Free camping in or around the Tri-Cities, Washington area is tough because there aren’t many free camping options that leaves you close to Richland, Pasco, or Kennewick.
But, if you willing to camp about 40 miles away, there is a place…
Vernita Bridge is the name of a campground and boat launch run by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. It lies right at the base of Vernita Bridge, a metal bridge carrying State Highway 24 over the Columbia River. The campground and boat launch is on the north side of the river.
Sash and I camped there for 12 days in the month of August, 2019.
While camping is free, there is however an access fee. You have to buy a WDFW “Discover Pass”, which are sold many gas stations and sporting goods stores. It’s sold at the Shell Station in the town of Desert Aire, about 10 miles north of the bridge. The Discover Pass is $35.00 a year.
Keep in mind, though, the entire time we were camped there, we never saw a WDFW park ranger come by. So, if you’re planning to only stay a night or two, you may be able to get away without buying a pass.
Pros and Cons of Vernita Bridge
Pros: It’s free to camp there, up to 14-days. But remember that WDFW rarely come by, if at all, so you may be able to stay longer.
Pros: You can actually camp right underneath the bridge for more privacy and more shade. Yes, you will hear trucks overhead, but it’s something you will be able to tune out.
Pros: The area has good Verizon 4G coverage. We were getting between 3-4 bars of signal strength the entire time.
Pros: It’s very quiet at night, and very dark. No lighting, and no other campers around, at least while we were there (August 2019). Keep in mind though, the salmon stop running at the end of July, so that’s a big reason why we found ourselves as the only campers. Between April and July, you should expect far more campers and boaters.
Cons: A lot of flying insects during the summer. These were mostly small moths, gnats, and mayflies. We did NOT however, see any mosquitoes.
Cons: It gets pretty hot in the summer. We encountered day time highs ranging from the 70s up to the 100s. It’s advised you have a good air conditioning system. Note: you can also camp right underneath the bridge itself for some good shade.
Cons: The winds tend to blow a lot. They never seemed to exceed 30 mph, however. In fact, with how hot it gets in the summer, the wind may actually be a blessing.
Cons: Lots of thorns laying loose on the ground. If you have a dog, expect to pull thorns from its paws (and from your sandals) after each walk.
The campground doesn’t really have any amenities aside from a couple of boat launches.
Otherwise, there is an RV dump station, with potable water, at the rest area on the other side of the bridge. You can get gasoline and basic groceries in the town of Desert Aire, about 10 miles north up Highway 243. I had to drive into Richland, at a Chevron station, to get propane.
Alternative to Vernita Bridge
I found a BLM area in the hills southeast of Benton City, WA. We didn’t camp here, keep in mind. This place is a plateau that overlooks farm fields of West Richland. The GPS coordinates are: 46.216624, -119.431424. (Click here for map).
If you camp there, let us know of your experience.