Clues After Closure
On Highway 20, only a mile west of its namesake town of Rockport, WA, is Rockport State Park. It is a beautiful and rare Pacific Northwest treasure, presenting itself as a stunning 632-acre tract of virgin forest pinned down with gigantic trees, threaded with a network of trails. There is also a sunny picnic area. A little over a decade ago, there was also a campground with 50 sites enjoyed by campers for almost fifty years. In May 2007, however, that opportunity vaporized for good.
Rockport State Park's history is brief at best and, like a riddle, somewhat perplexing — though leafing through state archives would undoubtedly reveal more. Long ago, an outfit called Sound Timber Company, which claimed and logged other forest lands throughout the area, once owned the Rockport tract. Between 1931 and 1935, they sold it, unharvested, to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for one dollar. As their sole purpose was cutting down big trees, Sound Timber selling 600-plus acres of unlogged forest for one dollar is quite a statement. And their reasoning for basically giving the land away is not publically clear. One minor mention online said that Sound Timber felt the stand was worth saving "for posterity." Seriously? According to another short history of the park on the site Stateparks.com, it's written that "The trees exist because the Sound Timber Company refused to log them," but it doesn't say why. In an article published online at skagittalk.com, Melissa Wendel, once Rockport State Park's interpretive specialist, said that this forest fragment had sold for "one dollar and other considerations." Wendel admitted that there had been much speculation about the details of those "other considerations." Finally, outdoorproject.com mentioned that Sound Timber never logged this forested parcel as they did not believe the trees were worth harvesting.
In short, Sound Timber logged all their land nearby but stopped short at the foot of this grove, refusing to extract the incredible amount of board feet of lumber from a forest stand 400 to 600 years old. Just for reasons of posterity doesn't ring right. But as I rake the coals of this quiet story, many arrows in the periphery suggest a more economical and less charitable reality.
Since the trees are why the park is a park and, ironically, why the campground is no longer a campground, I thought it would be meaningful to dapple some light on this forest's ecology. I reached out to Don Smith, Rockport State Park's friendly Senior Park Aide, to give me a better general understanding of the fascinating natural cycle of trees in that particular environment.
Rockport State Park sits on a sloped shelf, hundreds of feet above the Skagit River, right below the dissolving snowpacks of Sauk Mountain. As the snow melts down throughout the seasons, its meltwater seeps into the mountain's slopes, percolating back up where the valley floor levels out as the damp carpet of Rockport State Park. Since oxygen is as essential as water to a tree's root base, these Douglas Fir trees intelligently splay their root structures as shallow as possible to avoid suffocation in such saturating circumstances. Over many hundreds of years, a common naturally occurring fungus in this region's moist, temperate forest soils travels from tree to tree through the complex, underground matrix of the symbiotic mycorrhizal network. As efficient and hyperconnected as this nutrient-delivering web is, the fungus can spread far, affecting vast swaths of trees.
As a result, an ailment called laminated root rot begins to take hold, weakening the shallow-rooted trees below-ground first and then high above. As the state park arborists discovered after a windstorm toppled a mature, shallow-rooted collection of giants in May of 2007, many of the trees still standing showed signs of this root rot also high in the canopy. As the tree roots weaken, the water and nutrients can't reach the upper portions of the tree. This slow event starves the tree's crown and its sizable limbs. When I say 'a tree's crown,' I imply something much more than a shrub the size of an adorable, dainty little Christmas tree. And by using the term 'sizable limbs,' I don't mean decorative twigs placed in vases in entry halls or whip-like branches whittled down for marshmallows sticks. These dead or dying tree tops and branches are themselves the sizes of trees. When they inevitably break off from their brittle place several hundreds of feet in the air, they fall like thunderbolts from Zeus, piercing the ground with a powerful thrust. Don himself discovered a giant, fallen limb that had embedded itself four feet into the forest floor. Yes, that's right — four feet. So it appears that it wasn't just the risk of falling trees that concerned state arborists but the higher likelihood of campers being crushed by fatal logs from the sky. With this threat in mind, one can see how cozy fiberglass travel trailers, dome tents, or even the roofs of cars don't offer suitable protection.
