Diablo Lake: Canoe Camping’s Finest

A PNW June always arrives as a huge surprise. One minute I’m shivering, swaddled in several layers in the half-dark and wiping the cold wet rain off my glasses; the next minute I’m wearing shorts, it is sunny all day long, and I’m wiping the warm wet rain off my glasses. June is, for many areas, the brief respite before the July mosquitoes hit; for me, the perfect time to hit the water and go camping.

Several years ago and with the help of a friend, I planned a short canoe camping trip. Having achieved survival by not drowning, tipping the canoe over, or being eaten by a bear, I have come to love the weird mix of peacefulness and luxury that canoe camping can bring. Canoe camping is somewhat like car camping in that you can choose to bring a lot more in a canoe (more than you can in a backpack), and somewhat like backpacking in that the sites are more likely to be far away from cars and RVs, and other people. In Washington state we have a lot of lakes, waterways, and an ocean. Many campsites are accessible only by boat (or some sort of flotation device).

Diablo Lake and Ross Lake are frequently mentioned together as a single canoe camping destination. This is because they’re right next to each other, separated by Ross Dam, and a portage service is available to get between the two for a small fee. Diablo Lake is often seen as a stopping point on the way to the more glamorous (and larger) Ross Lake, but has a quiet beauty all of its own.

About The Campgrounds

Diablo Lake has three boat-in campgrounds:

  • Thunder Point is the largest with three sites that have two tent pads each
  • Buster Brown with three sites, one with two tent pads, and two sites with one tent pad
  • Hidden Cove is the smallest campground, with a single site that has one tent pad.

All campgrounds have a small floating dock, a vault toilet, a fire ring, picnic table, and a large metal bear box.


Both Thunder Point and Buster Brown have campsites situated closely enough within the campground that you might be heard if you holler, but far enough away that you’re not on top of each other. Thunder Point’s center campsite has the best water view and sunniest location but the least privacy (in fact, you cannot access the far campsite unless you walk through the center campsite, and the far campsite cannot access the vault toilet except by walking through the center campsite). The campsites on Thunder Point are open and clear.

Buster Brown appears to be the least-used campground – there are actually weeds coming up in the tent pads – and the vegetation grows thickly, shielding you from the wind and weather. One campsite is located under powerlines and the other two… well, they aren’t too far away from the powerline area, but you may not be able to notice through all the vegetation. There are two large metal floating docks a few hundred yards from shore, which either provide additional tie down or swim-to opportunities, or an eyesore. However, it has the best view of snow capped mountains on the other side of the lake, and the fishing is pretty good as well.


Hidden Cove is more private, for those who only want a single tent pad, and the smallest with the least amount of sun at the campsite and dock. The toilet’s also the oldest. Hidden Cove and Buster Brown are across the lake from each other – if you find one, then you’ve found the other. Thunder Point is closest to Colonial Creek and right around the corner from the other two. All three are within a 40-50 minute paddle from the parking lot.


Our Schedule

Our camping trip starts early so that we can get  a backcountry permit (for the campsite) at Marblemount’s Wilderness Information Center (a.k.a. ranger station). Backcountry permits are required to camp at the campgrounds and cannot be issued earlier than 24 hours in advance. The Center opens at 7 or 8a.m. depending on the day; and we’re there shortly after to see what campsites we can nab and get an early start on the paddling. After we’re questioned on our plans, we’re awarded a permit and a verbal list of rules (only set up your tent in a tent pad, don’t burn anything that isn’t wood, don’t chop down the trees, don’t get eaten by a bear, etc.). I asked the ranger on duty how often the toilets get pumped out. She explains there is a maintenance crew assigned to check the boat-in sites and they get cleaned out “as needed”.

From there we head to Colonial Creek campgrounds where we set the canoe and camp gear at the dock and park the car in the campground’s parking lot. Specifically where Lake Diablo is concerned, I always feel spoiled by the docks provided at Colonial Creek and the three campgrounds. Many boat launch areas and campsites simply have a ramp and then you’re left to wade in and out of the water to pack and unpack your supplies. Loading a canoe is a very special experience akin to weight-based Tetris – not only does your stuff have to fit into the boat, but when you’re done loading up, you shouldn’t be listing heavily to one side. Being able to sit on a dock and remain dry while I’m playing canoe Tetris is a special treat.

canoe camping11

By 10, we’re at our campsite, unpacked, and setting up the tent. My camping partner strings up the hammock between two trees, and then takes himself to the dock to fish for the rest of the weekend. My own days are filled with clambering in and out of the hammock, getting snacks, napping, and occasionally following a small trail from the campsite that leads to a nearby summit overlooking the rest of the lake, so I can catch some sun or just stare at the water. All three campgrounds have trails that lead away from the campsite, and if you get tired of walking, there’s always your canoe and Diablo Lake and Ross Lake.

Fishing Lake Diablo_13

My Ten Essentials for Canoe Camping

  1. PFDs
  2. Extra paddle
  3. Ropes (for tying off to the docks, and tying your supplies to your canoe)
  4. Emergency kit for the canoe (waterproof bag that ties to the canoe and may contain food, first aid, phone, towel, map)
  5. Bailing buckets/sponge
  6. Proper footwear (in this case, waterproof shoes for any wading you might have to do)
  7. Air horn/whistle (to get another boat’s attention)
  8. Snack and water within arms’ length of each paddler
  9. Sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm, hat)
  10. Rudimentary boating safety knowledge

Handy links

Lake Diablo18

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