleroy.

Seattle Campervan travel view Kerry Park vansage
My favorite view of Seattle from Kerry park on Queen Anne Hill. Image courtesy of InSapphoWeTrust

The best Seattle neighborhoods to visit

This list is in order of my favorite Seattle neighborhoods.

West Seattle

West Seattle offers great shops, thrift stores, restaurants, parks, coffee.

California Avenue is a a wonderful walking street from The Morgan Junction at Fontleroy to the Alaska Junction.

See the West Seattle waterfront along Alki Beach. Avoid Alki on sunny weekend days as it gets jammed with cars and bikes.

And, as mentioned, Lincoln Park is a must see.

Capitol Hill

From Summit Ave all the way east to 15th Ave E and from Madison Street at the south end  of Broadway all the way to Harvard at the North end.

Great food, art galleries, theaters, shops, bustling nightlife…

Avoid driving and trying to park in the evenings as the dining, theater and club nightlife are huge. Get parked early and stay parked. .

Fremont

The Center of the Universe, this funky, laid back neighborhood offers a variety of food, yoga and dance studios, a bustling arts scene…

Stroll the lovely walking trail along the Fremont Cut that links Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

And coffee. Okay every Seattle neighborhood has coffee. Yes, Starbucks is here, too, but the local shops are WAY BETTER!.

So plan to get over caffeinated no matter where you park your van.

Ballard 

Find a bowl of chowder and a plate of fish and chips, grab a craft beer at one of many local breweries, sample from many international cuisines. Ballard has it all. .

One of my favorite things to do in Ballard is visit the many custom furniture, cabinet and design showrooms.

Ballard boats one of the largest Nordic populations in the US. Explore these fascinating cultures at The Nordic Museum.

Cons of Seattle as a Campervan travel destination

  • Weather can be unpredictable. Suggest you arrive between May and Late September.
  • Expensive if you let it be. The beauty of a campervan is you can avoid the cost of a hotel, and most meals can be eaten in the van. But there’s great food everywhere and even some at reasonable prices, so plan to eat well.
  • Traffic: At some point you will get stuck in traffic. Drive later in the evening or late morning to avoid rush hours.
  • Crowds: Do tourist stuff during the week and see sights outside of town on the weekends.

Seattle campervan rental: No van required

Maybe you live far away but still want to experience Seattle campervan travel.

You can fly in, pick up your rental van and still have the freedom of camper van travel in Seattle and the surrounding areas.

Or you might be just dipping a toe in the Vanlife world and want to try it on for size.

We wrote a whole post on the advantages of renting a sprinter camepr van.

Please take a minute to explore some of the many excellent camper van rental opportunities in the Seattle area.

 

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