So the timber health has been less than ideal for quite a long time. To add another possible clue as to why the forest wasn't harvested not only by Sound Timber but by any logging outfit, Don took me to a particular cedar stump in the woods across the highway. It is large but not massive, partially decomposed, and has the curious, still-intact evidence of being cut flat on top. There was no decomposing log that size lying nearby, and judging by the rot of the stump, Don believes a logger could have felled the tree during the 1930s. Considering how slowly a cedar stump rots over 90 years, he could be right. While there are other chainsawed stumps scattered throughout the park from more recent, hazardous-tree mitigations, Don has not seen within Rockport State Park's boundaries any other stump like this one. With educated speculation, he believes that stump could have once been the tree upon which the future of that forest hinged, a general indicator the timber company used to ascertain the health of that forest. Back then, this "sample tree" would have been very convenient to remove with its proximity to today's trail that had once been the old graveled road into the mountains. Don theorized that after the loggers bucked the tree into shorter sections, it could have been machine-skidded the short distance through the forest to the road, loaded onto a few trucks, and hauled to one of their mills in the area for further analysis.
Keeping in mind that while Sound Timber had an established mill on their landholdings across the Skagit River, just south of Rockport, there was no bridge crossing the Skagit at Rockport until 1961. To reach their Rockport timber efficiently, Sound Timber would have had to build — at a significant cost — a bridge of their own across the Skagit to ensure the minimum distance for the most profit. Sound Timber had already paid heavily in time and money for a sturdy bridge to be constructed over the Sauk River nearby and perhaps was not eager to build another. Don believes that the wood of that single tree may have been all the information they needed to liquidate their asset and move on to more feasible harvesting elsewhere. Was the wood in those trees too compromised to be turned into decent lumber? If so, that may explain why they did not sell the land to another logging company — especially one north of the Skagit that could have easily harvested it. I speculate that with no other choice, Sound Timber cut their losses and, in a sense, gave away the incredible forest to the public to enjoy. Adding to this the "other considerations" mentioned earlier attached to the land sale, I wonder if a land swap or logging rights elsewhere were involved. Perhaps Sound Timber traded for more lucrative state lands within reach of their lumber mill. Still, I offer this as only conjecture as I gather a few faded clues of a long-forgotten transaction.
So, Don's fascinating cedar stump might represent the first and last tree cut in the Rockport Park forest by a timber company. With no other explanations of my own to offer, I think he has here an intriguing hypothesis.
Whatever gracious, cosmic — and perhaps financial forces — that initially intervened to protect this lush, shaded grove from becoming just another stumpy, 600-acres of sun-baked land, the ancient timber was transferred from DNR to Washington State Parks in 1961. They wasted no time developing their recent acquisition with the amenities mentioned above that were well-used for years. But, forty-eight years after the state created the park, that windstorm in 2007 sounded the alarm bells down specific halls of the state agency. With the realization that the enormous old-growth trees were structurally compromised and that more seasons of campers would be sleeping targets, the State Parks permanently closed the popular campground. These decisions are understandable. Since Washington State Parks is not a casino, it isn't in the business of playing roulette with the public.
I am not alone in my lament about the loss of yet another campground in the region. Nooksack campground on Highway 542 was partly washed away in the mid-1980s and closed (See my other article, Beautifully Slipping Away). Sitting on an alluvial fan near Leavenworth, WA, Tumwater Campground closed in 2014 due to the high risk of flash flooding after a wildfire burned off moisture-retaining vegetation in the mountains above. Falls View campground near Quilcene, WA, was closed within the last ten years due to tree root rot. Gold Basin Campground near Granite Falls, WA, while still open to camping, lost quite a few sites one year after a landslide across the river forced the Stillaguamish River to reclaim part of its flood plain borrowed by the campground. There may be others that have closed. Most of the casual remarks in the comment sections regarding such closures are sympathetic. But there will always be a few folks who view such closures skeptically, as if public agencies are far too alarmist, yelling to all that the sky is falling. But at Rockport State Park, like other campgrounds, it is falling, and I appreciate the closure. I shudder at the idea of a heavy windstorm whipping its way up the valley while I am snuggled up in my sleeping bag, the unfolding horror of compromised, groaning trees and limbs crashing to the ground all around the campground. This vision strikes a personal chord with me.
At the coastal walk-in campground of Oswald West State Park in Oregon many years ago, our family had a favorite campsite we claimed every few years. But then the state permanently closed the park to camping after a giant spruce tree fell among the sleeping campers one night. Incredibly, no one was harmed by the falling tree, but it was alarming that it fell right across our favorite campsite — precisely landing where we had pitched our tent only a few years before. I have since visited that park, stopping at that old campsite to marvel at the horizontal log four feet in diameter, morbidly pondering the heart-wrenching ending that could have been. To me, it is a shrine to me and my family's own unthinkable, alternate demise. Or someone else's. Luckily for all, the tree waited for an unoccupied campsite to lie down for good.
But enough of the history. What is it like at the old Rockport campground today? When I learned that it had been closed since that infamous May of 2007, it sounded like an irresistible adventure awaiting me. Ever fascinated with abandoned remnants to celebrate, I set out on a warm, late June afternoon in 2020 to investigate. Since it had been thirteen years since the camp's closure, I was not sure just what would be left to find.
When I arrived that day, temporary barricades blocked vehicles from entering the campground. Once I walked past the roadblocks, the sense of desertion was immediate — and magical. Like in the Chronicles of Narnia, I felt like Lucy, Susan, and Peter as they stepped through that closet portal into another world. Gentle, afternoon Skagit Valley breezes rustled the cathedral ceiling of the ancient tree canopy high above me, and it was apparent that I had the place to myself. I walked by a small, animated brook that augmented the tranquility with a gurgling, reassuring white noise. With dozens of bird songs caroling through the ancient world surrounding me and the swish and roar of highway 20 fading away suddenly, I felt for the duration of my visit what it might be like if the modern world vanished, and with it, the human construct of time.
The campground's main loop road had been kept clean and free of debris by the machines of park staff, but as I came upon each of the old campsites, I was impressed how most of their paved pull-in parking spaces were, in contrast, completely blanketed in fascinating layers of moss and rotting limbs. With these blankets sprinkled with constellations of tiny white flowers, Mother Nature seemed to be undaunted by the immaculate pavement just beneath. And why not? To Her, even the work of humans is transient and destined to become just another layer in the ever-thickening sandwich of time.
The stillness during what would have been a busy camping season was both eerie and soothing and touched with a glint of sadness. Gone were the smoking campfires wafting their blue hues up among the tree trunks and the joyful picnic tables laden with hotdogs, paper plates, and cookstoves. Absent were the colorful tents with their bellies full of fluffy sleeping bags and cozy trailers relaxing with muffled vacationers. Missing were the sleepy people in jammie pants cradling cups of their life-blood morning coffee and the murmurs of late-night conversations around the fire. The satisfying clinks of kindling chopped, the happy chatter of children, and the barks of the family dog all now just echoes.
Proving once again that nature abhors a vacuum, salmonberry and thimbleberry bushes reached out from all sides in many sites, shrinking the original footprint of the mossy parking pads. The once well-used campsites beyond had succumbed entirely to waste-high nature, leaving very little to find. Other sites were impenetrable.
At nearly every site, the picnic tables had all disappeared. Still, in most of the sites, I noticed what appeared to be a rusty greywater disposal inlet and an inactive water spigot; Remnant features dutifully waiting to serve campers who would never return. Looking for other clues, I noticed underfoot barely detectable concrete parking blocks left in place as invisible trip hazards. Designed to keep campers from driving headlong into their campsites, they were now wrapped in golden-green moss and nearly buried by what the forest had dropped for thirteen years. But the evidence I so hoped to find, the exact placement of each campsite's spiritual and communal centerpiece — the campfire rings — was impossible to ascertain. I could not detect a scar or even a depression of charcoal.
As I walked along, greeting and bidding farewell to each campsite, I felt like I was strolling through a voluminous album of other campers' likely memories, all written upon pictureless pages with invisible ink, save for a few pages of my own. I camped here only once, with my wife and her family in the early 2000s. It was the first time I had ever camped at a walk-in campsite. It was also the first time I saw a Coca-Cola vending machine void of its typical red and white, graphic garishness. Positioned right outside of the picnic area restrooms, it had upon its front only that silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle tastefully placed in front of a photo of a forested background. It almost fit in nicely. Since memories are not thirsty and the closing of the campground has made for a less populated park, perhaps Rockport State Park is no longer a lucrative location for a vending machine. As a result, that culturally iconic appliance disappeared long ago.
As I moved further around the loop road, haunting paved paths headed off into the green underbrush as alluring, overgrown trails, linking with other parts of the campground and the centrally located restrooms. Everywhere salmon and huckleberry bushes were at their peak, laden at that time with ripe fruit. In the campground's heyday, some campers would have picked all the ripe berries they could reach, just like we did as kids, leaving the rest to the birds.
Around the last bend in the road, I met the final, and certainly largest remnant, that chapel of relief where smokey campers could maintain a modicum of personal hygiene— the slumbering restrooms. Architecturally, it is an early 1960s state campground classic, with a shallow gabled roof upon a sturdy box of decorative, geometric cinder blocks and ribbon windows lighting and ventilating each side. Its layout is simple and gender-binary, with the women's room on the right, men's on the left, and a utility access room in the center. I learned that the restrooms originally had a roof of cedar shingles. But with a long-lasting metal roof that it has had for more than a decade, this shelf-stable, non-flammable, mortared monument could stand forever. That is until it tries to outrun a multi-ton tree trunk that wants to use it as its crumpled landing pad. Since other trees in the park have already crash-landed in their understandable quest for a different relationship with gravity, this little building may be on borrowed time. For now, though, it is still here, dodging, deflecting, and catching the constant refuse from above. Once busy with the slams and bangs of toilet stall doors and the flushing roar of institutionally powerful wall-mounted toilets, this forgotten building sits quietly with its slippery roof covered with seasons of evergreen needles and branches. With the restroom's doors locked forever, park users will never hear the wailing whine of the indestructible, peace-shattering jet-blaster hand dryers again.
I could only guess the conditions inside the unlit, unheated structure — that is, until the park host generously escorted me for a gleeful, unlocked peek. In both the men's and women's rooms, it was a moment of dusky quietude, mustard paint, white tile, and insects. Many of the toilet stall doors, walls, and fixtures are missing, all salvaged to replace damaged bathrooms in other parks — the building living on as a State Parks' "parts car" for park restrooms elsewhere.
On my way out, I snapped a few last photos and excitedly tried in vain to rediscover the exact location of our walk-in campsite of so many years ago. The parking spots and the trail access for the walk-in sites were easy enough to find, but aside from several of the yet standing bunkhouse shelters and canopied cook tables built not long before the closure, I lost the trail of bread crumbs. But once again, with help from the camp host, I finally located it. Our old campsite was a heavily vegetated square fenced off by moss-draped, split-cedar railings, a once well-worn spot of dirt around a picnic table and fire ring nearly erased by nature's return. Relying on my memories to find those places vivid and intact in my mind is both disorienting and exciting to revisit, especially when wrought unrecognizable by the passage of time.
With the sun setting, I left the blissful solitude and headed home.
If one likes to float through deserted places and witness the cycle of nature reclaiming itself after the humans have, more or less, left for good, the seductive abandonment of the old Rockport campground is undoubtedly worth the visit. Since traces still abound, you may find other remnants of its camping days. The old campground is open year-round for strolling and hiking. While I recommend getting out for a walk to savor the whole experience, the temporary barricades once blocking the campground's entrance have been removed since my initial visits in 2020, affording motorists access to the forested splendor of the old camp loop. A Discover Pass is all the ticket you need to meet the spirits of past campers who await you at every turn.
Many will miss camping at Rockport State Park, but there is still more to experience. There is an attractive, sunny picnic area right off the highway, working restrooms, and ample space to walk your dog or play frisbee. Naturalist tours will be starting up again soon and are worth every minute, as I discovered walking the trails with Don Smith. And finally, the park's trails on both sides of the highway — including a vacated section of an old forest highway older than State Route 20 — weave through a forest unmolested by the logger's ax or saw, and invite anyone to experience a world that many of our ancestors and Native Peoples of the Pacific Northwest knew so well.